What pet owners should know about toxic algae blooms: 'Dogs can die within minutes'

Rachel Grumman Bender
Beauty and Style Editor

It’s a pet owner’s worst nightmare. What should have been a relaxing evening at the lake for one North Carolina couple led to the loss of all three of their beloved dogs.

Melissa Martin and Denise Mintz took their dogs to a neighborhood pond in Wilmington, N.C., on Thursday. Shortly after they left, one of their dogs, a Westie Highland white terrier named Abby, suddenly began to have a seizure. Martin rushed the dog to an emergency animal hospital. Then the couple’s other two dogs, another Westie named Izzy and a “doodle” mix therapy dog named Harpo, started having seizures.

Within a matter of hours, all three dogs had died. “At 12:08 AM, our dogs crossed the rainbow bridge together,” Martin, who did not respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s requests for comment, wrote in a Facebook post on Friday. “They contracted blue green algae poisoning and there was nothing they could do. We are gutted. I wish I could do today over. I would give anything to have one more day with them.”

She added: “What started out as a fun night for them has ended in the biggest loss of our lives.”

In another post on Friday, Martin wrote: “The hardest thing I have ever done is hold these incredible animals and watch their lives slip away.”

So what exactly is blue-green algae poisoning?

Toxic algae blooms are an overgrowth of microscopic algae naturally found in bodies of water. They’re more likely to appear in stagnant water during warmer weather and can accumulate along the water’s edge, according to VCA Hospitals, making it easier for pets to come into contact with it by drinking it or by licking the water off of their coats.

There are different types of blue-green algae toxins, Tina Wismer, medical director of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Some cause neurologic signs while others affect the liver,” she says. “The neurologic toxins are very fast-acting and dogs can die within minutes of being exposed.”

She adds: “These animals can have drooling, vomiting, tremors and seizures before dying. The liver toxins can take a couple of hours to take effect. The toxin destroys the architecture of the liver and the pet dies from shock.”

Martin noted in another Facebook post that it’s not always obvious the water has toxic algae blooms: “If you search blue green algae, you see pictures of nasty water. That is false! The place our dogs played for their last time was crystal clear except for what appeared to be debris from foliage [which was likely toxic algae bloom]. Do not let your dogs near standing water. Our westies didn’t even get in the water but played in the mud at the edge.”

Wismer notes that the public health department tests water frequently in areas that are known to have outbreaks. “They will post signs if there is a problem,” she says. However, Martin told CNN that she did not see any warning signs near the pond where her dogs became infected. Because of that, they’re “now on a mission to put signs at every body of water that can have this deadly bacteria,” according to Martin’s Facebook post.

Despite dealing with the tragic loss of their three dogs, the couple has decided to share their story to raise awareness. A GoFundMe fundraiser, which has already surpassed its $2,000 goal, was set up to raise money for warning signs.

Martin and Mintz aren’t the only ones who have lost their dogs to blue-green algae poisoning. Just one day after the couple posted about their loss, another couple — Morgan and Patrick Fleming from Georgia — posted about their dog Arya dying suddenly from what appears to be blue-green algae poisoning after taking her to a lake.

So what can owners do to protect their pets?

Along with avoiding standing bodies of water, “never let your dog into the water without checking if there are any signs first,” Wismer says. “Members of the phylum Cyanobacteria, blue-green algae usually form on or near bodies of water during warm weather months. It is typically found in ponds and lakes, but can also be present in oceans, freshwater, damp soil, backyard fountains and even on rocks.”

If you believe your pet has been exposed, unfortunately, the prognosis is very poor. “See your veterinarian immediately, but very few animals survive after being exposed,” says Wismer.

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