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Blue-green algae poses threat to animals - Daily Leader Extra : Top Stories

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Blue-green algae poses threat to animals

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Posted: Thursday, August 8, 2019 2:59 pm

Denise Lewis is looking for a silver lining.

"This is the first time in 22 years we haven't had a dog in the house," she commented.

Pictures of Blueberry, her three-year-old Weimaraner, were spread out on the table in front of her. Lewis acquired Blueberry from a breeder who no longer wanted her, and she had driven to Montana to pick her up.

"Instantly, we bonded," Lewis recalled.

She was a good traveler who easily made the 16-hour trip back to South Dakota. However, she wasn't perfect. She insisted on sleeping in bed with Lewis and her husband, and she wouldn't stay off the couches.

"She was an adorable snuggle monster," Lewis said.

She also loved water. Many of Lewis' pictures depict Blueberry dock diving -- leaping off a dock to catch a toy.

Unfortunately, in late July, blue-green algae bloomed on Lake Madison overnight.

"She obviously got into it," Lewis said.

She got sick and started vomiting. By the next morning, when Lewis took her to a veterinarian, Blueberry was bleeding internally.

"I'm glad I have these happy pictures, because it's hard to see a dog die that way," Lewis said.

Earlier this month -- too late to save Blueberry -- the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks issued a warning to pet owners. In the press release, Mark Ermer, GFP regional fisheries manager, said blue-green algae blooms happen every summer when it gets hot.

"It's nearly impossible to tell if algae in a pond or lake are poisonous or not, so we recommend not letting dogs swim in a body of water that has a visible layer of thick, floating algae on the surface. Even one drink of water that has a blue-green algae bloom can be fatal for dogs," he indicated.

The press release went on to explain that the algae can be blue, green, reddish-purple or even brown.

In the same press release, South Dakota Assistant State Veterinarian Mendel Miller explained these algae blooms are caused by cyanobacteria, "which grow particularly well in slow-moving or stagnant water with high phosphorus or nitrogen content."

Dakota State University Professor of Biology Dale Droge said the toxicity level appears to be getting worse in Lake Madison, in part because very few things eat the cyanobacteria, which produce the dangerous toxin. He said his biology classes analyze the water, using an extrapolation method, and those analyses consistently show "billions and billions" of this algae in Lake Madison.

A couple factors contribute to their growth. One is heat: when the water warms up, as it did during the hot days in late July, their growth rapidly increases, he said. The other is farm runoff.

"We have so many nutrients in the lake, when it gets warm, they [the cyanobacteria] explode," he explained.

Miller said the toxins produced by the cyanobacteria can lead to liver or nervous system damage in animals who ingest the blue-green algae. Symptoms include lethargy, an inability to walk, hyper-salivating, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, shock, seizures, tremors and difficulty breathing.

"If you think you or your pet has come into contact with blue-green algae, contact your doctor or veterinarian immediately," Miller said. "These toxins cause serious damage quickly, so prompt medical care is critical following potential exposures."

Droge said no one actually knows how many pets are affected each year. Between them, he and Lewis know of at least four people who have lost pets in the Madison area in the last couple of years.

GFP recommends that whenever an algae bloom is present, people and their pets avoid the water due to the difficulty in determining whether cyanobacteria is present or the algae is producing toxins. They also caution against eating fish caught during an algae bloom.

The press release states, "Research has shown the concentrations of toxins are higher in the organs of fish than in the muscle tissue or fillets. Toxin levels decrease after an algae bloom has ended, but fish consumption from lakes experiencing a high algae bloom should be limited."

Droge noted that wind drift is one of the factors that makes blue-green algae a danger to pets, especially those that like water. The wind pushes it along the shore, where animals can get into it more easily.

While the problem is easy to identify, neither Droge nor Lewis believes there will be an easy solution.

"It's got to be a watershed solution," Droge said. "There's nothing natural about it. This is all because of man's actions. We've created this situation."

Lewis has joined the clean water committee on the Lake Madison Development Association in hopes of making a difference. She is also speaking out about her loss. She hopes that by doing so, she will prevent others from losing their beloved pets.

That is the silver lining she finds in this difficult situation.

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