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Dogs and Hydrophobia: My Pup Is Terrified of Water

Jenny won't swim. She side-steps puddles. It's hard for her to drink. And bathing? Well, we have a ritual for that.

 |  Aug 1st 2012  |   17 Contributions


A common definition of the word hydrophobia is "an abnormal or unnatural dread of water." The word is also used as a synonym for rabies. Do a web search for "hydrophobia" and "dogs," and most every entry that comes up will be about rabies. I have a dog named Jenny, and she has hydrophobia -- but it's not rabies, it's the unnatural fear of water. And it's probably like nothing you've ever seen in an animal. Its cause in her case is unknown, although it could be related to an experience she had with water when she was very sick at a shelter. But first you have to know the backstory.

I've volunteered at the Merced County Animal Shelter since 2003. After the loss of our beloved Samuel Jacob and Bernadette in 2008, my husband and I found that our Australian Cattle Dog mix, Mickey, was very lonely. He had always been very close to Bernie, and Sammy was his "knight in shiny fur." When we finally were able to see through the tears, we tried fostering several dogs. It didn't work out, as Mickey wouldn't accept them.

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"Can I go back to the car now?" asks Jenny.

I found a pup at the shelter who looked very much like Bernadette, except she had longer legs and thinner fur. She was very submissive and crawled on her belly into your lap. She was named "Lovey Dovey." She was quite sick. So sick, in fact, that even though she was with three other dogs, she was not able to move out of the way when they cleaned the kennel. So they just hosed around her. There she sat, shivering with fever, left to dry in the autumn breeze. She looked at them with her large liquid brown eyes begging them to stop. "Please, just pick me up and make me feel better," she seemed to say.

I couldn't stand it. Even if she wasn't going to work out with Mickey, I was going to foster her. She looked too much like Bernie. I picked her up and put her in a crate in the back of my car. I could feel the heat from her almost burning my arms. She didn't move much, just stared. We went straight to our family vet. She had a fever of 104.7 and what sounded like bronchitis, tonsillitis, and probably kennel cough. The fever was a concern because it isn't typical for kennel cough. The vet tested for distemper and gave her two shots: one antiinflamitory and one antibiotic. She came home with dewormer, doxycycline for the infection, hydrocodone for her cough, and Metacam liquid for her fever. The test was positive for distemper; the vet explained that can happen when a dog is vaccinated several times in a short period. It is possible she was accidentally vaccinated three times in three weeks.

As soon as we arrived home, we put Mickey on the leash and let Jenny out of the crate in the car. You could see he thought it was Bernie and began making his happy noises. His ears went back and his tail up. He was thrilled to have her back! Then I saw his heart sink when he realized it wasn't Bernie, but another dog. But this one smelled somewhat familiar. Probably because of my time at the shelter and her visit to the vet. Within a few hours they were good pals.

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Mickey (left) didn't like several foster dogs but took to Jenny.

But what started as a quirk had become an obsession: Jenny has hydrophobia. She is terrified of water. Not just the water you swim in or puddles, but even water in a bowl. If she is drinking and any splashes on her paws, she jumps away and almost runs to her bed. As she does drink, it must be in an elevated bowl, and she has her feet as far back as possible, leaning way forward to get to the water. Most of the time, she just won't drink at all unless it is baited water (the "bait" being several pieces of kibble floating in it). She isn't afraid of frozen water, though. She adores snow!

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Water? No. Snow? Yes! Go figure.

We bought her a bird bath to drink from in the yard, which worked for a while. But Mickey was drinking with her and splashed her face. Now she won't drink from it anymore. She prefers to drink from plastic solo cups. Clear ones are best, so she can see as she drinks. They don't splash at all.

Giving her a bath is a trick. We used to have to pick her up and carry her into the shower. I bought cloth baby diapers because I knew she would submissively urinate when I got her. Sometimes worse. She has never bitten or scratched; she has always been submissive about it but always hated it. She knows when it is time for a bath, too. I have a routine that makes it a little easier. We have a walk-in shower, and she will walk in there with Mickey, as long as the floor is dry. She hates it, and she whines and shivers the entire time, but with promises of “super treats” (pieces of chicken) after the job is done, it is bearable.

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Bowl? For drinking? Doesn't matter -- water's water!

When we walk them, if it has just rained or someone has had their sprinklers going, she will dance around the puddles. You’d think the water was made of acid, the way her long legs skip daintily around the offending pool.

One of our favorite places to visit is the ocean. Most dogs will at least get their feet wet. Not Jenny! She will run along the beach, and get onto the more solid sand, but if the tide is coming in, her eyes get large and she has somewhat of a panicked look about her. “What is going on with that crazy stuff?”

Mickey won’t swim, but he isn’t really afraid of water. When his beloved Sammy was in his prime and would swim with Bernadette, Mickey would go up to his armpits in the water and watch and whine. There is no way Jenny would do that. She’d rather just wait in the vehicle. Preferably with the music on, thank you!

Yes, I know she is crazy. But after what she went through, and as much of my heart as she has? We'll let her be a little quirky.

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