Life Jackets for Pets – how safe are they?

An estimated 5,000 dogs drown in garden swimming pools in the USA every year (Petplace, 2014) and many others in rivers, lakes and the sea. This article highlights the importance for anyone using canine life jackets to understand how these jackets work and what their strengths and weaknesses are in order to choose the right device for their dog’s breed and lifestyle.

How safe are life jackets for dogs

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are now going to take you through our safety procedures and equipment… …Your life jacket is under your seat. To use it, pull it over your head. Pass the tapes around your waist and tie them. To inflate, pull the red toggle as shown. The air can be topped up by using this mouthpiece. Thank you for listening.”

This is part of a typical airline passenger announcement (British Airways, 2014) heard by millions of travellers every day. We assume that ‘it will never happen to us’, and we also assume that, in the unlikely event of ‘landing on water’, there are government regulations in place to ensure that the safety equipment on-board has been rigorously tried and tested to give the user a better chance of survival, even if incapacitated or unconscious in the water.

All aircraft that fly over water at a distance of more than 93 km from land must carry one like jacket for each person on-board (CAA, 2010), and on smaller boats it is recommended that all crew members wear life jackets at all times (RYA, 2014).

It is illegal to sell life jackets or buoyancy aids for humans that do not carry either European (CE) or International ISO marks of approval. This demonstrates that the device has been tested and issued with a rating code that gives consumers information about its characteristics and suitability for use in different situations, still water vs. white-water rapids for example (see Marine Warehouse, 2015). There is also a difference between buoyancy aids and life jackets. Buoyancy aids are used to add extra floatation only and are designed for use by able swimmers. Life jackets are more sophisticated and designed to keep an unconscious person in an upright position with head above the waterline (RYA, 2014).

There are also many brands of life jackets available for dogs, but the market is not monitored or regulated in any way. Furthermore, although there have been consumer reviews of doggie life jackets (Boat US, 2000; Modern Bark, 2013; Practical Sailor, 2007), the approach of the reviewers have been focused on the aesthetics, style and price with little or no regard to effectiveness. A new study has been published that addresses this lack of scientific data by taking three brands of jacket into the laboratory and measuring how they perform in water (Corum et al., 2014). The findings are hugely important for all canine professionals and dog owners who take their dogs into or on the water.

The study involved 7 dogs recruited from students and members of staff at a university. There were 4 neutered males and 3 neutered females ranging in age from 4 to 8 years and in weight from 14kg to 41kg. The dogs represented both deep-chested (pointers, German Shepherds and crosses) and barrel-, or shallow-chested breeds (Labradors, bull-breeds and crosses) dogs. All dogs were signed off as fit and healthy, and specifically checked for any signs of orthopaedic disease that may impair their ability to swim. In addition none of the dogs were reluctant to go into water.

A hydrotherapy floatation tank in a canine rehabilitation centre was used for the study and each dog was tested individually while wearing 3 different jackets (CFD-1, CFD-2 and CFD-3, see below for details) and also while wearing no jacket (NCFD). In addition the trials were run without and with the dogs sedated (see below for explanation). In summary, each dogs was tested 8 times in the floatation tank.

The floatation tank had clear, Perspex sides so the dogs could be observed and filmed using a high-speed video camera as they swam. The owners stayed with their respective dogs throughout the trials and could withdraw them at any time. The video footage was analysed to derive quantitative data and subjective reports were also collected from the owners who judged how their dogs were reacting in the water (relaxed, struggling, fearful etc.) whilst using the jackets.

