Alabama is known for its hot summers, and pet owners who allow their dogs to play in the water to cool down may be putting them at unknown risk.
Algal blooms in lakes and other bodies of water are not unusual, but lately there has been a lot of discussion surrounding pet deaths due to the blooms or algae.
On Aug. 8, a woman in North Carolina took her three dogs to cool off in some water and ended up with the loss of all three of her pets. Since the tragedy, many other pet owners have become increasingly aware of the danger.
“(Harmful algal blooms) can occur in warm fresh, marine, or brackish waters with abundant nutrients and are becoming more frequent with climate change,” said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on its website.
Good and bad
Not all algae are bad though, said Alan Wilson, professor in the school of fisheries, aquaculture and aquatic sciences at Auburn University.
In fact, many types of algae actually are good for the environment and help produce oxygen, Wilson said. However, despite these types of good algae, there are also the dangerous ones.
“We define that, at some level, as if they produce, we call them toxins, but secondary metabolites is actually what they are,” Wilson said. “We don’t really know what the functions are, but if you inject these things in mice, they’ll kill them, and they can kill them pretty rapidly.”
He added that to officially find out if water is tainted by algal blooms that would pose a danger, the curious pet owner or owner of the body of water would need to test a sample.
Wilson said it is easy to do, however, and doesn’t require a lot of training. The sample would just need to be placed under a microscope and checked to see if the algae are present, he said.
Wilson spends time in his lab doing just that, checking local green ponds/bodies of water or samples that people bring to him.
“So what I usually do is, I tell people if they’re worried, get some water, look at the water; if you don’t see the bad algae, ’cause there’s maybe two handfuls of algae that you would probably really be worried about, and if you don’t see those in there, then it’s not something to worry about,” he said.
If the algae is detected, it might not be producing the bad compounds, he said, but it could be. For community members just looking to let their dogs cool off, Wilson recommends using common sense.
If the water doesn’t look right, has a scum along the top or is green when it shouldn’t be, perhaps don’t let dogs play in it. The danger of the algae is they’re often poisonous when ingested.
“So the toxins are produced in the cells of these algae and then some of the algae will release them as they’re growing, some release it when they’re dead,” he said.
Wilson said one of the more common way this occurs is when dogs get in the water and then lick their fur afterward.
“You got all this algae in the fur, and it’s really super-concentrated, so it’s like an obvious mechanism to get really dense amounts of algae inside the animal,” he said.
Lake Martin OK
In terms of the bigger, more popular bodies of water, Wilson said he is not concerned about Lake Martin. One problem with posting signs that say whether the water in an area is safe or unsafe, he said, is that the situation can change so quickly.
“These phytoplankton communities can shift, and so you can have maybe today it’s not bad, but an hour after you sample it, it could be bad,” Wilson said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published some tips for dog owners to not only avoid algal blooms, but what to do in the event a dog has come into contact with the harmful water.
“Rinse him or her off immediately,” epa.gov said. “Wear gloves to protect yourself and give your dog a thorough rinse in clean, fresh water.”
It also recommends reporting the bloom. Unfortunately, Alabama was one of four states on the site that did not have any resources available.
“I think it’s great for people to be aware, to be thinking about this stuff,” Wilson said.