Pets Lovers Beware of James River Algae 

click to enlarge Molly, a German shorthaired pointer, enjoys watery play at Belle Isle.

Scott Elmquist

Molly, a German shorthaired pointer, enjoys watery play at Belle Isle.

Local veterinarians are warning dog owners to be alert for potentially fatal blue-green algae as their pets walk along or swim in the James River.

Recent hot and wet weather is contributing to algae blooms that can collect in stagnant pools and near riverbanks around James River Park.

“You can’t just tell from the color of the water,” says Charles Hickey, founder of Short Pump Animal Hospital. “There are 2,000 species of bacteria playing around in there, and 80 of those are very toxic.”

The veterinarian says that conditions are bad this summer. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials expect this to be one of the most severe algae seasons in recent years.

Dogs can ingest harmful, possibly deadly, bacteria if they drink tainted water or have a cut that allows bacteria to enter their bodies, he says.

Hickey says there’s no antidote for algae exposure and that symptoms appear within 30 minutes. Vomiting, drooling, tremors, seizures, or respiratory paralysis can very quickly lead to death. “Scummy water is not a good thing,” he says.

Virginia Department of Health officials haven’t reported any canine deaths but are closely monitoring unusual river conditions.

“Blue-green algae is a form of cyano-bacteria which has the potential to produce liver toxins and neurotoxins,” says Rebecca LePrelle, its director of environmental epidemiology.

Farm runoff containing nitrogen and phosphorus can feed the blooms, she says. On Aug. 2, Department of Environmental Quality officials began investigating 17 muddy-colored miles of Stony Creek. The Dinwiddie County waterway is possibly contaminated with farm runoff — grain slurry and fecal bacteria.

LePrelle says officials will alert dog owners of potential problems by posting information from the Department of Environmental Quality on a surveillance map available on its website.

“Even though your dog gets to escape the confines of its home, it needs to be monitored,” says Edda Eliasson of Village Veterinary Service. She has posted Facebook advisories on plant life harmful to dogs. “The thing with algae is that it’s deadly, compared to most plants a dog might eat,” she says. “Dogs have evolved, sensitive stomachs to vomit anything toxic, but you can’t be too careful around stagnant water.”

Dogs themselves contribute to the problem if their owners don’t clean up after they defecate during James River outings.

“It’s like the wild west down there,” says Alan Douglas, president of Alpha Dog Club, an indoor pool club for canines. “Especially on weekends, when everyone’s leaving who knows what behind. One tiny prick on a paw and boom, you’re exposed to toxic algae. Dogs don’t need to drink it,” he says.

His organization offers a three-hour course on first aid for dogs. “I’ve had folks who saved their dogs lives that way,” he says.

James River Park System manager Nathan Burrell says he recently became aware that conditions are ripe for blue-green algae, but hasn’t received any reports of dog illness. He owns two dogs. “I would exercise caution on the back side of Belle Isle, near the 21st Street entrance, where you’ll see pools of water,” he says. 

LePrelle says the best rule of thumb is “when in doubt, stay out” and she offers a hotline at 1-888-238-6154.


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