DEFINITIONS AND EXPLANATIONS

  • CFD:  Canine Flotation Device. The dog was wearing a CFD.
  • NCFD:  the dog was not wearing a CFD and could swim freely.
  • CFD-1:  Astral Buoyancy Bird Dog Life Jacket.
  • CFD-2:  Ruff Wear K-9 Float Coat.
  • CFD-3:  Critter’s Inflatable Dog Life Vest.
  • ROM:  Measurement of Range of Motion for the front limbs only as they are likely to be restricted by the CFD as the dog tries to swim. Dogs normally keep their heads above the water line by paddling with their front limbs.
  • FIT:  Description of how well the CFD is designed to fit around dogs of different sizes and shapes.
  • STABILITY:  Measurement of the effect of the CFD on the dog’s:- Buoyancy: the degree the CFD supported the dog’s body weight in the water. Roll: the tendency to roll the dog’s body from the vertical to the left or the right towards flipping the dog upside down in the water. Pitch: the tendency to tip the dog’s head forwards into the water, or back out of the water.
  • INCAPACITATED:  Dogs were sedated (medetomidine (Domitor) at a dose of 0.01 mg/kg) to simulate being less able to swim, keep their heads out of the water and remain upright. For example, an injured dog with a broken limb, or a dog that was exhausted or hypothermic. This tested the CFD’s ability to allow the dog to feel relaxed and safe when floated in water, but the sedation was light enough to also allow the dog to react and struggle if he felt unsafe, for example unstable and about to roll over in the water.

NCFD RESULTS
ROM:  As you might expect, the highest scores as dogs were free to swim normally.
FIT:  Not applicable.
STABILITY:  A Dog’s natural swimming position is for the rear-end to be lower in the water that the front-end which naturally pitches the dog’s head up and out of the water.
INCAPACITATED:  Caused a significant degree of a fear response. Owners described their dogs as “panicked, rolling, splashing, twisting, fighting sedation, and unhappy.”

 

CFD-1 DESIGN and RESULTS
DESIGN:  A floatation aid with buoyancy foam inserts. Intended to give dogs some buoyancy without restricting normal movement in and out of water too much.
ROM:  The second highest scores after NCFD. Most of the dogs swam as they did for NCFD. However, in deep-chested dogs the CFD did not fit well leaving a gap around the abdomen that restricted ROM more.
FIT:  CFD has one strap that fitted around the dog’s ventral neck and another that fits around the dog’s abdomen. This arrangement did not suite deep-chested dogs well because the CFD did not fit snuggly around the dog.
STABILITY:  Dogs had to increase their swimming effort to keep their heads above the waterline. In one of the barrel-chested dogs where the CFD fitted well, the long design of the CFD along that back lifted the dog’s back-end up and out of the water which pitched the head-end down and towards the water. This caused the dog to have to swim harder to keep the head up, a situation that would tire a dog in open water very quickly. For deep-chested dogs this problem did not occur because the CFD did not fit well leaving a gap around the abdomen that allowed the rear-end of the dog to sink into a more natural swimming position.
INCAPACITATED:  Caused a significant degree of a fear response. Owners described their dogs as “panicked, rolling, splashing, twisting, fighting sedation, and unhappy.”

 

CFD-2 DESIGN and RESULTS
DESIGN: A floatation aid with buoyancy foam inserts. Intended to give dogs some buoyancy without restricting normal movement in and out of water too much.
ROM: The third highest scores after NCFD.
FIT:  CFD has one strap that fits around the dog’s ventral neck and another that fits around the dog’s abdomen. This arrangement did not suite deep-chested dogs well because the CFD did not fit snuggly around the dog.
STABILITY: Dogs had to increase their swimming effort to keep their heads above the waterline.
INCAPACITATED: Caused a significant degree of a fear response. Owners described their dogs as “panicked, rolling, splashing, twisting, fighting sedation, and unhappy.”

