Are Pet Life Jackets Worth It?

Dog sitting on wooden pier in lake
Dog sitting on wooden pier in lake. Getty - Blend Images/ LWA/Dann Tardif

A life jacket for your dog is not just another accessory; it's an important part of an overall safety program during the summer and is recommended for any pet that spends time around bodies of water and, especially, on boats. After a scary experience with my own dog, Sophie, I've decided that a life jacket is a great idea for any dog, regardless of how well he or she can swim.

All Dogs Know How to Swim, Don't They?

No, not all dogs can swim. This is a common misconception, probably helped along by the swim stroke referred to as the "dog paddle." Some breeds simply do not enjoy being anywhere near water, and some dogs that have low body fat (such as greyhounds and whippets) may have difficulty staying afloat and regulating their body temperature in water.

Fear and anxiety in the water, as when a pet falls in unexpectedly, can hamper normal respiration as well as swimming ability. Waves, undertows, currents, and fast-moving rivers can overtake even the strongest swimmer. Wearing a life vest may mean the difference between life and death for a dog.

Health and Conditioning Matter, Too

Of course, some breeds live to be in the water, such as the retrievers and labradors out there. However, even these "water dogs" can have trouble if they are elderly, sick, or overweight and out of shape. Fatigue can set in, and no matter how good of a swimmer they are, they may tire out and be unable to stay afloat.

Every grown human can relate to overdoing it now and then. Some people have even experienced medical emergencies from being out of shape and doing too much. Like their human counterparts, many dogs (and cats) lead a much more sedentary lifestyle these days, and gasping for breath while in water is not a good way to assess fitness levels.

Why My Dog (Now) Wears a Life Vest

Pets are part of the family, and more pets than ever are taking vacations with their families. If you travel to lakes, rivers, or coastal areas with your pet, it's a good idea to stop and think about your pet being near water.

I have a mixed-breed dog named Sophie who loves the water. She takes frequent dips in the pond, loves to swim in the lake, and doesn't even mind a nice cooling bath in the summer. So I didn't really worry about this particular dog needing a life jacket. However, while we were spending some time recently at a lake, Sophie eagerly jumped in our little boat from the beach. She is very athletic and in good shape. As she sailed around the docks with my husband to meet the rest of the family, she got very excited and anxious seeing the rest of "her people" on the dock.

Before anyone could think, she leaped from the boat to the dock. Normally this wouldn't be a big problem, but... she missed. The combination of her pushing off from the boat, the boat heading for the dock, and the dock moving in the waves meant that as she was underwater, the dock and boat closed right over her submerged head!

We grabbed her quickly as she popped up out of the water, and everything was OK. But it was scary. I realized that while Sophie loves swimming with her family nearby, she gets nervous when we are doing different things—some of us on the dock, some of us in the boat, or some of us swimming. This leads to unpredictable behavior from our excitable dog.

After this incident, on went the life jacket for Sophie. At first, we used a vest made for humans but then purchased a dog-specific life vest. It offers a better fit and includes handles that make lifting her out of the water much easier. Sophie seems to appreciate the additional lift from the vest, and I appreciate the peace of mind.

Getting the Right Fit

If you're considering a life vest for your pet, talk to other pet owners and boaters. The U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates human life jackets, does not regulate vests for pets, so be sure to have your pet fitted for the vest that will work best.

Dogs in particular come in every shape, size, and weight, and you'll need accurate measurements of your dog for a good fit. There are many jacket styles out there, and the different materials used have different levels of buoyancy in the water.

A Final Note

I do not recommend leaving your pet unattended while wearing a life vest at any time. Vests can be quite hot to wear if the dog is not in the water, and your pet may chew or become entangled in the vest if he or she gets bored or wants to escape.