Should I be concerned about my dog swimming in a pond with algae?

There has been quite a bit of press coverage in the past week about blue-green algae toxicity and dogs. Predictably, social media has taken the story and created all out panic in some circles. Our practice has been receiving calls and e-mails all week on the topic.

Cyanobacteria are a group of algae species that produce very potent toxins. If an animal drinks even small volumes of the toxin, it can lead to sudden, severe illness and/or death. It is scary stuff, but it is not new—or common. It is also important to note that most algae is not cyanobacteria. Although I learned about cyanobacterial toxicosis in veterinary school, I have not diagnosed a single case in my 20-year career.

Algae blooms happen in warm water, typically with little natural flow or mixing. Think of a stagnant pond or marsh in the late summer. The blue-green algae makes a slime that is almost paint-like. Most people would look at it and instinctively know not to let their pets drink it or swim in it. Green or bluish green blooms are more likely to contain toxins than brown or red blooms. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, “Poisoning usually does not occur unless there is a heavy waterbloom that forms a dense surface scum.”

However, the applicable rule of thumb is still “WHEN IN DOUBT, STAY OUT!”

The Virginia Department of health advises:

· “Do not allow children or pets to drink from natural bodies of water.

· Keep children and pets out of the areas experiencing a harmful algae bloom and quickly wash them off with plenty of fresh, clean water after coming into contact with algae scum or bloom water.

· If you or your animals experience symptoms after swimming in or near an algal bloom, seek medical/veterinarian care.

· To ensure fish fillets are safe to eat, properly clean fish by removing skin and discarding all internal organs, and cooking fish to the proper temperature.

· If you suspect you experienced health-related effects following exposure to a bloom, contact the Virginia Harmful Algal Bloom Hotline at 1-888-238-6154.

· To learn more about harmful algae blooms or to report an algae bloom or fish kill visit www.SwimHealthyVA.com.”

Believe it or not, there is a Virginia Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force, which includes the Virginia Department of Health, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and Old Dominion University’s phytoplankton lab. The swimhealthyVA.com website includes links to known algae blooms as determined by the task force.

I do not recommend excessive panic over this. Again, this is really nothing new. It is just better publicized.

At the same time, awareness of the issue could help save a life. It is wise to keep your pets out of stagnant water, especially when there is a thick overgrowth of a green or bluish-green algae.

If your dog gets access to such a water source, rinse him with fresh water as quickly as possible. If you notice any signs of illness afterward, go to the closest veterinarian immediately.

Dr. Watts is a companion animal general practitioner and owner of Clevengers Corner Veterinary Care. He can be reached at 540/428-1000.

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