 

CFD-3 DESIGN and RESULTS
DESIGN: A small-profile life jacket that automatically inflates and that can also be manually inflated, or ‘topped up’ like a human airline life jacket. The inflatable section of the CFD fits around the neck of the dog and along the chest walls on either side. Intended to support the dog in an upright position in the water with the airbags on either side. The dog does not need to or be able to swim in order to keep the head above the water, it is designed as a survival vest, not as a recreational buoyancy aid.
ROM: The lowest scores after NCFD, especially in dogs with long legs.
FIT: CFD has multiple narrow straps that can be adjusted to get a good fit around the dog’s neck and chest.
STABILITY: Very stable with a wide beam and a low centre of gravity in the water like a catamaran.
INCAPACITATED: Caused the least degree of a fear response. Owners described their dogs as “calm, asleep, sedated, stable, and relaxed.”

 

CONCLUSIONS
There are no absolute ‘bad’ or absolute ‘good’ CFDs. Rather, owners need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of different types in relation to what they want to use them for AND in relation to the shape of their dog.

 

For fully able dogs

CFD-1 and CFD-2 would arguably be better in white-water rapids where there are submerged rocks and logs – being buoyed up out of the water, having good ROM to be able to swim to shore and having some protection along the sides of the abdomen are potential advantages.

 

For incapacitated dogs

However, in an incapacitated dog all these factors are major disadvantages and more likely to lead to the dog drowning. CFD-3 with its decreased ROM may hinder a fully-able dog in white-water rapids, however an incapacitated dog would have a much better chance of survival because of the stability. In open water, for example a dog that falls over-board from his owner’s boat, CFD-3 would be by far the safest device because it will keep the dog afloat and alive for much longer.

 

© copyright Robert Falconer-Taylor, 2015

This article is an original work and is subject to copyright. You may create a link to this article on another website or in a document back to this web page. You may not copy this article in whole or in part onto another web page or document without permission of the author. Email enquiries to robertft@emotions-r-us.com.

 

References
Boat US. 1998. Inflatable Life Jackets Make the Grade. Boat U.S. Foundation, Maryland. http://www.boatus.org/findings/30/default.asp. Accessed 05 June, 2015.

Boat US. 2000. Canine PFD’s. 2000. Boat U.S. Foundation, Maryland. http://www.boatus.org/findings/33/default.asp. Accessed 05 June, 2015.

British Airways. 2014. British Airways Community Learning Centre Primary Resource Pack. British Airways Community Learning Centre. https://responsibleflying.ba.com/wp-content/uploads/SWK4905_PrimaryResourcePack_A4.pdf. Accessed 05 June, 2015.

CAA. 2010. Flights over water – emergency equipment. Civil Aviation Authority, London. https://www.caa.co.uk/docs/1672/srg_gad_Appendix%2010b%20revised.pdf. Accessed 05 June, 2015.

Corum CP, Wichtowski M, Hetts S, Estep D, Bertone JJ. 2014. Swimming kinematic and flotation analysis of conscious and sedated dogs using 3 canine flotation devices. Top Companion Anim Med. 2014 Dec;29(4):102-8.

Marine Warehouse. 2015. CE Approval ISO lifejacket approval. Marine Warehouse Ltd., Swansea. http://www.lifejackets.co.uk/Lifejackets-CE_Approval.htm. Accessed 05 June, 2015.

Modern Bark. 2013. 5 Best Dog Life Jackets Reviewed. The Modern Bark, UK.  http://themodernbark.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/4-best-dog-life-jackets-reviewed.html. Accessed 05 June, 2015.

Petplace. 2014. Risk of Pet Drowning on the Rise! Petplace blog, USA. http://www.petplace.com/article/dogs/keeping-your-dog-healthy/health-safety/risk-of-pet-drowning-on-the-rise. Accessed 06 June, 2015.

Practical Sailor. 2007. Review of Life jackets for Dogs. Practical Sailor, Florida.  http://www.practical-sailor.com/issues/33_1/features/Floatation_Devices_5373-1.html. Accessed 05 June, 2015.

RYA. 2014. Buoyancy Aids and Lifejackets. Royal Yachting Association, Hamble. http://www.rya.org.uk/infoadvice/safetyinfo/Personalsafetyequipment/Pages/buoyancy.aspx. Accessed 05 June, 2015.

 

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