Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs)

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) have caused many pet deaths and it’s back in Utah again this year.

The stories are similar–Pet owners take their dogs to the lake for a fun-filled day of swimming and fetching, only to finish the day with the dogs showing symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing and excessive salivating. In many cases, the dogs are unable to recover from the poisoning and die.

What is it?

Toxic algae, or HABs, have what is called cyanobacteria. Under the perfect conditions, the bacteria multiplies quickly and forms colonies or blooms. These blooms are typically green, blue, brown or red, but are sometimes difficult to see. The algae has the potential to produce very harmful toxins. They typically occur in late summer or early fall when there are warm water temperatures, stagnant water, abundant sunlight and high phosphorus levels. This year, because of our extreme temperatures, HABs are appearing earlier. If these conditions last long enough, the blooms can grow and cover an entire lake, resulting in closure of the reservoir.

How do I Identify It?

Identifying what is toxic vs. nontoxic algae is tricky. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality (UDEQ) says “Unfortunately, you can’t tell if a bloom is toxic just by looking at it. Because it is hard to tell whether an algal bloom is harmful or not, we recommend avoiding contact with any floating mats, scums and discolored water. … Although most algal blooms are not toxic, some types of cyanobacteria produce nerve or liver toxins. Toxicity is hard to predict in part because a single species of algae can have both toxic and nontoxic strains, and a bloom that tests nontoxic one day can be toxic the next.” 

In other words, you never really know if these blooms are the type that could hurt/kill your pets and make you sick. It is best to err on the side of caution and stay away from the lakes that have these blooms present. Even if you keep your dog out of the water, the HABs collect on shore, and can be ingested by your dog if he/she walks across it, then licks their paws. They can also breathe it in through tiny water droplets or mists coming from wind-blown spray. 

There is an at-home test you can buy. It allows you to test the water, so it’s highly recommended to have one or two on hand. You can find this test on Amazon.

Where can I get more information?

The UDEQ has a map and list of reservoirs they are testing. Keep in mind they aren’t testing all of them and after testing, it takes some time to get results. Visit their website often for the latest updates. deq.utah.gov/water-quality/harmful-algal-blooms-home

The Utah Department of Health website has photos of the toxic vs. nontoxic algae. They aren’t meant to be a steadfast resource in identifying the algae, but give you a general idea of what may be toxic vs. nontoxic. You can find these photos at http://health.utah.gov/enviroepi/appletree/HAB/identify.html

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