Doggie Life Jackets and Flotation Devices
We often like to get volunteers to help with Foundation Findings. They rarely complain, are always eager to help and will usually work for food. Never before have we experienced such an eager volunteer group than on a hot summer test day in 2011 when we tested life jackets for dogs. Eight dogs and as many handlers made for a great day of swimming, sunning and slobbering, all in the name of finding suitable flotation devices for dogs of just about any size.
We first tested dog life jackets back in 2000 when there were only a handful of options. Of all the topics we've covered over the years, our 2000 report is consistently one of the most searched-for articles on our website. So now over a decade later we figured it was time to update pet owners on what's new since many new doggie life jackets have come to market that are practical, reliable and affordable.
To our surprise, we found great variety and availability at boating stores, pet stores and some large box stores. Our focus was primarily on finding a good performing jacket that was comfortable both on land and in the water. There are no standards in life jacket design for dogs, and the Coast Guard doesn't certify them, so it's up to the owner to find a jacket suitable for their dog.
Overall, we found that each manufacturer offered a life jacket model that is available in a variety of sizes, typically from small to extra large. However, some brands were better suited for certain sized dogs. The following pages are highlights of the eight life jackets we evaluated arranged in no particular order, with accompanying video to show them in action.
Our approach to evaluating dog life jackets was mainly observational. After all, how do you measure static buoyancy and face angle of these hyperactive, lovable bundles of joy? Rather than gathering typical empirical data, we focused mostly on the opinions of the owners of each dog since they intuitively knew if their pet was at ease or if they struggled with fit and performance.
It is important to remember that some dogs are naturally at ease being in and around the water. Other dogs are a little more tepid. We often hear pet owners say "My dog swims." and fail to see the point of a doggie life jacket. However, we witnessed that even the strongest dogs tire, putting them at potential risk, especially if a pet owner or rescuer takes awhile to recover them after a fall overboard or tumble off the dock.
A note about intended "use" should be inserted here. You might want to think about whether your dog's jacket is primarily an aid for an accidental fall overboard or will it be used primarily for beach fun, swimming and retrieving. If your dog will be wearing a life jacket aboard your boat all day and used primarily as a safety precaution, you might want to think minimal and comfortable. If swimming is the primary intended use, a securely fitted larger jacket might be a better approach, depending on your dog.
To give the dogs regular breaks we assigned two dogs to each pet-size category so that all sizes of each jacket could be tested without over-working the dogs. Since dog life jackets typically come in small, medium, large and extra-large sizes, we selected dogs that ranged from 12 lbs to 130lbs. Here's how our dogs sized up.
Small 12-24 Pounds
|20 lbs||20"||M||12 years||Jack Russell|
|12 lbs||16"||F||5 years||Rat Terrier|
Medium 24-61 Pounds
|40 lbs||25"||F||4 months||Golden Retriever|
|36 lbs||25"||F||8 years||Border Collie|
Large 60 - 90 Pounds
|62 lbs||32"||F||15 Months||Golden Retriever|
|70 lbs||32"||M||3 Years||Golden Retriever|
Extra Large 90 - 120 Pounds
|90 lbs||35"||F||22 Months||Chesapeake Bay Retriever|
|130 lbs||38"||M||2 Year||Newfoundland|
West Marine offers two store-brand dog life jackets at a good value. The bright yellow West Marine Pet Flotation Device, cleverly abbreviated (PFD), is a fairly straight forward option ($29.99). Dogs swam well in this jacket and had ample flotation. However, on land the slab sides made a bit of a tee-pee down the dog's spine, especially for the small dogs. Also of note, this jacket has two narrow straps that go under the dog's belly which was uncomfortable for the dogs when they were lifted.
The royal blue West Marine Neoprene Pet Vest ($24.99) is a tighter fitting jacket, but the dogs were comfortable both in the water and on land. Some of the pet owners were concerned that the tight fitting jacket would retain heat and would be uncomfortable after a period of time. The neoprene material generously covers the dog but it isn't as thick as the other West Marine model. The adjustment straps also don't come in direct contact with the dogs' belly.
The West Marine Neoprene Pet Vest was rated the best jacket for small dogs by our testers because of its good, secure fit. However, lifting large dogs out of the water was very difficult because the neoprene stretched like a rubber band. Lifting the extra large dogs was impossible. In comparison, the West Marine Pet Flotation Device was better for large and extra large dogs.
