Part 2: Blue-Green Algae & Your Search Dog

In this 4-part series a few trusted experts will be joining us to help us get clear on the facts surrounding the recent deaths caused by blue-green algae and what you need to know to keep your dog safe when responding to call-outs. In Part 2 Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) and veterinarian Dr. Eileen Jenkins joins walks us through the key symptoms we should be on the look out for and what to do when suspect our dog may have had an exposure. 

How does blue-green algae affect search dogs?

Search dogs most likely are exposed by wading or swimming in warm surface waters – ponds, lakes or streams. Exposure is most common in summer months, when the water temperature rises to above 20 degrees Celsius, and in still or slow-moving waters.  Dogs are exposed by swallowing contaminated water or from licking their paws or fur after swimming or wading in contaminated water.

Although there are more than 2000 species of cyanobacteria, less than 100 create toxins that are a health risk to mammals. Unfortunately, it is difficult to predict which algal blooms are dangerous to your dog, so it is best to avoid water with visible blooms if at all possible. Algal blooms can look like green (or red or blue or black) scum or paint on the surface of the water.

The most common blue-green algae toxins, called microcystins, cause rapid and usually fatal liver failure.  Another group of toxins, anatoxins, cause neurologic symptoms and death.

What symptoms should a handler be looking out for?

Signs of exposure depend on the type of toxin ingested and include:

  • Vomiting or diarrhea (sometimes bloody or tarry)
  • Pale or yellow mucous membranes
  • Lethargy or disorientation
  • Muscle tremors or rigidity
  • Seizures
  • SLUD: salivation, lacrimation, urination, defecation
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shock, coma or death

What should a handler do if they suspect their dog has been exposed?

If you suspect your dog has been exposed...

...take him to the nearest veterinarian IMMEDIATELY. Blue-green algae toxicity can cause liver failure within minutes of exposure, so RAPID treatment is essential to survival. Even if you aren’t sure, get your partner checked by a veterinarian if he shows any illness after working in water.

If your dog is sick but still alert...

...and you are trained to do so, you can induce vomiting and/or administer activated charcoal while someone else drives you to veterinary care. If your dog is having seizures, or is not alert or cannot swallow, do NOT induce vomiting or administer charcoal. There are no specific antidotes to BG algae toxicity; treatment is aggressive supportive care and monitoring.

Is there any preventive measures a handler can take to protect their search dog?

If your dog is regularly working in warm, surface waters you can discuss the use of hepatoprotectants (like silymarin) and antioxidants (like vitamin E) with your veterinarian. Although not yet studied in dogs, these compounds may help reduce toxicity associated with chronic exposure to microcystins.

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    Dr. Eileen Jenkins headshotEileen Jenkins, DVM, MS, DACVIM (SAIM) is a veterinarian, board-certified in small animal internal medicine by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine.  She is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps.  She received a Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Lynchburg, a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from North Carolina State University, and a Master of Biomedical Sciences from Auburn University.  Dr. Jenkins’ primary research interests are working canine performance, olfaction and decontamination.