Lacy spent part of Labor Day weekend as she did most weekend days in the summer: on the boat with the family.
At age 2, she had already earned the moniker “Crazy Lacy” due to her tendency not to look before she leaps. An understanding of her unpredictability allowed her family to establish a set of boat safety protocols, which had kept her out of trouble so far. But this day, Lacy and the boat would meet each other in one of the gaps in the system with near-fatal results.
The boat slowed as it approached the sandbar and was nearly stopped. Lacy’s anticipation boiled over and she leaped from the boat into the water, and towards the fun awaiting her on the sandbar. Looking away, briefly, as she removed her watch, her “mom” momentarily lost track of her.
Just before the engine was shut off, Lacy or the boat changed direction, and the driver did not know where Lacy was. The propeller blades hit her in the lower abdomen, slashing through the body wall, allowing her intestines and urinary bladder to spill out into the now-blood red water. As the blades continued to spin, they tore into the inner thigh, ripping away the skin and slicing through the underlying muscle, vessels and nerves.
The horrified family pulled Lacy from the water with her intestines dangling from the wound, dripping blood and seawater. They wrapped her up and brought her to Veterinary Emergency Care in North Charleston. Here, she received basic supportive care and was prepared for surgery.
Surgeon Dr. Scott Averill got the call. Even he was startled by Lacy’s appearance.
“She had literally been eviscerated, nearly cut in two,” he commented. But incredibly, the bladder and intestines were undamaged. The leg wound, though severe, did not reach the femoral artery or any major nerves.
Dr. Averill reconstructed her leg and abdomen, and her prognosis is actually good. When I (Henri Bianucci) complimented him on his work, his modest reply was, “It was just a lot of sewing.”
Gus, is a large, male, springer spaniel. Like Lacy, he is always part of the crew on the family boat. He loves to ride and his onboard behavior is generally perfect.
The family and Gus were out for about four hours before heading back to the dock. Gus seemed to be unusually anxious to get off the boat, and as they neared the dock, he jumped a couple of feet earlier than usual. His front legs and chest slid onto the decking, but the edge hit him squarely in the abdomen. He clawed with his back feet, up onto the dock.
He seemed like the wind was knocked out of him, which was not hard to explain. But what he did not do, after all that time on the boat, was urinate. When he still had not done so after getting home, despite drinking water all day, his owner got worried, and brought him into the Mount Pleasant Hospital.
A ruptured bladder was suspected, and confirmed. Apparently, Gus had to urinate badly after a day on the water, with no place to relieve himself. He made his urgent leap and slammed his then-full bladder into the dock, and ruptured it, causing all of the urine to leak into his abdomen. This creates a potentially fatal condition, known as uroabdomen.
This was one of three similar cases I have seen in the past five years. Fortunately, he was diagnosed early, surgically repaired and will completely recover.
Samson is a 6-month-old Labradoodle. As with Lacy and Gus, his owner loves to have him along on the boat almost as much as Samson loves to ride. He always perches on the bow, catching the breeze in his curly hair and floppy ears.
On a recent ride, his owner was forced to slow suddenly, sending Samson off the bow, into the water and under the boat. His owner cut the engine immediately, but the boat continued forward.
As Samson emerged from the water behind the boat, he was immediately pulled out by the scruff. Fortunately, there were no cuts from the propeller and, initially, Samson looked pretty good.
But after a few breaths, he stopped, looked scared, struggled for breath, and collapsed. His tongue was purple, and he seemed barely alive. His owner rushed him in, where the initial suspicion was of a drowning insult. He was intubated and given oxygen, yet showed only slight improvement.
A chest X-ray told us we were wrong about the drowning. He had a fractured rib and a collapsed lung. Although the propeller stopped spinning, the engine still hit his chest with force sufficient to cause severe blunt trauma. Luckily, Samson, too, was successfully treated and is once again a bow ornament in a harbor near you.
I’m not a boater, but my experiences in vet emergency and surgery inform my recommendations about keeping dogs safe on a boat. I have seen dogs with salt water intoxication, dehydration, sunburn and heat stroke in addition to traumatic injuries like the ones described here.
A life jacket for a dog is really a good idea. If they go over, especially in rough water, even strong swimmers can drown. It’s also a useful handle to pull them back into the boat.
Pay attention to where your dog is, especially when changing speed and direction, and provide proper restraint.
When the dog is in the water, cut the engine off. Keeping a leash attached, especially one that floats, can provide a lifeline if they go overboard, and a restraint when docking, changing speed or turning.
Keep plenty of fresh water available and provide a place for them to relieve themselves.
Remember, the sun can overheat them and burn their skin. So provide plenty of shade, and consider a dog-safe sunscreen. These are generally pet-specific brands, or human products made for babies, which contain neither zinc nor para-amino benzoic acid (PABA). This is especially true for thin-haired or light-skinned dogs.
Dogs are great boating companions, but keeping them safe depends entirely upon you.
Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.