Kurgo Surf and Turf
The Kurgo Surf and Turf has good coverage and more flotation than other dog life jackets of the same size and offered great peace of mind especially for nervous dog owners. It scored well for dogs of all sizes with slightly higher scores for the extra large dogs. The price depends on the size, ranging from $43.95 to $58.95.
The Surf and Turf model contoured well to the dogs and tapered as it wrapped around toward the belly. This design was unique in that the fit took into consideration the dog's front shoulders and rear haunches by scalloping out these areas prompting one dog owner to comment that it looked like a horse saddle.
The Surf and Turf was the only dog life jacket that had two lifting handles which was very useful for lifting the larger dogs out of the water. This jacket also has good belly coverage and protects the dog from coming in direct contact with the adjustment straps which is also important, especially when lifting the dog.
Another notable design feature is that the inside flotation material can be removed easily from the outside cover converting it into a weather shell. All dog owners agreed this was a fashionable jacket with its red and black nylon styling.
MTI Under Dog
The MTI Adventure Wear Under Dog ($39.99) literally turned the life jacket concept for dogs upside down. Instead of having flotation concentrated on the dog's back and sides, the flotation of the Under Dog is concentrated underneath the dog to provide a lifting action. There's also good flotation under the neck and chest to keep the head high, but most of the flotation is under the dog's belly.
The adjustment straps for this jacket goes around the dog's girth like all the others, but the final adjustments with buckles are made on the dog's back. This feature was a hit with many of the dog's owners because they didn't have to reach around and under their dog to fasten and tension the jacket.
Once the dogs entered the water we immediately observed the effect of having flotation under the dog, as opposed to having it on the back. By having the flotation under the dog, they tended to float much higher and more level. For small dogs, this was a concern for some of the owners because it appeared as though the dogs had to work hard to stay upright. One owner commented that she was afraid her dog would "capsize" and wouldn't be able to right himself. In general, this jacket scored lower for small dogs.
In contrast, this jacket clearly had benefits for larger dogs because it kept the rump considerably higher and more level. The flotation under the neck and chest was apparent too as it appeared as though the dogs didn't have to struggle as much to keep their head up. The dogs were also more visible in the water since they floated higher and the manufacturer's color choice of yellow and red made spotting even easier. Floating level had some additional benefits we hadn't considered. For example, instead of the dog's legs "bicycling", the dog's level attitude had them moving forward with a much more efficient stroke.
Unfortunately, this jacket earned some low marks for comfort on land. As you can imagine, with all the flotation under the dog, it was more difficult for the dog to sit or lounge around.
The Outward Hound was a consistent performer in every category and earned high marks regardless of the size dog we fitted. Not only was it a good all around jacket, it was also a great value starting at $15.99 for small dogs to $28.99 for extra large dogs.
The Outward Hound was the only jacket that had all the features we desired in a flotation device for dogs. For starters, the fit was good because of generous Velcro closures and segmented flotation panels. The jacket also had a nice neoprene panel for the underbelly and the adjustment straps secured over it so that the straps never come in direct contact with the dog.
The flotation is distributed evenly and keeps the dogs horizontal in the water. The collar, which features integral flotation, aids in keeping the dog's head and muzzle up and also has the secondary benefit of preventing the jacket from working aft on the dog. The use of Velcro also prevents the jacket from loosening once it becomes wet. However, some dog owners commented that the Velcro tended to attract shedding hair.
The orange Outward Hound (comes in neon green too) is actually quite stylish with silver reflective piping so that it can be seen easily day or night. The Outward Hound also has sensible strap adjustments, simple buckles and a padded lifting handle. On land, dogs moved with ease and prompted one owner to exclaim that this jacket was a "simple, smart fit" and another owner to declare, "This is the jacket I would purchase." For these reasons and because it is available at many big box pet stores, this jacket earned the designation of Staff Pick.
Critter's Inflatable Pet Vest
The first thing we'd like to mention about the Critter's Automatic Inflatable Pet Vest is that it is not for swimming since it will inflate if submerged. You can switch the firing mechanism to inflate manually if desired, but we didn't see the point. Our take on this is if you're planning to take your dog swimming, you'll have to purchase an inherently buoyant life jacket model. If your primary concern is an accidental fall overboard, then this jacket is a good choice because it is compact, yet effective once inflated.
