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Toxic Algae: Look Before You Leap

Toxic Algae: Look Before You Leap

Critter Culture Staff



Be aware of the fatal threat posed by blue-green algae. Although it is called "algae" in health alerts and the news media, blue-green algae are actually bacteria that can release toxins. Veterinarians say the algae produce two different toxins, one that can attack an animal's brain and one that attacks the liver.

These algae, or bacteria, aren't limited to one area of the US; they're found in all 50 states. Once ingested by your dog, they could be gone in hours or days.


What are blue-green algae?

The coast on the surface of the river is covered with a pellicle of blue-green algae Sergii Petruk / Getty Images

The scientific name is cyanobacteria. Blue-green algae thrive in warm, sunny weather, using sunlight to make their own energy and to release oxygen.

Researchers believe the blue-green algae also release their toxins along with oxygen. The toxins released by blue-green algae are poisonous and target the brain and liver in dogs, humans, fish, and a wide range of other species.


Where are blue-green algae found?

Water bodies pollution by blooming blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria) marvod / Getty Images

You can find it in almost any body of water: large freshwater lakes, small lakes, ponds, reservoirs, streams, rivers, and in marine coastal areas. It can also grow in backyard ponds, water features, even backyard pools that aren't properly maintained.

Blue-green algae can kill birds as well as dogs. Blue-green algae could be close by if you begin to find dead birds around your home.


What causes blue-green algae?

Water pollution by blooming blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) marvod / Getty Images

There are four components necessary for these algae to appear. First is stable, slow-moving water. That's why it is primarily found in inland lakes and ponds.

Second are nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, which are generally in plentiful supply in the dirt and composting plantlife around a lake.

The last two components are high temperatures and high-intensity light, such as sunlight. A sunny day with temperatures above 75 degrees is perfect for growth.


What does it look like?

Human hand polluted with blue-green algae marvod / Getty Images

The algae are easy to spot. Look for any concentration of what appears to be pea-green paint. Some algae blooms will be blue, red, or brown. Keep in mind they can be in a large or small area. Dead fish are also a sign algae is present.

The water's surface can also have foam or scum floating on the algae bloom.

One other thing: you'll probably smell it, as well. These blooms stink.


How is it ingested?

Dog with Tennis Ball at Beach MichalRenee / Getty Images

Dogs love to play in the water, which naturally leads to taking in lake water. If they like to play fetch, they will ingest even more water chasing down a tennis ball, stick, or toy. Dogs have smaller bodies, so a small amount of water can be deadly.

Dogs aren't safe once they are out of the water; the bacteria will cling to their fur and can be ingested when licked off by your pet.


What are the symptoms of ingestion?

dog drooling Wavetop / Getty Images

The obvious signs of blue-green algae infection are twitching, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, and overall weakness. Other signs to look for include breathing difficulties, drooling, and disorientation.

One thing making this a terrible infection is that it can show up in your dog within a few minutes, or it can take days for the bacteria to take hold.


What should I do if I think my dog has been exposed?

person helping dog take a shower O_Lypa / Getty Images

The first thing you should do is thoroughly wash your dog off with clean water. You'll want to get the bacteria off of his fur to prevent further ingestion. This is something to do if you have any suspicion that bacteria are in the water.

Then immediately contact your vet and consult with an animal poison control center. Not all vets have experience with blue-green algae poisoning.


How can I avoid the bacteria?

man putting leash on his dog in the garden whitebalance.oatt / Getty Images

Keep your dog on a leash around the water until you look for signs of blue-green algae. Remember, you are looking for pea-green water or water that has foam floating on top or appears oily. Provide your dog with fresh drinking water.

Look at the shore around the lake, as well. Winds can blow the foam or the algae onto land where it will dry but remain a deadly threat.


Can blue-green algae harm humans?

Child hand and blue-green algae. marvod / Getty Images

Yes, if you ingest enough water. Because our bodies are much larger than dogs, it will take a lot more bacteria to make us ill. High concentrations of cyanobacteria will cause stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea.

Even if you don't ingest the water, contact with the bacteria can result in a rash.


Be alert around water with your dog!

dog playing fetch at the lake markdanielwilson / Getty Images

The first cases of blue-green algae poisoning occurred in the 1920s, so this threat has been known for over a century. It remains a killer because of a general lack of awareness in the general public.

The key to safety is prevention and knowing what to look for when your pet is near water. Check the water and the shore of any lake to help ensure your dog's health.



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