Blue-Green Algae Should Make Dog Owners Wary

Found In Freshwater, Can Be Canine Killers
By RICK MELLERUP | Aug 20, 2019
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Ocean County, NJ — Dog owners beware!

If you take your pooches to freshwater lakes, ponds or slow-moving rivers so they can take a refreshing dip, you could be threatening their health and even their lives, due to a phenomenon new – at least in the public consciousness – to the Garden State: blue-green algae blooms.

No reports of the potential canine-killer have been reported in southern New Jersey this summer. Repeat, blue-green algae blooms have not been reported in Southern Ocean County. But knock on wood because blue-green algae, more accurately called cyanobacteria, has created major problems in northern New Jersey and throughout much of the country in 2019.

New Jersey’s largest lake, the four square-mile Hopatcong that forms part of the border between Sussex and Morris counties, was closed to swimming and people were advised to avoid other recreational activities in late June because of a blue-green algae bloom. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection lifted its harmful algal bloom advisory for one of the lake’s beaches in late July, for another in early August and for six more last week, but the area’s tourist/recreational economy had already suffered a major disruption.

Several other lakes in northern New Jersey were either closed or under advisories this summer due to blue-green algae blooms. An advisory, according to a DEP statement, doesn’t prohibit recreational activity but urges people to “exercise their best judgment when deciding whether to engage in the type of boating that could put them in bodily contact with the water,” things like jet-skiing or paddle boarding.

The problem has not been limited to New Jersey. Blue-green algae blooms have been reported this summer in states across the country as geographically disparate as Oregon and New Hampshire, Texas and Illinois.

Blue-green algae blooms are nothing new in many parts of the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, a 2014 national survey found that over 50 percent of the 38 responding states and the District of Columbia) reported that harmful algal blooms are present every year in some of their lakes or other freshwater bodies.

Lake Erie, for example, has been plagued with them since the late 1990s. In August 2014, high concentrations of microcystin, a liver toxin produced by cyanobacteria, were found in drinking water coming from the lake, resulting in the water supply shut down to 400,000 people in Toledo, Ohio.

So residents of Toledo are surely aware of the dangers of blue-green algae blooms. But folks in much of the rest of the country haven’t been, until now.

Dogs Bring Problem

To Public Attention

Like canaries in a coal mine, it has been a spate of dog deaths blamed on blue-green algae that has pushed cyanobacteria into headlines across the country this summer.

On July 31 a Texas woman took Fina, her three-year-old Australian shepherd, for a swim in the Guadalupe River. Within minutes after leaving the water, Fina began to vomit, was stiff-legged, and suffered two seizures. She was rushed to a vet but soon died after her diaphragm seized up.

On Aug. 3 a woman took her two-year-old golden retriever Oliver to Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas. He jumped off their kayak into the water. Soon after getting out of the lake he collapsed, and within an hour Oliver was dead.

About a week later, a couple took their border collie to Georgia’s Allatoona Lake. The woman posted a message on Facebook later that day:

“This morning we thought, it’s so hot! Let’s go to the lake! We took our sweet Arya to the lake and had the best day playing ball and swimming around! About 30 minutes later on the drive home, we noticed her making weird noises, and she threw up and pooped in the car. We called our vet on the drive and they suggested we take her in. By this point our girl couldn’t even stand... They told us she was in critical condition, so we took her to the ER. By the time we got there, she was brain dead.

Things came to a head on Aug. 12 and 13, when numerous news outlets reported that two Wilmington, North Carolina women lost three dogs to toxic poisoning within hours of swimming in a local pond the previous Thursday evening. A West Highland white terrier exhibited symptoms within 15 minutes of leaving the water; and all three died before midnight.

CDC and EPA

Knew of Problem

Blue-green algae blooms and their possibility of creating health problems for people, as well as animals, are nothing new. Most New Jersey residents may have only become aware of the problem because of the Lake Hopatcong incident and media reports of the dog deaths, but public health agencies have known about them for years.

The World Health Organization published guideline values for cyanobacteria in freshwater way back in 1999.

In the United States the CDC began developing a tracking system for harmful algal blooms in 2014 and launched it in June 2016.

“The One Health Harmful Algal Bloom System (OHHABS) is a voluntary surveillance system available to state and territorial public health departments and their designated (county or local) environmental health or animal health partners. It collects data on individual human and animal cases of illnesses from HAB-associated exposures, as well as environmental data about HABs. The goal of OHHABS is to collect information to support the understanding and prevention of HABs and HAB-associated illnesses.”

Environmental organizations were also aware of the HAB problem.

“Harmful algal blooms are a major environmental problem in all 50 states,” begins a United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website. “Red tides, blue-green algae, and cyanobacteria are examples of harmful algal blooms that can have severe impacts on human health, aquatic ecosystems, and the economy.

