PEORIA — Dog owners beware — the same toxic algae that killed Abby, Izzy and Harpo in North Carolina a few days ago can bloom in Illinois waterways.
“These organisms are microscopic. They are not like normal algae ... and they are very, very potent,” said Dr. Michael Biehl, clinical professor of toxicology at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. “If dogs get exposed to very much it is usually fatal.”
Since blue-green algae needs nitrogen runoff and hot weather to bloom, late summer is typically when it begins showing up. It’s not unusual that multiple reports of dog poisonings have recently popped up on social media. Abby, Izzy and Harpo belonged to a woman in Wilmington, N.C. They died shortly after swimming in a local pond. Algal blooms have led to multiple swimming bans along the east coast and south, and Illinois is definitely not immune.
“In today’s News Gazette on the front page there was a story about a fish kill in the Salt Fork River here,” said Biehl, who works in Urbana. “It was associated with an area of greenish water, though it’s not yet been confirmed as blue-green algae.”
Scientists have been studying toxic algae for a long time. There are actually different types — some produce toxins which attack the liver and cause massive internal bleeding, and some attack the nervous system and paralyze muscles. Toxic algae has been killing mammals in Illinois for years.
“One of the liver toxins was first discovered here (at the University of Illinois),” said Biehl. “A bunch of cattle were found dead around a pond in Decatur. We took samples and that toxin was characterized in the 1980s.”
Large doses of toxic algae kill very quickly. Biehl spoke of a documented case where a dog died and sank while swimming through an algal bloom.
“He was probably consuming it as he was swimming, so he got a pretty good dose,” said Biehl.
People can also get sick from consuming the algae, and if it touches the skin it causes a rash. If you think your dog has been exposed, go to a veterinarian immediately. Symptoms include vomiting, weakness or passing out if they ingested the algae which attacks the liver. The neurotoxin could cause them to be wobbly or become paralyzed. The effect of a small dose can sometimes be counteracted with various treatments to help to stabilize the dog.
The best course is to avoid any waterway that looks suspicious. Blue-green algae can grow in any body of freshwater that receives nitrogen runoff from a fertilized field, including farmland, a golf course, or even a well fertilized yard. Warm weather helps it bloom and develop the distinctive blue-green color, although some species can appear more brownish-red, said Biehl.
“It looks like somebody’s painted the top of the water," he said. "If you see colorful scum on the top of the water, don’t get in, and don’t let your pet get in.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.