When in Doubt, Stay Out! Blue Green Algae Intoxication in Pets

Summertime is a great time to spend frolicking in the water. With the hot sunny days, there has been a recent spike of blue-green algae intoxication in pets with some even leading to death. We want you to have information to help protect you and your pet.

What is Cyanobacteria?

Algae occurs naturally in the water. The blue-green variety, which has been in the news recently, is considered to be one of several Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs). Blue-green algae is a group of bacteria that is also known as cyanobacteria. It is a bacteria present in fresh and marine bodies of water across North America. The toxic algae can also grow in decorative ponds and backyard pools. In the right environmental conditions, the cyanobacteria can reproduce rapidly to form a cyanobacterial bloom, which can produce toxins.

The HABs feed off the sun to make their own energy and release oxygen. Some species produce potent toxins that can sicken or even kill people, pets (cats and dogs), birds, livestock, fish, and wildlife according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.  The harmful algal blooms have been seen in all 50 states. Spikes of these blooms are usually seen in summer and fall but can be seen all year round.

What does the Cyanobacterial Algae Bloom look like?

The Cyanobacterial Algae Blooms can form on top of or below the water's surface. They can also be found along the bottom of the body of water. HABs that form near the surface can look like spilled paint, foam, scum, or floating clumps or mats. The blooms can be blue, vibrant green, brown or red. There can be a very pungent odor (which can attract some animals).

Symptoms of Intoxication in Animals

Animals (cats, dogs, wildlife, livestock) can develop poisoning when they drink from, come in contact with, or swim in contaminated water sources. Dry clumps of algae can be found on the shore, which dogs/animals can eat or contact when they lick their fur. If the cyanobacteria algae is ingested, it can cause severe neurologic or liver damage.

Symptoms can be seen within 15 minutes or up to several days after exposure. Symptoms can include: vomiting, diarrhea, excessive drooling, respiratory difficulties or failure, weakness, staggering, disorientation, convulsions, seizures, liver failure, and death.

If your dog begins to experience any of these symptoms, you should contact your veterinarian immediately.

Symptoms of Intoxication in Humans

Contact with toxic algae can cause skin irritation, stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.

Foods like fish and shellfish that are contaminated by HABs can cause a variety of symptoms from gastrointestinal upset to tingling or numbness in the face or limbs, headaches, dizziness, loss of coordination and some rare cases paralysis and respiratory failure.

How to Stay Safe? When in Doubt, Stay Out

Look for Cyanobacterial Blooms and avoid any water that looks murky, dirty, smelly and/or has an odd color. Look for dead fish or wildlife around the water. Do not allow your pet to drink from stagnant bodies of water with a blue-green tint.  Rinse your pet off if they come in contact with water sources of concern or algae clumps to prevent licking toxic algae off their fur. Look for and obey public health department signs.

Important Resources:

To Report a Suspected Cyanobacterial Bloom:  Asheville Regional Office of NC Division of Water Resources: 828-296-4500

NCDWR Algal Bloom Map: The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality periodically updates a map of the state where algae blooms have been reported

Testing of Cyanobacteria/Cyanotoxins 

Click Here for More Information on Harmful Algal Blooms

(sources; CDC, APSCA, NC DEQ, EPA)

Photo credit: "2009_07_23_DSC05537 1h" by Gwydion M. Williams is licensed under CC BY 2.0