EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a guest post by wilderness dog expert Gavin Ehringer who gives advice to dog owners wanting to avoid potentially debilitating or fatal water caused by an abundance of algae.
Many pet owners are alarmed by recent news reports of dog deaths caused by blue-green algae. However, understanding the risk will help keep your pet safe.
Blue-green algae, which occur naturally in both seawater and fresh water, consist of many species. Some produce toxins which, if ingested, can be lethal.
There are two types of toxins: hepatoxins and neurotoxins. Hepatotoxins cause weakness, anorexia and liver damage. They can be lethal within minutes to a few days. Neurotoxins can cause twitching, muscle contraction, convulsions and death.
Gavin Ehringer’s Aussie adventure dog, Onda.
Most deaths or illness occur during times of algae blooms, when toxin levels soar and oxygen in the water becomes depleted.
Blooms happen when water environments provide optimal conditions for algae – usually, this means when the water has been still or stagnant, there is an abundance of nutrient salts, and lots of sun for photosynthesis.
For the most part, algal blooms are associated with lakes, ponds, swamps, livestock tanks – anyplace where there is not a lot of water exchange. Fast-moving streams and rivers are not environments conducive to algal blooms.
Algal blooms may appear throughout the water, typically causing the water body to turn green. They may cover the water in a thick, green mat. But they can also lurk well below the surface of the water making them harder to detect.
When dogs drink water that doesn’t come from the tap, there’s always risk.
But water is heavy to carry. For most backwoods travelers, it’s unrealistic to carry enough water for extended trips. And besides, dogs will drink water from most sources when given the chance.
My best advice is, keep your dog hydrated so it doesn’t become overly thirsty. Use your own water supply, or water you’ve filtered from its source.
It helps to keep your dog leashed. If you prefer to sometimes let your dog off leash during hikes, pack trips or in camp, train it to always come when called and to walk behind you. This way, you can control its access to water, and check out the source before giving Rover a chance to drink.
Streams and rivers seldom present this type of risk. So, letting dogs play or cool off in rapidly moving water shouldn’t cause concern.
On the other hand, lakes ponds and livestock tanks often experience algal blooms, especially in mid to late summer.
A good rule of thumb is, don’t let your dog into water where you can see green mats on the surface or that is green in appearance. Also, avoid stagnant water after there’s been a long period of sunny days, if the water is murky, or you can detect an “off” smell to the water.
If your dog appears sick after drinking from a water source, you obviously want to get the dog to a veterinarian as quickly as possible.
Gavin Ehringer owns Ohana Canine Training. He worked as a backcountry guide and takes his dogs everywhere in the wild. Recently, he authored the book Leaving the Wild: The Unnatural History of Dogs, Cats, Cows and Horses, available in bookstores and Amazon.