The Dog Days of the Summer of 2019 will be remembered as dark days by a Wilmington, North Carolina woman who loved her dogs.
Her three pets are dead after a summer outing where they were exposed to water with what the Environmental Protection Agency calls HABs, short for Harmful Algal Blooms. In lay terms, it’s called blue-green algae — and it’s toxic.
News outlets reported that when Melissa Martin of Wilmington took her two west highland white terriers and another dog to swim in a pond last Thursday they began seizing after returning home. She took the dogs to an animal emergency room but they died early Friday.
Reports of the incident spread on social media, and Martin said she plans to contact people to ensure warning signs are posted at the pond, according to The Associated Press.
Other media reports of blue-algae-related animal deaths came from Georgia and Texas. Spokespersons for Tennessee’s environmental and health departments said they had not been informed of any similar pet deaths in this state.
Blount County perspective
Dr. Mark Hall, owner Blount Veterinary Clinic on East Broadway in Maryville, is familiar with blue-green algae. As a veterinarian, he was taught about it in school because it can make livestock sick. He doesn’t recall seeing it in Blount County’s natural waters, largely because of the hilly terrain. It’s more commonly found in flat lands. Technically, it’s not even algae in the modern sense of the word.
“It’s called cyanobacteria. It’s a misnomer they called it an algae, but it’s actually a bacteria that normally produces oxygen, actually a very beneficial bacteria,” Hall said Tuesday. But not under certain conditions.
“When we get these blooms in the summer, in the heat, in standing water, these cyanobacteria can produce toxins.”
A toxin that appears as an eerie looking blue-green scum on the surface of the water.
“The pine pollen in spring can be kind of disconcerting, but it’s not the same thing,” he said. “You get these algae blooms and they start producing these neurotoxins and animals get in there, or humans get in there, and it makes them sick to their stomach and can cause neurological problems. Be aware if you see water with this weird blue-green algae floating on the surface. It’s pretty distinctive when you see it.”
Hall has seen it on farm ponds in late summer when it gets hot, typically in flat areas like in the Midwest where there are more cattle and stock ponds.
“They teach us in veterinary medicine that it becomes an issue when these stagnant stock ponds — where the oxygen level is low and they’re been sitting in the heat and these bacteria will take off and you see this blue-green — you need to keep the livestock away from it because it will damage them by producing neurotoxin.”
Possible, but not likely
Hall expects never to see blue-algae in the Tennessee River because even in areas where the river is slow-moving, the water is not stagnant and always getting some oxygenation.
“In farm ponds, where it’s dry, you don’t have any of that. So there’s no aeration and they use up the oxygen in the water.”
In contrast, Hall said trout live in mountain streams where the water is constantly tumbling and being oxygenated, conditions that make it impossible for blue-algae to form.
“In Little River there’s too much motion. It’s going to get oxygenated so you’re not going to see it.”
On the other hand, even in East Tennessee, with the right weather conditions and terrain and with cyanobacteria existing virtually everywhere, blue-green algae could theoretically could grow in Blount County.
“It’s certainly a possibility — more for people who have a lot of land and stock ponds,” Hall said. “It’s one of those things you kind of need to be aware of but not paranoid about it.”