Brownless algae may be deadly to dogs
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Chasing chukars up and down the leg-straining slopes that brood over Brownlee Reservoir is thirsty work worthy of a Gatorade commercial.
Especially the chasing up part.
Of course, even if you leave the water bottle in the truck and your tongue swells like a grilled frankfurter, you probably would never stoop to slurp a palmful of the reservoir's murky, tepid water.
But your faithful dog might.
And that swallow could be your canine hunting partner's last.
A potential killer might lurk in the water, and not only at Brownlee, said Ed Mitchell of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Blue-green algae, a type of bacteria that sometime produce deadly toxins, can form in any body of stagnant, sun-warmed water from a puddle you can hop across, to 53-mile-long Brownlee.
Earlier this month an Idaho chukar hunter reported that one of his dogs died, and another got sick, after they drank from Brownlee in the cove at the mouth of Rock Creek, on the Idaho side of the reservoir about 12 miles north of Farewell Bend, Mitchell said.
(Idaho's chukar-hunting season starts in mid-September. Oregon's season starts Oct. 9.)
"People need to be aware that it's a potentially dangerous situation," Mitchell said.
Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, rarely pose more than an itchy nuisance for people, who, though they might pay a couple bucks for a bottle of spring water, tend to avoid drinking water laced with "pond scum" the algae's more common, but quite descriptive, name.
People who swim or wade in algae-infested water might develop a skin rash, or symptoms similar to asthma or hay fever, said Dave Stone, a toxicologist at the Oregon Department of Human Services.
But swallowing such water can be dangerous.
Which is why Mitchell worries about dogs, who, unlike most people, don't much care where they get their water.
"We don't usually get down on all fours and suck out of a mud puddle," Mitchell said. "But if you've been hunting those steep hills in hot weather, that old dog, when he hits that water, he's going to take a drink."
Mitchell said algae blooms are more common in coves, bays and other places sheltered from wind gusts and currents, which stir the water and can prevent algae from forming toxic masses.
"But they can happen in other places," he said. "I've seen it out in the desert in rainwater puddles."
Mitchell said several dogs died about a decade ago after drinking from a pond on a golf course in Burley, Idaho, east of Boise.
And Stone said two Oregon dogs died this year after they drank from a stock pond near Bend.
Algae blooms are rare, though, in fast-moving streams or rivers.
Mitchell said the chukar hunter's story prompted him to issue a warning to the public.
He emphasizes, however, that the algae threat is neither new nor necessarily widespread.
In fact, Stone said most strains of blue-green algae do not produce toxins, so even if you see scum on the water it's not certain that toxins are present.
And blue-green algae rarely survive freezing temperatures, so the threat is likely to diminish as autumn progresses, he said.
In general, however, toxins are most likely to be present when algae are plentiful enough to form a scum on the water's surface, Stone said.
And even after the surface algae die, the water might still contain dangerous concentrations of toxins for weeks, he said.
"If a scum is dying off, that's going to be the most dangerous time," Stone said.
The only sure way to detect toxins is to test water samples, he said.
He said he's not aware that any agency has tested Brownlee.
Mitchell doesn't know of any recent tests, either.
In Oregon, most of the blue-green algae infestations over the past few years that were severe enough to warrant public warnings affected lakes and reservoirs in or near the Cascade Mountains or along the coast.
On July 3, 2003, for example, the U.S. Forest Service banned swimming, water-skiing and wading at Diamond Lake, a popular vacation spot north of Crater Lake National Park, after tests showed high levels of toxins in the water.
The Forest Service did not prohibit boating or fishing, and the agency re-opened the lake for swimming, water-skiing and wading on Aug. 13, 2003.
Although algae-borne toxins can accumulate in fish, the toxins tend to be concentrated in organs, and the liver in particular, rather than in the flesh, Stone said.
"We tend to think (fish) are pretty safe," he said.
However, he recommends anglers avoid eating any part of a fish other than a fillet, and to wash their hands thoroughly after discarding the entrails.
"Most people don't eat that stuff anyway," he said. "Although you might be surprised."
Ultimately, both Stone and Mitchell agree that algae blooms pose a much greater risk to dogs, with their predilection for lapping up water no matter its appearance, than to finicky humans.
Mitchell said his best advice for hunters is that they carry water for their dogs rather than let the animals slake their thirst wherever they find water.
"If you're a responsible dog owner that's what you're doing anyway," he said.
An active dog and any dog that hunts chukar is plenty active can gulp down about as much water as a human hunter can, said Dr. Lutz Kethler, who owns the Alpine Veterinary Hospital in Baker City.
And dogs should drink as often as people, he said, so when you stop for a sip, give your pal one too.
Kethler said he occasionally treats a dog that gets sick after drinking from a pond or other stagnant water source. Blue-green algae is not necessarily to blame water can contain other contaminants but it is one of the more dangerous pollutants.
"Preferably I would not let a dog drink from any pond," Kethler said.
Russell Elms of Baker City said he often hunts chukar near Brownlee with his German shorthairs, Hope and Faith.
"That's what chukar hunting's all about hope and faith," he said.
Elms said he didn't know stagnant water could contain potentially fatal poisons. He said he will watch his dogs more closely now.
"I definitely won't let them drink out of stagnant water," Elms said.
He said he carries a pair of one-liter water bottles for Hope and Faith, but only early in the season, when the weather is warm and winter rain and snow have not replenished water sources.