Keep your dog safe from hid­den threats on the beach


MY dog Finzi loves ex­er­cis­ing on the beach. In many ways, it’s ideal: long stretches of sand for her to gal­lop along, chas­ing the ball that I throw for her. Then when she over­heats and needs to cool down, she can pad­dle in the shal­low sea wa­ter. It seems like a safe, en­joy­able place for a dog to ex­er­cise.

In last week’s news, I was re­minded that there are some­times un­ex­pected haz­ards on the beach. Re­ports came in that “fat bergs” had been spot­ted on beaches close to Dublin, and that th­ese could be toxic to dogs.

“Fat bergs” may be a new word for many read­ers, so I’ll ex­plain. The ex­pres­sion is used to de­scribe a con­gealed, solid, ac­cu­mu­la­tion of fat and other de­bris. The most com­mon place that fat bergs are seen is in sew­ers. Oily sub­stances that peo­ple put down the sink or toi­let some­times turn solid as they cool down (for ex­am­ple, the fat that’s at the bot­tom of a pan used to roast a chunk of meat). This oil and fat joins to­gether with other chunks of sim­i­lar ma­te­rial in the sew­er­age sys­tem, with other solid de­bris such as baby wipes and nap­pies that re­ally shouldn’t be flushed away. The re­sult is a gi­gan­tic solid mass that can cause a se­ri­ous ob­struc­tion of the mu­nic­i­pal drains. A few years ago in Lon­don, a 10 tonne lump of the stuff, mea­sur­ing 40 me­tres in di­am­e­ter, was found block­ing a ma­jor pipe: this took months to re­move, and cost many mil­lions to rem­edy.

Ob­vi­ously, fat bergs of this size are not wash­ing up on Ir­ish beaches: the ones that have been spot­ted are more like “mini-fat bergs”, rang­ing in size from a golf ball to a small boul­der, and re­sem­bling white chunks of squidgy can­dle wax. Th­ese have been tested in lab­o­ra­to­ries, and have been shown to be made up of palm oil. The au­thor­i­ties be­lieve that the palm oil was part of a con­sign­ment which came off a ship in the English Chan­nel about 18 months ago. Palm oil so­lid­i­fies in cold wa­ter, and so does not dis­perse. As a re­sult, fat bergs of this type have been turn­ing up from time to time on beaches and coasts in Eng­land for the past year, and now they’re be­ing seen on the east­ern seaboard of Ire­land too.

Th­ese fat bergs are an un­sightly type of pol­lu­tion, but worse than that, they are dan­ger­ous to dogs. First, the fat can act as a medium to ab­sorb fat-sol­u­ble tox­ins, so that if dogs eat the stuff, they can suf­fer se­ri­ous poi­son­ing. And sec­ond, the sim­ple act of eat­ing solid fat can cause a fa­tal re­ac­tion in some dogs: in par­tic­u­lar, this can pro­voke a dan­ger­ous con­di­tion called pan­cre­ati­tis. Af­fected dogs suf­fer ab­dom­i­nal pain, with re­peated episodes of vom­it­ing, and even with treat­ment, many pa­tients don’t sur­vive.

The bad news is that dogs are at­tracted to fat bergs and they can scoff them be­fore an owner knows what’s hap­pen­ing. It’s only later that the dog will fall ill and the owner will re­alise what has hap­pened.

Fat bergs are not the only po­ten­tial dan- ger on beaches: it’s com­mon for all sorts of other de­bris to be washed up, and as scav­engers, dogs are prone to rum­mag­ing through any­thing they en­counter, chew­ing any­thing that seems re­motely ed­i­ble. I’ve of­ten had to treat dogs for gas­troen­teri­tis caused by dogs eat­ing any­thing from sea­weed to de­com­pos­ing fish.

I’ve also had to treat many dogs af­ter they’ve be­come im­paled on fish­ing hooks: fish­er­men now know to be care­ful to take care of their equip­ment, but some­times, for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, hooks end up mixed up with de­bris on the beach. A barbed hook eas­ily lodges in a dog’s mouth or throat, and it can be dif­fi­cult to re­move.

I also had one mem­o­rable case which fol­lowed a dog eat­ing an ex­otic fish that had washed up on the beach. It turned out that the fish was car­ry­ing a rare par­a­site known as a “gi­ant kid­ney worm”. The dog suf­fered no ill ef­fects at the time, but sev­eral months later when he fell ill, an ul­tra­sound ex­am­i­na­tion showed that he had a mas­sive worm curled up in­side one of his kid­neys. The only way that a dog can pick up this worm is by eat­ing cer­tain types of fish, so there’s no doubt that his beach graz­ing was the source of the prob­lem. The only pos­si­ble treat­ment was sur­gi­cal re­moval of the worm from the kid­ney, a ma­jor pro­ce­dure.

If your dog is run­ning on the beach, and they sud­denly stop to sniff at an uniden­ti­fied ob­ject that they’ve dis­cov­ered, it can be dif­fi­cult to stop them. The best an­swer is to train them to re­spond to a spe­cific com­mand: “LEAVE IT”.

When a dog has learned this in­struc­tion, you sim­ply need to shout “LEAVE IT”, and even if they are thirty yards away, they will stop what they are do­ing and look up at you. You can then call them again, and they should run back to you, hav­ing safely left the dan­ger­ous temp­ta­tion be­hind them. This skill isn’t just use­ful on the beach: there are many other oc­ca­sions where it’s help­ful.

It’s easy to teach the “LEAVE IT” com­mand, and it should be one of the ba­sic skills that’s taught to pup­pies, along with sit, stay, and “come back when called”. The de­tails of how to do this are best ex­plained in a train­ing video: if you want to do this, Google “the leave it com­mand” and you’ll find de­tailed in­struc­tions.

Dogs may love ex­er­cis­ing on the beach, but make sure they do it safely.

The beach is an en­joy­able place for dogs to ex­er­cise

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