Who doesn’t love watching their dog go for a joyous dip in a lake or pond on a hot summer day? You’re out on an afternoon hike, enjoying the beautiful summer weather but also cautious of your four-legged friend's comfort in the scorching sun. That coat of fur must be like wearing a wool sweater, right? So, of course, you can understand your pup’s excitement about cooling off. If it weren’t for your inhibitions, you might join in yourself, right?
However, if that body of freshwater is noticeably green (or blue-green), you shouldn’t be so quick to let your pup dive in. According to some vets, we should all avoid letting our dogs swim in lakes and ponds for the remainder of the summer.
The notice comes following the deaths of three dogs in Austin, Texas, after swimming in Lady Bird Lake. Stillwater bacteria are very common during the summer months in places like lagoons, lakes, ponds, and even large pools. They can often be dangerous to both people and dogs, but according to animal experts, they often pose a larger threat to our furry friends simply because they don’t know not to drink potentially contaminated water. Even in the particular case of the recent blue-green algae deaths, it can make humans sick at worst but is deadly for dogs.
“Cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae) are microscopic bacteria found in freshwater lakes, streams, ponds and brackish water ecosystems,” explains the Pet Poison Helpline on its website. “They can produce toxins (such as microcystins and anatoxins) that affect people, livestock and pets that swim in and drink from the algae-contaminated water.”
“While most blue-green algae blooms do not produce toxins, it is not possible to determine the presence of toxins without testing,” the helpline adds. “Thus, all blooms should be considered potentially toxic. Very small exposures, such a few mouthfuls of algae-contaminated water, may result in fatal poisoning.”
“The most sensitive individuals to algal toxin poisoning are those that ingest cyanobacteria when they are in the water. Many times, those individuals are dogs, since they are entering and exiting algal blooms at shorelines. It is a good idea to keep pets out of the water when cyanobacteria may be present.”
Officials in Austin have posted signs warning people to keep their dogs out of Lady Bird Lake, vets are still warning pet owners to be wary of any still bodies of water in the area. And the recent news is just one part of a trend through different parts of the nation. Three dogs died after swimming in a pond in Wilmington, North Carolina earlier this summer as well as another incident reported in Marietta, Georgia. There are also reports that the same algae have been found in New Jersey Lakes. So naturally, this warning should be cause for all dog owners to be especially cautious about letting their dogs play in potentially contaminated water anywhere.
So how do Cyanobacteria affect dogs on such a deadly level? For one, the symptoms of infection come on quickly, causing an inability to stand, vomiting, and a loss of balance very soon after exposure. That’s just a shortlist of the most notable symptoms that take place the fastest in severe cases.
According to the Pet Poison Helpline, the most common signs of blue-green algae poisoning of both cats and dogs includes:
- Blood in stool or black, tarry stool
- Pale mucous membranes
- Excessive secretions (e.g., salivation, lacrimation, etc.)
- Neurologic signs (including muscle tremors, muscle rigidity, paralysis, etc.)
- Blue discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes
- Difficulty breathing
The algae come into contact with livestock, people, and our pets easily because the blue-green film it forms on the surface of the water is easily moved toward the shore by the wind. The thick, concentrated mats of algae aren’t always toxic, which makes it difficult to know exactly when these areas should be avoided, according to the Pet Poison Helpline. All warnings point out that it’s impossible to know when an algae bloom is toxic without testing it, so pet owners are advised to treat them all as such during these warm summer months. Worst of all, there is no known antidote for the toxins produced by blue-green algae; another of the many reasons to exercise as much caution as possible and know immediate veterinary care is imperative if your pet has been exposed.
“The clinical signs of poisoning depend on which toxin is involved,” writes VCA hospitals. “Microcystins affect the liver and anatoxins target the nervous system. Microcystins can severely damage the liver causing organ failure. Many body systems depend on a functioning liver so a broad list of symptoms arise when the liver fails to do its’ job. For example, the gastrointestinal tract is affected resulting in vomiting, diarrhea, and tarry stool. When the liver fails, the animal becomes jaundiced, blood sugar and protein levels drop, and bleeding occurs. The liver filters toxins and metabolic by-products from the body. Failure to do so results in a build-up of toxins that cause neurologic signs such as disorientation and seizures. The animal may develop symptoms of shock or become comatose. As the liver continues to fail and liver enzymes rise, death is imminent within days; however, some fatalities occur within 12-24 hours of algae ingestion.”
Exposure to anatoxins is even bleaker, according to the organization. Signs of poisoning will appear even quicker - within the hour and as fast as 30 minutes - and target the nervous system. However, in the most extreme cases, death can occur within minutes of exposure. Animals will produce excess saliva and tears, they can have muscle tremors, and their skin may even take on a blue-ish tint (something you won’t notice under that fur, of course) thanks to the decrease in oxygen circulation.
So to make a long story short, be safe out there this summer.