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Beware the Swamp Monster

by Katie McKay | Aug 03, 2020

I have a long list of doggie related things that I want to write about, but when I sat down to plunk out this month’s blog and realized what time of the year it was, I changed course. The perfect storm of late summer with its warm temperatures, heavy rain and the longing for a swim has given me quite the scare in the last few years. It seems climate change is contributing to the increase in Blue-Green Algae blooms and as a dog owner, this is a pretty concerning issue. After three dogs suddenly died last year in Wilmington, NC after being exposed to this mighty microscopic bacteria, the subject really hit home for me…..literally. I have had very few dogs who didn’t love the water so much that they would jump out of a moving car window to get to it and knowing this could literally be the last thing they do, I pounded the pavement for some information about how to prevent this from happening.

Blue-green algae are actually bacteria (known as cyanobacteria) that are found in fresh and brackish bodies of water. micro algaeThey produce toxins that affect people, wildlife, livestock and pets that swim in and drink from contaminated water. Rich nutrient runoff from fertilizers caused by heavy rains into water that is stagnant and warm (above 70◦F) feeds these bugs. Obviously high concentrations of bacteria, that produce toxins is not a good thing. These algae blooms typically float, can give the water a pea-soup or blue green appearance, or look like paint on the surface of the water. Even if you don’t swim in them, the blooms can be blown by the wind and end up near shore, easy access for drinking for wildlife and for our dogs. blue green algae2

Lucky for us, states generally test bodies of water, especially those used for recreation and will post warnings if there is concern for blue-green algal blooms. Now that you have crossed, swimming in scummy water off your bucket list since it appears it might be dangerous and obvious, how can we explain dogs still dying from these exposures? Don’t owners notice all this stuff and avoid it?

The harsh truth is that this isn’t always straight-forward, and many responsible and diligent pet owners have lost their dogs unexpectedly. I wasn’t able to locate good information about the rate of exposure in pets or people, just that these blooms have been around for 100 years and are documented in all 50 states1. The problem is that they are becoming more common due to the increasing temperatures and run off from farming and fertilizers (especially in neighborhood ponds). Algae concentrations can vary throughout the year, so what might have been safe in the early spring, may not be now after abundant periods of hot weather. Most blue-green algae blooms do not produce toxins, but its impossible to tell without testing. And very small exposures, even a few mouthfuls can result in fatal poisoning. Signs and symptoms that your dog may have been exposed or ingested this stuff can range from diarrhea, vomiting, drooling, weakness, disorientation, collapse, seizures, and a plethora of other symptoms that would send me running without hesitation straight to the emergency vet. For that reason, I don’t think there is a need to spend a lot of time ruminating about that, instead let’s spend some time digging for resources on how to prevent this in the first place!
algae

Tips to Avoid Blue-Green Algae Poisioning

1. Keep your dog leashed around bodies of water, especially if the water is dirty, foamy or has mats on the surface of the water.

2. Don’t let your dog drink out of ponds and lakes

3. If you smell something “off”, this should translate seamlessly in your mind to evil. Toxic algae often stink, sometimes producing a downright nauseating smell. We know this won’t deter our furry friends and might even encourage them so yeah, keep that leash handy.

4. Harmful algae can be blue, vibrant green, brown or red, but there is no way to “see” potential toxins.

If you know that your dog has been exposed to blue-green algae, rinse them off immediately with clean water and call your veterinarian.

I disassembled my backyard fountain this week after noticing green floaters. Although this is a decorative item, my dogs often consider it their personal drinking fountain. I’ve since bleached everything and left it to dry in the sun and spent my coffee mornings digging for resources. Keeping this from happening is truly the one thing that gives me peace of mind. Good news, I was able to locate some helpful information which I am happy to share with you. Here’s the rundown.

  1. The EPA is responsible for performing proactive water quality monitoring. This means they have the data to monitor for potential outbreaks and additional testing can determine if toxins are being produced. Preventing these blooms from happening is far better than trying to remediate one that has already happened.
  2. Community managers and association boards (your neighborhood resource!) can take steps to minimize the risk of toxic algae blooms by encouraging water movement through aerators or fountains in ponds. Use of native vegetation and other landscaping strategies will help prevent runoff and encourage groundwater filtration before water enters the pond or lake.
  3. General good practices around the environment like pick up and disposal of pet waste, using phosphorus-free fertilizers, and removing grass clippings and leaves to avoid decomposition in or around ponds and lakes.

The state of North Carolina department of Health and Human Services has an awesome website and program for monitoring algae blooms. In fact, they have a report from July 1, 2020 already in Chowan County so we know what areas to avoid. This website also includes a map of all the local bodies of water that they test and you can click on them and see when they have been tested and what the results were of that particular test. In other words, was it just an algal bloom or was it a toxic algal bloom. This won’t include private bodies of water, but this website has a ton of information and pictures.

https://deq.nc.gov/about/divisions/water-resources/water-resources-data/water-sciences-home-page/ecosystems-branch/algal-blooms

Have a private pond or a pond or lake on your property? No problem, I’ve got you covered! It turns out there are some brilliant scientists studying blue-green algae at the Toxicology lab at Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. The link here has a lot of great information including how to submit samples to them for testing! Yep, you can have your water tested to make sure it’s safe for you pups……that’s the soothing exhale of peace of mind. I also listened to a podcast that Dr. Ensley did on this very subject, its free and pretty interesting.

To check out all the info at K. State, you can visit this link:

http://www.ksvdl.org/laboratories/toxicology/

Below I have included some other links to the NC Department of Health and Human Services, the pet poison helpline and additional articles about the blooms and pets….in case you needed something to go with your coffee.

Cheers!
Katie

References!

Pets and Blue Green Algae Info Flyer

Pet Poison Helpline
https://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/poison/blue-green-algae/

NC Department of Health and Human Services—A to Z contaminants
https://epi.dph.ncdhhs.gov/oee/a_z/algae.html#:~:text=One%20type%20of%20freshwater%20algae,hot%20months%20of%20the%20year.

VCA Hospitals-Know your Pet
https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/algae-poisoning

Tufts University-Keeping your dog safe from Toxic Blue-Green Algae


Sources

  1. Backer, Lorraine C. Landsber, Jan H., Miller, Melissa, Keel, Kevin, Taylor, Tegwin. Canine Cyanotoxin Poisonings in the United States (1920s-2012): Review of Suspected and Confirmed Cases from Three Data Sources. Toxins, 5(9), 1597-1628. Doi: 2013 Sep 24.
  2. www.fossweb.com
  3. www.phys.org
  4. todaysveterinarynurse.com
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