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Russian River Toxic Algae poses Threat to Pets


Russian River Toxic Algae Poses Threat to Pets

By Dr.Michael Trapani, Bodega Bay Verinarian

You Thought it Was Safe to Go in the Water

There always seems to be a new threat to worry about: SD (severe drought), SA (space aliens), SN (sneaky terrorists), P (plague), GFFA (germs from far away), ROUS (rodents of unusual size), and SILV (surprise in-law visits). Now there’s something unexpected rearing its head right here in our own backyard. I refer, of course, to BGA.

The Blue-Green Algae I’m talking about are not the friendly Spirulina supplements found in your local health food store — although they are related. BGA are cyanobacteria, some of the most primitive and ancient life forms found on Earth. Evidence suggests they may have been present on our planet for as long as 3.5 billion years. It is speculated that the chloroplasts performing photosynthetic duties inside plant cells are derived from primitive cyanobacteria which “moved in” to become internal symbionts. Chloroplasts have their own DNA and replicate separately from the plant cells they live in. 

Blue-green algae bloomThere are many types of BGA, some are tiny one-cell organisms, others are colonial forms that aggregate as filaments or even hollow spheres. Most algae, including BGAs are harmless. They are full of nutritious bio-stuff, which makes them quite nutritious to other living things, but some species of blue-green algae produce toxins affecting the skin, liver, or nerves, and may cause disease in humans and animals.

Currently, we are having a BGA bloom in the Russian River. Matts of algae, along with invisible populations of solitary algal cells, are present in higher than usual numbers because warm river temperatures, low water flow, and high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous nutrients promote the growth of BGAs, including the toxic forms. Under current conditions it is possible to absorb dangerous levels of cyanotoxin by drinking river water or even by allowing body contact with algal matts. 

BGA poisoning can take many forms. It may manifest as eye irritation or inflammation of the nose, mouth or skin; as gastro-intestinal symptoms including abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or liver inflammation; or as neurologic abnormalities such as muscle tremor, difficulty breathing, or seizure. If you or your children or pets experience any of these signs, you should contact the appropriate health care provider immediately. Be sure to tell them about the potential exposure to BGA.

This is nothing new: Algal blooms have happened before and will happen again, but during an active bloom we need to be mindful to protect our pets, our children, and ourselves from potential harm. It’s really not so hard.

First: Don’t drink surface water from the river or elsewhere. Don’t let your pets drink the water and warn your kids not to drink it either. Keep a watchful eye on youngsters to prevent them from inadvertently getting algae-contaminated water in their mouths.

Second: Rinse yourself, your children, and your pets with clean water after swimming or wading in waters potentially contaminated with BGA. This is especially important with dogs, who can easily ingest BGA toxins while grooming after a swim.

Third: Prevent body contact with algal matts or scum that floats free in the river or has stranded at the shoreline.

Soon enough, autumn weather will cool the waters and rain will increase river flows. The overgrowth of algae tends to burn itself out regardless of conditions, so the current BGA problem will not last forever. We need only keep ourselves, our pets, and our loved ones safe until Mother Nature solves the BGA problem for us.

While we’re on the topic of oddball health threats, let’s talk about Pseudorabies.

Pseudorabies is a viral disease of pigs that can also affect dogs, cats, raccoons, cattle, sheep, goats, and rarely, humans. The disease is typically confined to feral pigs in our area and is quite rare. However, recently an infected feral pig was identified in the Lake Mendocino area. Pseudorabies is not related to rabies, but is instead caused by a herpes virus that infects the central nervous system, resulting in “Mad Itch,” a nasty condition that looks something like rabies. There is no effective treatment. Pseudorabies is spread by contact with an infected animal’s body fluids or feces and by eating infected pork. Between pigs it us usually spread by nose-to-nose contact. We needn’t worry much about this problem —  but make sure your dogs have no contact with feral pigs or pig poop.




Dr. Michael Trapani
Bodega Bay Veterinary Hospital
1365 Bodega Ave, Bodega Bay, CA 94923
(707) 377-4153 

Dr. Michael Trapani - Family Pet columnist for the Sonoma County Gazette