“Algal blooms can be toxic. Keep people and pets away from water that is green, scummy or smells bad.”

Exactly What Is

Blue-Green Algae?

Interestingly, blue-green algae – cyanobacteria – actually aren’t algae at all but rather a bacteria. We’ll have to get down into the weeds here to explain the difference.

Cyanobacteria are prokaryotes, one-cell organisms whose cells do not have a nucleus enclosed within membranes. Algae is an informal – not-scientific – term for a large, diverse group of photosynthetic eukaryotic organisms. Eukaryotic organisms, which can be single or multi-celled, have cells that do have a membrane-bound nucleus. So, according to scientific classification, cyanobacteria can’t be algae.

The confusion is caused by the fact that cyanobacteria are photosynthetic. In other words, like plants, they convert sunlight into chemical energy, which can be released to fuel its activities. Indeed, cyanobacteria are the only photosynthetic prokaryotes that, like plants, can produce oxygen.

What makes cyanobacteria dangerous is that they can produce a wide variety of toxins.

“In freshwater, such as lakes and rivers, harmful algal blooms are most commonly formed from cyanobacteria,” says a CDC website. “Because of their color, they are often called blue-green algae. Although they are called bacteria, they do not cause infections in people. Instead they can harm people by creating toxic substances that people might breathe in or accidentally eat.”

The CDC says persons can become sick from cyanobacteria-formed toxins by contact with contaminated water from recreational activities such as swimming, kayaking, fishing or wading or by drinking contaminated water. Symptoms can include skin, eye, nose or throat irritation, abdominal pain, headache, neurological symptoms, vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms may begin within hours of exposure and can last a few days. In some cases, people can also experience liver or kidney damage.

The situation for dogs, though, can be much more severe.

“In animals,” says a CDC website, “harmful algal bloom toxins can cause serious disease such as too much salivation, weakness, staggered walking, difficulty breathing, convulsions, or even death. Animals can die within hours to days of exposure...

“Animals are often the first affected because they are more likely to swim in or drink from bodies of water that contain algal blooms. Dogs are also more likely to lick algae off their fur after swimming in water with a harmful algal bloom. They may also eat fish or other creatures killed by harmful algal blooms.

“If you think your pet may be sick because of a harmful algal bloom, consult your veterinarian right away. Animals can get very sick quickly, so don’t delay contacting your veterinarian.”

What To Look For;

Worse Could Come

Chances are nobody would allow their dogs to swim in a body of freshwater with a severe blue-green algae bloom. In such instances they turn a lake’s water into something that looks very much like pea soup or green paint.

The problem is that all blue-green algae blooms aren’t blue-green.

According to a very informative Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website, “Blue-green algae are most often blue-green in color, but can also be blue, green, reddish-purple or brown.”

Another tip-off to a blue-green algae bloom is smell. Many such blooms are associated with a rotting or swampy odor.

Blue-green algae blooms typically develop in lakes, ponds, and slow-moving streams when the water is warm and enriched in nutrients like phosphorus or nitrogen. That later qualification may explain why blooms have affected the heavily populated northern part of the state while southern New Jersey has so far gone unscathed.

“When environmental conditions are just right,” reads the Wisconsin website, “blue-green algae can grow very quickly in number. Most species are buoyant and will float to the surface (pond scum). When this happens, we call this a ‘blue-green algae bloom.’ In Wisconsin, blue-green algae blooms generally occur between mid-June and late September, although in rare instances, blooms have been observed in winter, even under the ice.”

Another problem with cyanobacteria is they seem pretty smart for one-cell organisms.

“Even if you can’t see blue-green algae floating on the surface of the water, that doesn’t mean they aren’t there,” says the Wisconsin website. “Blue-green algae can be suspended at various depths in the water, and their location depends on a number of factors. The most important of these are light and nutrients. Many species of blue-green algae have evolved to be able to control their buoyancy as the availability of light and nutrients change with the time of day and local weather conditions. At night, when there is no light, cells are unable to adjust their buoyancy and often float to the surface, forming a surface scum. So this scum can literally appear overnight and may linger until wind and waves scatter the cells throughout the water body.”

This is definitely the time of year to be wary of blue-green algae blooms. Lakes and ponds, especially shallow ones, are reaching their peak temperatures and heat is an essential element of a bloom. As is the case in Wisconsin, blue-green algae blooms are most common in most states in August and September.

Even after a bloom subsides, water may remain dangerous to dogs. That’s because it is believed that cyanobacteria release their toxins when they die and sink into the water.

And don’t take your eyes off the issue in coming years. The EPA is worried harmful algal blooms of all sorts (such as red tides in the ocean, as well as those caused by blue-green algae) may become more common.

“Scientists predict that climate change will have many effects on freshwater and marine environments,” says an EPA website. “These effects, along with nutrient pollution, might cause harmful algal blooms to occur more often, in more water bodies and to be more intense.”

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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