Pet lovers across the planet were alarmed to hear the story of three dogs in the United States who went out for a splash-filled adventure at a local pond but died within hours – all because of toxic algae that scientists say will flourish as the climate changes.
What happened to Abby, Izzy and Harpo is the stuff of a dog-lover’s nightmare. Melissa Martin, a realtor in the U.S. state of North Carolina, and Denise Mintz took their pups out to cool off on a warm summer night in the coastal city of Wilmington. Yet just 15 minutes after leaving the pond one of them – Abby, a West Highland white terrier – started having seizures and was rushed to the veterinary hospital. So did Izzy, another terrier, and then Harpo, a poodle mix whose liver failed next.
“Abby and Izzy had the most fun tonight chasing the ball and each other and rolling in the mud,” said Martin. “What started out as a fun night for them has ended in the biggest loss of our lives.”
All three dogs died shortly after midnight on August 9.
“They contracted blue green algae poisoning and there was nothing they could do. We are gutted,” said Martin in a Facebook post, one in a series that called attention to the growing environmental issue of what is formally known as cyanobacteria.
“I wish I could do today over. I would give anything to have one more day with them,” she added. “Harpo and I had work to do, but now we will carry on in his memory and we will make sure every standing body of water has a warning sign.”
The toxic algae risk to pets has always been true, and dog deaths have happened before, but Martin and Mintz are determined to help prevent such a tragedy for other families. They’ve launched an awareness campaign to warn other pet owners who have responded with condolences from all over the world.
They also began raising funds to put up warning signs where people and dogs may encounter ponds, streams and lakes contaminated with the algae, which is often but not always visible and smelly.
“We’re still raising awareness of this toxin in our lakes and ponds,” said Mintz in a Facebook post on Tuesday. “Our babies will not die in vain.”
Veterinarian Dr. Rudi Richmand said she also was devastated by the loss and has helped to educate the public about the toxic algae risk. Richmand warns that even parts of a pond with just leaf debris in clear water – seemingly safe, as it appeared to the two dog owners – can have the bacteria brewing in them.
The algae conditions are likely to get worse as the planet warms, and as runoff from fertilizers and other nutrients usually associated with commercial agriculture feeds the world’s waterways. They create conditions for cyanobacteria to thrive, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Warmer water due to climate change might favor harmful algae in a number of ways,” the EPA says. So do the changes in salinity linked to drought conditions, changes in rainfall patterns or sea level rise, and the higher carbon dioxide levels on which the toxic algae thrives.
Worse still, it’s not just the dogs at risk. Toxic algae can be harmful to humans too.