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Published: Saturday, 10/9/2010

Keep an eye on canine pals around lake

If you are a waterfowl hunter who shares a blind or a boat with a beloved retriever, be sure to add one more item to your already long list of gear and gadgets — your cell phone with your veterinarian's emergency number on speed-dial.

That is because toxic blue-green algae in sufficient quantity could sicken or kill your canine companion — and who does not know a Lab or Chessie that will not eat or lap up things that cannot be described even in impolite company?

Duck and goose season got under way yesterday in southern Michigan and opens Saturday in Ohio. Two forms of toxic blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, have been prevalent in explosive proportions in the region, so waterfowlers need to pay attention to this lurking, perhaps unrecognized threat to their dogs.

John Meeker, a veteran waterfowler from Maumee, can testify to the danger. He and his wife, Martha, recently took their much-beloved Chesapeake Bay retrievers to the old beach at Crane Creek, now part of Magee Marsh State Wildlife Area on Lake Erie in western Ottawa County.

“We took our dogs to throw bumpers,” Meeker began. He never thought to worry about toxic algae till the canines splashed into the lake. “They just hit the water like launched rockets.”

Immediately Meeker was startled to see “big sheets of green — like viscous emerald goo. It was almost like a science fiction film watching that stuff. What was fixed in our minds was, we thought the problem was at Maumee Bay State Park or to the east.”

Meeker said no warning signs were posted at Crane Creek, no longer a public park but included in the Magee public wildlife area. But he said he faults himself for not thinking first, for he knows better.

Any case, the Meekers hit the panic button and called a knowledgeable friend in Ann Arbor for advice. They proceeded to wash down the dogs with Fels-Naphtha soap, induce vomiting, dose them with vitamin k — all ultimately suggested by their Chessie breeder.

In the end, the Meeker canines were fine and showed no symptoms of poisoning. But, Meeker added, “it could have been far worse for someone not up with it.” Indeed.

Microcystis is one of the toxic algae in question, and it was known to kill 75 people in a Brazil kidney-dialysis center in 1996. It has bloomed in the western basin of Lake Erie almost annually since 1995. The blooms have appeared earlier and stayed longer in recent years, and while it normally dissipates by early October, don't be too certain. Microcystis is a free-flowing, grainy-like alga that resembles green paint or pea soup when in full bloom.

An exotic form of algae discovered a few years ago, lyngbya wollei, is hardy enough to survive Ohio winters. It tends to form spinach-like mats along the shoreline.

Both forms have been seen in western Lake Erie, upstream in tributaries, and even inland. But don't confuse them with a common marsh plant, duckweed, which fowl love to eat.

Nonetheless, the problem is of sufficient concern for Dr. Tony Forshey, state veterinarian, and Dr. Kathleen Smith, state public health veterinarian, to jointly issue a memorandum to all Ohio vets about potential animal sickness or death from harmful algal blooms.

The vets note that the onset of illness from these algal toxins is “rapid, from minutes to hours” with some forms, and “hours to days” with others. So don't be too certain that Old Duke the black Lab is just fine after a day's duck hunt on the lakefront.

“Clinical signs of acute toxicity include vomiting, weakness, paralysis, rash, seizures, or sudden death,” the state vets' memorandum says.

Among suggested protective measures, the first will not wash in waterfowling — keep your dog on a leash and out of the water. Which leaves us with two more options:

• If your dog swims into affected water, do not let it lick its fur and, wearing gloves, wash it with clean water as soon as possible. Afterwards, you also should wash up.

• If your dog has symptons such as drooling, weakness, vomiting, staggering, and convulsions after being in bloom-affected water, call your veterinarian immediately.

“I tell people to watch out if they're acting drunk,” said Dr. Gary Thompson, a Sylvania vet who writes a column for The Blade. Sometimes, the vet added, dog owners also may pick up on a “yellow-range look in their eyes on their gums, increased thirst, or urination.” All can be signs of liver failure associated with cyanobacterial poisoning.

Thompson said he has not seen cases of such poisoning in dogs in recent years, but had some experience with it among livestock some years ago.

In any case, forewarned is fore-armed. Keep the vet's speed-dial handy in the duck blind, just in case. And keep an eye on the water, not just the sky.

A wealth of information about harmful algal blooms, or HABs, is available online at the following Web addresses: ohioseagrant.osu.edu/publications/ [go to “fact sheets” and download FS-091; cdc.gov/hab/; epa.ohio.gov [click on the references to HABs on the home page]; and odh.ohio.gov [type “algae” in the search box].

Contact Steve Pollick at:spollick@theblade.comor 419-724-6068.



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