The sun is out, temperatures are rising, and summer is approaching. For many of us, this means that beach weather is officially around the corner. But fun days at the dog beach also introduce some unique risks that we must be aware of, including heat exhaustion, blue-green algae exposure, water intoxication, and a much lesser-known concern – sand impaction.
But what is sand impaction, and how could it put your dog’s life at risk?
What is Sand Impaction in Dogs?
Sand impaction occurs when a dog has swallowed a large amount of sand causing it to compress in the digestive system and form a blockage.
Like a blockage from swallowing a piece of a toy or other object, this blockage can cause serious or even life-threatening complications if it isn’t addressed immediately.
But you may be thinking: “My dog doesn’t actually eat sand when we’re at the dog beach! I don’t have to worry.”
The truth is that this doesn’t generally occur just from a dog chowing down on a pile of sand (although that would lead to impaction rather quickly).
Instead, most cases of sand impaction occur when a dog swallows small amounts of sand over time. These small amounts may not be dangerous on their own, but they collect and add up to a bigger issue within the digestive tract.
Some situations that may lead to your dog swallowing sand include:
- Picking up a toy that is covered in sand or is sitting in sand when they grab it with their mouths
- Digging in sand and inadvertently swallowing it
- Drinking water from a lake or body of water that could contain sand particles (this can also lead to serious risks from exposure to toxic blue-green algae)
- Eating treats or food that has dropped in the sand
- Licking up something that has spilled or dripped, like drippings from under a BBQ when cooking in a sandy area
- Grooming their fur after spending time in a sandy location
Many of these situations are common or unpreventable, short of never taking your dog to the beach or a sandy campsite.
For this reason, learning to recognize the warning signs and how to best respond to the possibility of sand impaction is the best approach to keeping your dog safe and healthy.
Of course, we should always supervise our dogs and stop them if you notice your dog actively eating sand or licking at a sandy area.
Sand Impaction Symptoms
Knowing that this can happen to anyone, even if you’re vigilant in supervising and protecting your dog, the best thing you can do as a responsible dog parent is to learn the warning signs.
Recognizing these sand impaction symptoms early can give your dog the best chance of survival.
The most common warning signs of sand impaction include:
- Restlessness or pacing
- Inability to lie down
- Abdominal pain or tenderness
- Reluctance to be touched in the abdominal area
- Hard mass in the stomach
- Distended or swollen abdomen
- Excessive panting
- Shaking or trembling
- Loss of appetite
- Refusal to take treats or high-value foods
- Constipation or straining to go to the bathroom
How Do You Treat Sand Impaction in Dogs?
Whether you know that your dog has been ingesting sand or simply notice that they are feeling “off” after spending time at the beach or a sandy location, you should contact your veterinarian as soon as possible.
As with any blockage, time is of the essence in treatment.
When you arrive at the vet’s office, they will take an x-ray. This provides a clear view of whether a blockage has formed and the extent of the situation.
If the blockage is still small and may pass on its own, your vet may recommend supportive care, providing fluids and medication to address nausea. This may be possible outpatient with follow-up appointments in minor cases.
In more severe cases, your dog will require inpatient care with IV fluids and close medical supervision.
Surgery may also be required if it’s determined that the blockage will not pass naturally. Failure to address this can be fatal.
This surgery has a high success rate if approached early enough, but it’s not guaranteed. That’s why it’s best to seek treatment before the condition progresses to this point.
6 Tips to Prevent Sand Impaction in Dogs
Monitor Your Dog Carefully
Always supervise your dog when spending time outdoors, whether it’s at the campsite or your favourite dog beach.
If you notice your dog is trying to eat something in the sand, put an end to the behaviour as quickly as possible. The same goes for drinking from lakes, rivers, or other bodies of water.
Avoid Toys that Collect Sand
When selecting toys for playing outdoors, be mindful of the material that they are made from.
For example, a standard tennis ball often collects sand in the felt on the outside, while a rubber ball can be used to play in the same way with less risk.
Rinse Off Toys Periodically
If your dog is playing for an extended time and you notice sand starting to collect on their toys, take a moment to rinse them off.
Many of our favourite campsites are primarily sand, meaning our dogs play in the sand the whole time.
We make a point of checking their toys and giving them a quick rinse at least twice a day, in the morning and again in the afternoon.
Feed Treats Only Out of Your Hand
When rewarding your dog or giving them a special treat, ensure that you are doing this out of your hand versus tossing treats onto the sand.
Does your dog enjoy a chew at the campsite? Ours LOVE having something to chew on.
Keeping your dog entertained while camping is important – especially if the weather prevents you from incorporating physical exercise. But there are steps you can take to allow your dog to enjoy their favourite chew without adding to the risk.
Rather than placing it on the ground where it can pick up sand, try putting down a blanket or tarp on which your dog can relax while enjoying this special treat.
Provide Plenty of Fresh, Clean Water
Always have fresh water available for your dog when spending time outdoors. This includes hiking with your dog, relaxing at the campsite, or hanging out at the beach.
By offering fresh water, you reduce the temptation to drink from puddles or waterways.
Not only does this help to prevent sand impaction in dogs, but it also stops your dog from drinking water contaminated with toxic algae or illnesses like beaver fever.
Rinse Your Dog Off After Adventures
When the adventure is over and it’s time to head home (or back to the tent), take a moment to rinse your dog off with clean water.
This will remove any sand that may be collecting in your dog’s coat.
If you don’t have access to clean water, you can remove a significant amount of sand buildup by rubbing your dog down with a towel or giving them a quick brush.
What About Cats? Is Sand Impaction in Cats a Risk?
In this article, I have focused primarily on the risks that sand impaction poses to dogs, but what about the adventure cats among us?
Should you be concerned when camping or hiking with cats?
The short answer is maybe. Depending on your cat’s preferred adventures, some or all of this information could be relevant.
For example, our younger cat Jinx has ZERO interest in spending time anywhere near a beach. She is happier sunbathing at the campsite than playing, making it easy to just brush any sand off her.
For her, the risk is minimal.
However, Pippen is a very different story! She loves playing like a dog, including playing fetch, nosing through the dirt, and exploring her surroundings.
The above list of ways to prevent sand impaction definitely applies to keeping her safe too!
Whether you’re camping with your dog on a sandy campsite or spending the day soaking up the sun at the beach, sand impaction is a very real risk that dog parents need to be familiar with.
Learn the warning signs, ranging from restlessness and pacing to a visibly distended abdomen.
If you are concerned that your dog may have ingested sand, even if you aren’t positive, contact your veterinarian.
This condition can be life-threatening, so it’s better to be safe than sorry!
While travelling with your dog, pay careful attention to situations that could increase the chances of ingesting sand, like playing with sand-covered toys or eating off the ground.
Does your pet engage in any of these activities that could put them at risk of sand impaction? If so, what changes will you implement moving forward to keep your dog (or cat) safe?