Toxic algae has killed dogs across the U.S. this summer. Now California is on alert

Toxic, blue-green algae blooms that poisoned dogs across the country this summer with deadly results have California water officials on alert for the dangerous bacteria.

The bacteria are blamed for the deaths of three dogs after a swim in a Wilmington, N.C., pond that contained the algae beds, reported Raleigh-Durham television station WTVD-TV on Monday. The North Carolina dogs began having seizures at home and were dead within hours, according to the report. Another three dogs in Austin, Texas perished after swimming in a lake there earlier this month, city officials said.

California Water Boards scientists took to Twitter to issue a danger advisory for harmful algal blooms at San Luis Reservoir in Merced County on Friday.

“That’s our highest level,” state water officials said in a tweet. “It means no water contact of any kind. Please stay safe!”

The advisory remained in effect Tuesday, officals said.

Warning signs have also been posted at San Jose’s Lake Almaden after blue-green algae was discovered there, NBC Bay Area reported on Monday. The message was clear: Keep pets away from the water.

Not every algal bloom is toxic, said Keith Bouma-Gregson, a program manager at the State Water Resources Control Board. Bouma monitors freshwater harmful algal blooms like the ones found last week at San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos.

The algae are found naturally in water. The algae bloom when the bacteria start to quickly multiply in warm, slow moving water, usually in late summer or early fall. Stagnant ponds and lakes with fertilizer or septic runoff are a sure breeding ground, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The blooms can resemble scum, foam or mats.

“Temperature, nutrients and slow flowing water – that’s the trifecta,” Bouma said.

But cyanobacteria harmful algal blooms wreak havoc on animals and people by manufacturing cyanotoxins – among the most potent poisons known to nature, according to the CDC: Neurotoxins that attack the nervous system; liver toxins that can cause organ failure; and other toxins that cause vomiting, seizures or death.

Dogs drink the algae-affected water or lick the slime from their coats, introducing the toxins directly into their systems.

The effects on canines are sudden, the symptoms many and severe. It can take hours or even minutes for the toxins to take hold, Bouma said.

The symptoms include loss of appetite, loss of energy, vomiting, stumbling and falling, foaming at the mouth, diarrhea, convulsions, excessive drooling, tremors and seizures, says the CDC.

And with temperatures expected to top 100 degrees this week, the hazardous bacteria have ideal conditions in which to thrive.

California officials have also reported blooms as far north as the Klamath River near the Oregon state line and south in San Diego County.

“It’s a statewide phenomenon,” Bouma said.

And a dangerous one.

In 2017, 18 cyanotoxin-related dog deaths were reported in California, according to the California Water Quality Monitoring Council.

California Department of Public Health officials reported 19 cases linked to harmful algae blooms in 2018 involving humans, dogs, fish and wildlife. None were believed to be fatal.

But state and federal health officials share the same advice: Avoid areas where cyanobacteria bloom, and wash yourself and your pet with fresh water if you come in contact with a bloom.

Call a veterinarian or doctor if you or your pet swallow water from an algae bloom.

Be sure to alert medical professionals to the possible contact with blue-green algae. Also, make sure to contact the local county public health department.

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Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.