At a Glance
- Six dogs were recently sickened or died in Washington state.
- Harmful algae blooms are common this time of year.
- Seek veterinary care immediately if an animal is believed to have been exposed.
A rash of dog deaths and illnesses in one state and outbreaks of toxins in several others are prompting health officials to warn humans to protect themselves and their pets from the potentially deadly dangers of contaminated water.
At least six dogs were sickened or died in the Tri-Cities area of southeastern Washington last week after being in contact with waters in the Columbia River, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. Health officials say cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, is to blame. A portion of the river's shoreline in Richland was closed as a result.
Blue-green algae outbreaks are common in late summer and early fall and have recently been reported in states from Nevada to North Carolina.
Cyanobacteria are present in water year-round, but warmer temperatures and higher nutrient levels this time of year fuel blooms that can be hazardous, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Outbreaks are especially common in stagnant water.
Officials in some parts of the western United States say low water levels due to ongoing drought are also driving blooms. Shallow water tends to be slower-moving and more susceptible to high temperatures.
On Thursday, a tweet from Lake Mead National Recreation Area warned of an outbreak there.
A 2018 study by NASA and the Carnegie Institute for Science linked an increase in the frequency of algae blooms over the past 30 years to climate change.
Cyanobacteria contain toxins that, in high concentrations like those that happen with a bloom, can sicken humans and quickly kill animals.
Dogs more often become ill because they are more likely to be exposed, but livestock and other animals are also at risk.
“An animal is more likely to drink in a green slimy puddle, or a pond, or a contaminated source than a human would,” Raelynn Farnsworth, interim director of Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Sickness and death can come quickly, so experts urge seeking emergency veterinary care if there's reason to believe a pet has been exposed to cyanobacteria.
Symptoms in dogs include excessive salivation, vomiting, fatigue, staggered walking, difficulty breathing, convulsions, liver failure and death, sometimes within hours.
Humans who come in direct contact with cyanobacteria or breathe in droplets may experience irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Anyone who swallows contaminated water may experience stomach pain, a headache, neurological symptoms such as muscle weakness or dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea or liver damage.
No human deaths caused by cyanobacteria have been reported in the U.S., according to the CDC.
The agency advises taking these steps if you think your pet or other animal has been exposed to harmful algae, cyanobacteria, or their toxins:
-Rinse the animal with tap water right away to prevent them from licking algae or cyanobacteria off its fur.
-Immediately call a veterinarian.
-Call an animal poison center.
-Report any illnesses believed to be caused by algae, cyanobacteria, or their toxins to the nearest local or state health department.
The American Kennel Club offers these tips to keep pets safe:
-Dogs should be leashed around bodies of water, especially if the water appears dirty, foamy, or has mats on the surface.
-Don’t let dogs drink out of ponds or lakes.
-Be aware the toxins aren’t always visible.
-Toxic algae often stink, but the smell doesn't necessarily deter animals.
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