A DEADLY BLOOM (Musings about Algae Blooms and Dogs)

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Tessi and I often head to one of our local beaches for our walks. We are blessed with several in our region, as Lake Erie hugs the span of countryside south of us. I love the waves. I’m awed by their height gained on blustery days, though I find the windy tumult on an open shore too fierce at times; rolling waves from lighter breezes are more enjoyable. The cadence of gentle waves lapping to shore on a tranquil, quiet day is my preferred type.

The ambiance calms my soul and fills me with inner peace. Tessi finds her joy in sniffing through the bushes tucked along the bottom of the bluffs stretching along most of the shoreline.

Neither of us is interested in swimming, but Tessi always steps into the water for a drink. (I watch with amusement at her efforts to lap up refreshment in the undulating movement on the breezier days.)

The hazards I mostly have to watch out for are scattered broken glass pieces or occasional abandoned KFC® chicken bones. This past summer, however, we could have suffered worse.

Warning Notices

Sections of the shoreline are secluded and conveniently unofficial with no signs to dictate anything, including whether or not to leash dogs. We usually roam on those. One day, however, I decided to head over to the public beach in nearby Erieau. (Dogs are supposed to be tethered, but owners tend to free them when no one is about.)

Upon our arrival, I noticed signs stating advisories to stay out of the water because of algae. I wasn’t concerned; I intended on sticking to our customary walk. As we started wandering Tessi entered the clear-looking water, lapped up a few sips—less than usual though—and then we moved on. I judged the advisories to pertain to us humans and figured a canine’s stomach, especially Tessi’s iron gut, would make the warning inconsequential to her. She’s a fussy water drinker, anyway, and will avoid some sources. She definitely ignores any overlaid with scum. I often wonder if she senses what isn’t palatable.

It wasn’t until after we returned home, I happened to read a warning on my vet’s Facebook page: “Please be aware of the impact bacteria at the beach can have on our canine companions too!!! Stay away during closures!!!!”

A call to the office suggested Tessi would likely be fine, but to keep an eye on her. Upon further investigation, I learned the algae bloom was already clearing. Maybe Tessi stopped after a few sips because she suspected its foulness. I did monitor her over the next few hours and for a few days. She remained her normal, vibrant self.


Blue-green algae, also know as Cyanobacteria, are naturally present in water, but are usually in scarce amounts and not an issue. The concern comes when it multiplies into a blue-green spread (and in other colours, too). When ingested, dogs and people get sick in a number of ways, including diarrhea and vomiting, from the toxins the algae produces. They can damage the liver or nervous system enough to be fatal.

A dog exposes himself to the toxins by:

  • Drinking tainted water.
  • Ingesting some while playing fetch.
  • Licking the tainted water off his fur after being in it.
  • Absorbing them through open wounds on his skin.
  • Inhaling the airborne particles.

There’s no antidote or cure. The sooner a dog is taken to the vet, the faster he can be treated. (Activated charcoal absorbs the toxins if quickly administered.)

Not all blue-green blooms contain deadly toxins and it does take a fair amount of exposure to the ones that do to cause problems.

Blue-algae blooms also develop in ponds and other still or slow-moving bodies of water. And be aware that the spread can sit at varying depths; its presence may not be so apparent.

Too Much Phosphorus

What is causing these blooms? Phosphorus is the leading culprit of a few factors. It seems the chemical substance comes from the run-off of field fertilizers and is feeding the algae. Until they solve this yet another problem of human intrusion, Tessi and I, along with our fellow beach-loving dog walkers will have to avoid the lake during future summer heat waves, when the algae is at its worst.

Lesson Learned

I’ve always known an animal’s gut handles so much more than our human ones. I too often take that for granted figuring Tessi’s will protect her from the majority of what she may ingest. Though I thought I knew her digestive enemies—rat poison, grapes and chocolate, for example—this algae growth reminded me that she is vulnerable to more. I’m thankful we didn’t end up paying a tragic price.

For More Info

To note: There are parasites and other bacteria, which dogs can become infected with, that aren’t as obvious. Vaccines are available for some of them. I discuss some of them briefly in my Canoeing with Dogs article.

(c) Cheryl Smyth, 2014


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