Blue Green Algae in the Pacific Northwest

Blue-green algae (BGA) blooms are a phenomenon that has been on the rise here in the Pacific Northwest over the last few decades. Blue-green algae is actually a type of bacteria known as cyanobacteria (“cyano” = blue-green) which, under the right conditions, can bloom and take over a lake, pond, river, stream or estuary. The conditions needed for this to happen involve proper temperatures, amounts of sunlight, and the correct types and amounts of certain nutrients, most notably phosphorus. Most blooms occur in either the summer or fall, but can happen any time of the year.

BGA blooms are important to pet owners in our area because any animal (dog, cat, cow, human, waterfowl, horse, etc.) that drinks water contaminated with significant enough levels of BGA can become critically ill. Many animals suffering from BGA poisoning will die. The cyanobacteria is so harmful because it secretes nerve toxins (neurotoxins) and liver toxins (hepatotoxins) that cause, among other things, brain damage and irreversible liver damage. Additionally, it secretes toxins that can affect the skin as well as the stomach and intestines.

A blue-green algae bloom on Peltier Lake, near Lino Lakes, Minn. (Image Credit: MPR News)

Recognizing Blue-Green Algae Blooms

So, how do you recognize bodies of water that should be avoided by you and your pets? Signs of a toxic bloom include:

  • Dead fish, waterfowl or other animals in the water or on the shoreline.
  • A normally clear lake or pond can become cloudy with algae in a period of days.
  • A greenish, brownish, reddish or bluish layer of organic material (a film or a scum) floating on the water surface, especially in notable amounts and most often thickest (even up to a couple of inches thick!) at the shoreline.
  • Most common in summer or fall but can occur any time of year under the right conditions.
  • If areas of your skin that has come into contact with the water get a rash.

Not all blooms are toxic, but if you see any of these changes in a body of water, it is recommended you and your pets avoid contact with the water.

Signs of Blue-Green Algae Poisoning in Your Pet

If your pet exhibits any of the following signs within 15 minutes out to 72 hours after exposure to a suspicious body of water (especially if you also notice algae on its mouth or fur), please contact Orchard Hills Animal Hospital or the local emergency clinic immediately.

  • Weakness
  • Staggering
  • Convulsions
  • Abdominal pain (hunching, painful to the touch, unwillingness to jump up or stand on hind legs)
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

Treatment for Blue-Green Algae Poisoning

Unfortunately, there is no deliberate treatment for BGA and its toxins. Treatments provided in the veterinary hospital focus on supportive care. These include IV fluids, anti-diarrheals, anti-convulsants, antibiotics to fight secondary infections, liver support drugs, etc. Exposed pets can survive the poisoning, but many die, so it is best to simply prevent exposure.

If you are worried a body of water in your area has a BGA bloom, please contact the local health department. In our area this is Clark County Public Health (Phone: 360.397.8000)