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Aquatic Toxins and Animal Health

Aquatic Toxins Program

dog swimming

Exposure to cyanotoxins can cause severe and even life-threatening illness in pets, livestock, and wildlife when contaminated water is ingested or through dermal contact when swimming. Cyanotoxins can affect the nervous and gastrointestinal systems, the liver, and serve as tumor promoters.

  • Symptoms
  • Transmission
  • Recommendations

Animals that swim in water with pond scum present may experience symptoms ranging from increased salivation, loss of appetite, skin rashes, ataxia, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, numbness/tingling, difficulty breathing, cardiovascular abnormalities, convulsions, loss of consciousness, and death, often with little time for intervention. Increased salivation can begin within 15-20 minutes following exposure, and should be monitored as a sign of neurotoxin exposure.

Cyanotoxin ingestion can occur when animals drink water containing cyanotoxins, when they clean or lick their fur, or when they consume algal mats. Pets that did swim in water with an algae bloom should be immediately washed before they have a chance to lick their fur. Because of their relatively smaller size and body weight, some animals can suffer greater adverse health effects after ingesting, inhaling, or having dermal contact with cyanotoxins.

Some toxins such as microcystins may persist in the water for weeks after a bloom has disappeared, therefore it is good practice to keep people and pets out of the water during and after a bloom. There is no way to know if a cyanobacteria bloom is toxic without testing a sample in a laboratory, although some field test strips offer a promising tool.

  • Pets, domestic livestock, and wildlife should not swim in or drink water where an algal bloom, discolored water, or foam is present. Remember, algal blooms can present in shades of bright green, brown, red, orange, purple, and yellow or other colors. Sometimes algal blooms are reported to resemble spilled paint in the water due to their bright colors.
  • Pet owners should report any severe illness to their veterinarian immediately.
  • Pets that have been exposed to a bloom should be washed with clean water quickly before they have a chance to lick their fur.
  • Treatment for cyanobacteria-related illnesses in pets is supportive with activated charcoal gavage cited as a potential treatment for gastrointestinal illness and/or other symptoms.
  • Cyanotoxins are excreted from the body rapidly; pets that survive the first few days of their illness typically recover fully.
  • Biomarker testing is available to analyze blood or urine specimens from live animals or tissue samples from deceased animals.