Blue green algae threat to dogs

This is how blue-green algae appears when it blooms in water. Experts say that both humans and animals need to avoid contact as certain forms of this are highly toxic.

MURRAY — Throughout the years, it has been a common sight to see pet owners and their dogs frolicking together in a lake or river on a hot, summer day with barely a care in the world. 

Since this past weekend, though, that idea has become questionable in the wake of three dogs losing their lives after a simple visit to a North Carolina pond. The dogs were exposed to a deadly form of blue-green algae and their deaths came with frightening speed; all three dogs were deceased within just hours, the symptoms having first appeared less than an hour after leaving the pond. 

No such problems have been reported in Murray-area veterinary clinics, but, for now, Dr. Terry Canerdy, head of the Murray State University Veterinary Technology/Pre-Veterinary Medicine Department, said the safest thing is to keep pets away from such areas. 

“They don’t need to be in it or drinking it, and that’s just from the fear that’s going on right now,” Canerdy said. “I think the media has escalated that, but while we haven’t seen any clinical cases, that’s not to say we can’t and nobody wants to be the first. It’s still one of those things where people need to be aware of it. 

“Any water source is going to be a threat at this point.”

Canerdy said this time of year is when this type of algae begins to bloom in this part of the country. He said it is usually going to be the back water areas of lakes or rivers, where water does not flow as well and can become stagnant, where the algae is most likely to form. 

He said this year has been wet, meaning the algae has really not had a chance to bloom locally due to the water flow diluting the materials that allow it grow – namely, fertilizers. He said a recent visit to South Florida included hearing several reports on how red algae and blue algae are running rampant and have the past three years, though he had not heard of any issues with animals becoming ill. 

“It’s really a problem in places experiencing drought, where the water table falls,” he said.

One person who agrees with the idea that dogs or any mammal for that matter does not need to be spending time in areas where this algae is growing is Dr. Susan Hendricks, who is an aquatic ecologist with Murray State’s Hancock Biological Station. She said a place for them to avoid, especially over the next several weeks, is Kentucky Lake, on which Hancock has been performing a water quality study since 1988. 

She said this time of year is when blue-green algae has been documented in the lake, though she said the toxic strain has not been seen as of yet. 

“Still, with the amount of nutrients that are being dumped into the lake every year, you have to think it will show up eventually. That’s my feeling anyway,” Hendricks said, referring to how fertilizers and other chemicals are finding their way into the lake after being used on farms or households, which is what Canerdy said he has heard is causing the problems in South Florida. 

“Again, not all of those are toxic, but, right now, going into the late part of August and getting into September, is the perfect time for it to bloom, if we do have it,” Hendricks said, noting that the species goes by the scientific name cyanophyta. “It’s actually a bacteria rather than a plant and it grows rapidly.

“We started this study back in 1988, but we’ve started really looking at the blue-green algae here in the last few years. It has just kind of come up as part of the bigger study.”

Hendricks said that despite its name, the algae that appears to be of most concern does not have much blue in it, appearing in a silty, light green color. 

“I actually see it as yucky green and it kind of just sits at the top of water like scum. So if you see that, get away from it,” she said, adding that the algae causing the concern includes a neurotoxin, which is the same weapon venomous snakes use in inflicting their bites. “And it seems to be the same with this. Some toxins act faster than others.

“Again, though, we haven’t seen it in Kentucky Lake, but we definitely are keeping an eye out for it and, on our Facebook page (Murray State University Hancock Biological Station) we have posted that we want anyone who sees this to report it to us. We also are asking for anyone who can collect a sample to bring it to us and we will be glad to analyze it, because the most important thing with this is actually documenting it. One of the things we’re trying to figure out is why some forms are toxic and others aren’t, and by actually having a sample to look at, we might be able to start answering those questions.”

In obtaining that sample, Hendricks stresses caution. She said no one should attempt to obtain a sample without using protective gloves. Otherwise, she said a call to the station would probably be the best option, with a location of where the algae in question resides. 

Hendricks also urges people not to swim or enter areas displaying algae as she said effects have been documented with them too. She also advises that farm animals, if possible, should be kept from ponds for the next several weeks, as those ponds could hold the algae. 

Hendricks said the toxic form of this algae has caused major problems even before the dog deaths in North Carolina a few days ago. She said the most imposing case was about 10 years ago in Erie, Pennsylvania when a strain of this toxic algae infiltrated the city’s water supply, forcing residents to resort to bottled water for drinking for about a month. 

In addition, Hendricks said the algae does not seem to grow in puddles along streets and highways because those are produced by rain. The algae is generated in standing water that is soil-based. 

Canerdy said water for dogs needs to be supplied from faucets or hoses for the time being. He said signs of exposure include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, which affect dogs’ gastrointestinal tracts. High doses of exposure can lead to respiratory distress, as well as liver and kidney damage. He said if a dog owner suspects exposure has occurred, the dog needs to be taken to a veterinary office immediately. 

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