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The dangers of blue-green algae

Living

TOXIC THREAT Dogs and other animals in Mayo have been killed by blue-green algae, a scum that forms on lakes and ponds.

The Vet's View
Conal Finnerty

Last summer, a number of dogs presented in our clinic in Ballinrobe with sudden unexplained collapse, in fact two died almost immediately upon admittance. These healthy dogs had no visible signs of illness, injury or showed no initial indication as to why they should die or present in a collapsed state.
None of the dogs survived. In fact, the ones that presented alive lived for only a short time. Obviously this was extremely distressing for all families involved, and quite perplexing from our point of view initially.
We investigated the cases and found through postmortems and detailed histories from the owners that the dogs had in fact most likely died from the toxic effects of blue-green algae. All the dogs had in fact been swimming in the hours leading up to death, in Lough Corrib and Lough Mask, in sheltered inlets where the blue-green algae has a very concentrated ‘bloom’.
Blue-green algae blooms can produce deadly toxins that can kill animals, notably cattle and dogs, who would be the most common animal to come in contact through drinking (in the case of cattle) and drinking and also licking themselves after swimming (in the case of dogs). These toxins are often fatal, and the animals that survive can be left with long-term health problems.

What to look for
Blue-green algae is a term used to describe a group of bacteria called Cyanobacteria. They are not in fact true algae, but got the name ‘blue-green algae’ from their appearance when they clump together and form a type of ‘algae’ scum on warm still water. It is commonly described as looking like a pea soup. It is most common in non-flowing fresh waters, such as that of lakes and ponds, appearing most commonly during periods of warm weather with little rainfall.
In fact, the toxins can be present even when no visible ‘bloom’ is present, so always take note of any warning signs in these areas. You may also notice some dead fish around.
Although you may be quite happy that your dog hasn’t drank from such an area, he/she may have swam in an area where the toxins are present and ingest them through licking their coat upon returning home.

What to do
If your dog shows any of the following signs after swimming in or drinking from a still area of lake or pond it is vital that you seek immediate medical attention: Vomiting, diarrhoea, seizures (fitting), weakness, collapse, unconsciousness, disorientation, confusion, breathing difficulties. There is no antidote, so early intervention is your only hope of saving your pet.
During this summer season, take care where your pet drinks and never let them drink from or swim in areas that are obviously contaminated or likely to be. Winds often blow algae blooms to the sheltered areas of lakes and ponds, so the edge where your pet is likely to drink or swim is particularly dangerous.
If your pet does swim in such an area, get them out as soon as possible and shower them thoroughly. Cats can and do fall victim to these toxins also, so watch out for similar symptoms in your feline friends.
Humans can become sick from these toxins too, especially children who may inadvertently gulp water from lakes and ponds while swimming.
Finally, please report suspected blue-green algae blooms to your local council, so that warning signs may be erected.

> Veterinarian Conal Finnerty MRCVS practises at the Skeldale Vet Clinic in Ballinrobe and Belmullet. Follow the clinic on Facebook, or call 094 9541980 or 087 9185350 to make an appointment.