This jacket took some time to learn how to don and adjust initially. With all the straps and an inflation canister it appeared as though we were strapping on a rocket booster to our oblivious volunteers. We were also concerned how our pets would respond to the sudden noise of a discharged cylinder, so we opted to try it on dry land first. As you can imagine, our unsuspecting friends were immediately alarmed by the hiss and sudden inflation.
After our tests, we contacted the manufacturer who suggested against testing on dry land first. Regardless, it was done, and we moved to our on-water portion of our testing. To our surprise, the canister made practically no noise since it was discharged underwater. The dogs barely noticed, which is probably why the manufacturer suggested against testing on land. It was actually quite thrilling to see the dogs leap into the water and bob to the surface once inflated.
The Critter's Vest is compact when packed and armed and was easy and comfortable for the dog to wear. Once inflated it easily quadrupled in size and floated the dogs very high. Our testers commented it would be a good choice for the cruising boater and pet owner, but stressed it was not a jacket for water play. The cost of the Critter's Inflatable Pet Vest at the time of our study averaged about $130. However, their website indicates that all jackets are on inventory clearance sale for $60.
Cabela's Dog Vest
The Cabela's Neoprene Dog Vest (starting at $29.99) is marketed primarily as field vest to protect the underside of your hunting dog. The 5mm thick neoprene is designed to fend off briars and other annoying things hidden in the underbrush that could cause cuts and abrasions to your dog's sensitive parts. Although not designed or marketed as a life jacket for dogs, the packaging points out that the vest it will add buoyancy for your dog, so we decided to add to our mix.
These vests were designed mainly for larger dogs with a chest girth of 24 inches or greater. There are no buckles or straps, but has huge overlapping Velcro closures to get a tight fit. To get a true, customized fit, the enclosed directions encourage you to trim away any excess material with a pair of sharp scissors.
This vest did not perform as well as any of the other jackets we tested for dogs. It had far less buoyancy with barely any noticeable benefit in this regard. It fit well, appeared comfortable and presumably provides some warmth, much like a wetsuit. The owners of the dogs that tested these jackets felt that even though the jacket didn't provide drastic flotation, it did provide them with the benefit of peace of mind.
After spending a day in and on the water, "peace of mind" was a theme all dog owners mentioned when asking for their final comments. A few owners even suggested that the dog life jackets boosted confidence in some of the pets.
In addition to the benefit of extra overall buoyancy, the life jackets actually kept the dog's hind quarters from sinking lower than their front legs, which gave them a more horizontal profile in the water. This profile gave the dogs a more efficient forward stroke with less bicycling.
To our surprise, the dogs weren't terribly bothered by wearing the life jackets either in the water or on land. When shopping for a life jacket for your dog, here are few things to keep in mind:
Tips for Shopping for a Dog's Life Jacket
- Know your dog's chest girth in inches, back length in inches and weight in pounds before you shop.
- Sizes range typically from S, M, L, and XL but sizing wasn't always consistent brand to brand.
- Take your pet with you so that you can try on for proper fit; ask your dog to sit and check for discomfort.
- Be certain straps are led properly and try lifting your dog with the handle.
Here are some addiditional features to consider:
- The more adjustments, buckles and closures, the better the final fit.
- Velcro closures work great. However, they tend to attract hair and need cleaning.
- A lifting handle is a must. It can also be helpful if you need to grab it with a boat hook.
- The wider the straps, the more comfortable. Straps under the belly should be padded.
- Jackets that are thinner and have neoprene conform better to a dog's shape.
- Jackets that are thicker aren't as forgiving and will bunch up when the dogs are in a sitting-position.
- A high visibility color and reflective tape is important for spotting your dog in low visibility.
Overall, we are pleased with the variety of dog life jackets that are available today and felt we identified a representative sampling. For certain, there are other dog life jackets out there, but they are similar to the jackets already evaluated and we felt there was no need to test them, especially if it was just a rebranded version for another store.
As we often say with regard to life jackets for people, the best life jacket is the one you'll wear, and the same adage holds true for your pet. So if you're concerned about your dog's swimming ability, or that a misstep might result in your dog ending up in the water, you might want to consider a dog life jacket. How could you say no?