It's finally warming up in the Midwest and with that the concern for algae blooms in lakes and streams is increasing. While I don't want to cause undo alarm since toxic algae blooms are fairly rare, I do want to make people aware that a potential threat for your pet can be in your backyard.
What causes algae to be toxic?
Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, can reproduce rapidly in lakes and streams when they are exposed to the right temperature, sunlight, and nutrients. A lake can go from clear to green in a matter of days when exposed to the right conditions. Algae tends to form in warm, shallow, undisturbed water with lots of sunlight.
Most algae are non-toxic, but some can produce toxins that can make pets seriously ill and lead to death. The two most common types are toxins are neurotoxins and hepatotoxins. Neurotoxins are quick acting toxins (within 15-30 minutes of exposure) that attack the nervous system and can cause muscle cramping, twitching, paralysis, and cardiac arrest in dogs. Hepatotoxins typically take longer to act and symptoms may not show up until a couple weeks after exposure. These damage the liver and can cause nausea, vomiting, and sudden liver failure.
How do I to tell if algae is toxic?
Toxic and non-toxic algae can look very similar and may only be discernible using a microscope in some situations. That being said, if algae is filamentous it is unlikely to be toxic. Filamentous algae will cling to a stick if it is run through the algae. If the algae is non-filamentous than it has the potential to be toxic. This type of algae will look like blue, green, or even red or brown paint is spilled in the water. Multiple types of algae can grow in the same lake, so don't assume that the algae is safe even if one area is filamentous.
If you suspect that a lake or stream near you has toxic algae, contact your local environmental health section of your health department for them to come test the water.
What if I suspect there is toxic algae near me?
If you are suspicious that there is toxic algae near you, then treat it as toxic until proven otherwise. Keep pets away from the lake and do not allow them to swim or drink from the water under any circumstances. Also, keep any humans (adult or children) away from the water as the toxins can also affect people causing skin rashes to serious sickness if ingested.
If you have concerns about algae blooms in Illinois, contact the Surface Water Section of the Illinois EPA at 217-782-3362.
If your pet is exposed to toxic algae, treat it as an emergency and have them evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible.