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Horses & Hounds: Blue-Green Algae — What Every Pet Owner Should Know



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This column focuses on the toxic blue-green algae crisis that recently made national headlines as canines across the United States became fatally ill following a recreational swim in affected lakes, ponds, and rivers. Several of these canines reportedly died just minutes after exiting the water. I hope this article will give you the insight to be a responsible canine parent when venturing out for a fun-filled day with your pup on the waterfront.

Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, are tiny organisms commonly found in freshwater lakes, ponds, reservoirs, and slow-coursing rivers. The cyanobacteria develops on the water’s surface and blooms, creating a green, blue-green, or brown colored foam or scum. Some types of blue-green algae is highly toxic to dogs and other animals.

The Cyanobacteria will only proliferate if the conditions are right. The algae requires adequate nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and warm temperatures. The greater nutrient level that exist in the water, the higher the chances that the blue green algae will flourish.

The algae is commonly found floating on the surface of freshwater lakes and ponds. Due to wind and current conditions, the toxic blooms are often blown to the water’s edge. This places dogs and other animals closer to the toxins and exposes them even though they have not actually gone swimming. Canine owners should also be mindful that even if there’s no visible foam on the water’s surface, it does not mean blue-green algae isn’t present. Cyanobacteria can be suspended at various depths, depending on the conditions. The bacteria toxins have also been found on surfaces in close proximity to the water after being dissipated by the wind.

Blue-green algae commonly occurs during the summer months when rainfall is low, temperatures are high, and the sun is up — these condition create intense blooms. Dogs who swim in freshwater lakes and ponds are the most likely to be exposed to cyanobacteria poisoning. Many cases involve the canine inadvertently swallowing blue-green algae-contaminated water, but there are also been medical cases of dogs becoming ill after licking their coats and paws following a swim.

Dogs are not the only species affected by the toxins emitted from the cyanobacteria. A few types antitoxins and microcystins release poisons into the water and dangerous for birds, cats, cows, horses, and even humans. Without laboratory analysis, it’s virtually impossible to identify which blue-green algae blooms are toxic.

Should your canine pal ingest blue-green algae that contains the combination of the most potent toxins, hepatotoxins and neurotoxins, they may begin to exhibit signs of distress within minutes. Dogs who have been exposed only to hepatotoxins can take between an hour to a few hours before becoming symptomatic.

All dog owners should be aware of the most common signs and symptoms of Cyanobacteria poisoning. The signs of toxin ingestion include: diarrhea, vomiting, drooling, seizures, weakness, disorientation, breathing difficulty, shock, and even coma. Left untreated, the exposure to the algae can cause liver damage and prove fatal within a few days.

Should you suspect your dog has been exposed to blue-green algae, it is vital that you contact your veterinarian immediately or if after office hours, a 24-hour emergency clinic. There is no known antidote for the toxins produced by Cyanobacteria, so it is very important to seek early and proactive veterinary treatment for the best chance of success.

Keep your best friend safe; even though summer is coming to an end, the blue-green algae does not follow a calendar. Be sure to pay attention to any warning signs posted by lakes, ponds, and rivers and always remember to rinse your dog off after a swim or paddle-their very life may depend on it.

Margaret A. Reed, PhD, is the coauthor of the best-selling book, The Dogs of Camelot, an AKC dog show judge, thoroughbred racehorse owner, principal of Canine Training and Behavior Services LLC, and she serves on the board of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, James A Baker Institute for Animal Health.

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