No sooner had I decided to visit the Carolina Coast than my plans were quashed. The reason: There was blue-green algae in the water, a telltale sign that harmful toxins could be lurking. State warnings that many bodies of water are unsafe—which began in June and remain in effect during the summer months—have come after a rash of dog deaths from exposure to the toxic slime. So far, three pups in North Carolina and another in Georgia died after swimming in water tainted with the powerful toxin. These pets died in the same region, but toxic algae can be found all over the United States, so dog owners everywhere need to be on the lookout.
Many pet parents don’t realize the severity of the threat these toxins pose to animals, and it’s easy to overlook, but the threat is real, and currently a major health risk. While the sight and smell of algae offends humans, animals sometimes lap up the water, gulp down floating bits of algae or fall fatally ill after licking their wet fur after a swim.
Strangely enough, blue-green algae is not algae at all, but a cyanobacteria that produce toxins that can potentially be fatal for pets and people. This type of bacteria thrives in warm, nutrient-rich water during sunny weather. Blooms usually occur in summer and early fall, but can develop other times of the year, if conditions are right.
What does it look like? Sometimes it resembles a green scum on the water’s surface, but it can take on the appearance of pea soup or spilled green paint. Blooms are often stinky, producing a downright nauseating smell. If you spot—or smell—bright green scum, leave the area and don’t let your dog or family drink or swim in the water.
Dogs are especially susceptible to harmful algae because they swallow water while they swim, often retrieving balls from the water. They are also less deterred by green, smelly water because, hey, dogs like stinky smells. Even dogs that avoid water may be in danger. Many pups like to scavenge the shore where they might find and then eat drying algae clumps.
If blue-green algae is ingested, it can cause severe health problems which could lead to death in hours … sometimes even in minutes. Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, weakness or staggering, drooling, difficulty breathing and convulsions or seizures. If your dog begins to exhibit any of these symptoms, contact your veterinarian immediately.
It’s almost impossible to predict which blooms are toxic and which are not—and dogs can’t tell if the water is safe. When in doubt, stay out. Keeping your dog—and yourself—far away from water that’s intensely green on the surface or around the edges is the safest thing you can do. If your dog has accidentally come in contact with the harmful bloom, bathe them immediately with fresh, clean water.
When the weather cools and sunlight is less intense, the blooms will subside, and the bacteria will revert to an invisible form, no longer toxic. Until then, however, it’s a good idea to check with local park & rec departments for the algae status of nearby lakes and ponds before planning outings with your dog—and always carry enough fresh water for the both of you.