To swim or not to swim…that is the question. This summer, the dangers of blue-green algae have been showing up in the headlines all across the nation. Dogs love to swim and it’s hard to say no. But is the water safe for your pup? And is there a way to know for certain?
Blue-green algae, more properly called cyanobacteria, are a type of naturally occurring microorganism. HAB (harmful algae bloom) produce cyanotoxins under the right conditions.
And what are the right conditions?
Exposure to sun, warm temperatures and slow-moving water along with higher levels of phosphates and nitrogen in the water (agricultural runoff and wastewater.) These ‘ideal conditions’ cause the blue-green algae to “bloom.”
These toxins are harmful to humans, animals and aquatic life. I know we’ve all read the heartbreaking news stories of several dogs that have died from exposure after going for a swim this summer.
Dogs in particular can have serious, often fatal symptoms. Swallowing water, eating algae ‘mats’ or even grooming their fur after a swim can bring about life-threatening poisoning.
I’m not going to go into scientific detail on cyanobacteria. There are some great resources available if you want to dig deep.
Let’s quickly clear up some misconceptions you might have about blue-green algae.
All algae are harmful.
Less than 1% of all algae produce harmful toxins according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA.)
Blue-green algae are only found in standing water.
Blue-green algae can be found in ponds, lakes, rivers, streams and ocean shorelines.
You can identify it by appearance.
The only way to positively identify blue-green algae blooms is to test. But you may notice the water has a greenish/bluish tint (or any other color!) or there may be a skim or scum on top. There may be thick mats of green algae, foam along the shore or the water may have a ‘painted’ look. The water may have a musty odor that is attractive to dogs.
If I don’t see any algae, then the water is safe.
Not necessarily. Even when algae are removed, the water can contain the toxins for a period of time.
If you and your dog spend a lot of time in the water, you’ll want to be certain of your safety. Local DNRs and other health departments do test bodies of water when conditions warrant. But they can’t test EVERYWHERE.
That’s where 5Strands Affordable Testing comes in…
I was so thrilled to be offered the opportunity to give the test a try.
At the time of this post, Middle Tennessee had been experiencing extreme 90-degree weather in near drought conditions. Streams were drying up or sluggish. Standing water looked very scummy. The conditions seemed pretty high for an algae bloom.
And we have a water-loving Aussie. It’s hard to keep Chloe out of the water. ANY water. So we had definitely been avoiding walking or hiking anywhere that might have a body of water nearby during our heat spell.
As luck would have it, our temps fell and we received lots of rain right before I received the test kit.
But no matter. I wanted to see how easy this test would be. In particular, I wanted to know if this test could be conducted while hiking, camping or backpacking, where water sources can be questionable and it’s hard to NOT cross streams or be near shorelines.
We decided to do our test on a warm morning here in Middle Tennessee at a creek near our house. Lots of people fish, children wade and dogs swim in this waterway.
Here’s how you can do it:
First step is to take a sample of the water. Open the package containing the sample jar, gloves and pipette. You are advised to wear the plastic gloves during the entire procedure. So put those on now.
(Lucky for us, the location we chose to access the creek has a set of wooden stairs leading down to the water – so we had a built-in lab counter to work from.)
Next- and very importantly – take the package and punch out the hole in the back. You’ll need this to set your sample jar in while the chemical reaction is happening.
We brought a bucket for collecting water, but if you were hiking or backpacking, I imagine you could just test a sample straight from the water source.
Once you have your bucket full of water, take the sample jar and immerse it in the water at a 45-degree angle for 15 seconds. Make sure it is fully submerged.
Next, move straight over to the packaging and place the sample jar in the hole (or make sure it is in set down in an upright position.) You’ll see the chemical reaction beginning to take place almost immediately!
That sample jar will begin to steam and turn extremely hot. It may bubble up.
Now comes the waiting game. You’ll need to let the sample jar sit for about 10-15 minutes. As soon as the jar is no longer burning hot, it’s time to test.
Word of warning: once the chemical reaction begins, the water in the sample jar will be corrosive and could harm your skin. So keep your gloves on.
Open the test cassette bag and remove the cassette.
Using the pipette, draw up water from the sample jar. Place three drops of this water into the small hole in the test cassette.
Now we wait – again.
After eight minutes, you should see lines appearing in the test cassette window.
The results are simple to interpret:
- One line at C = no toxins in the water
- One line at C and one line at T = toxins have been found
- No lines = test is invalid
And good for our swimming spot – no toxins found!!
So what’s important to remember?
- Results are only valid for the water at the location you are testing. And only for the immediate time of the test. This means that water upstream or downstream could test differently. It also means that due to wind or other weather conditions, the analysis could change at any time.
- Even a very faint line at T could mean toxins are present. Seriously. If in doubt, stay out!
- We were extremely pleased with the ease of analysis of the Blue-Green Algae Test. Super simple and a lot of fun to do!
- It’s clear you can easily take a test kit along during a backpacking trip or anytime you and your dog plan to spend some time by the water.
- 5Strands test kit is affordable enough to keep several on-hand during swim season.
- If you have a pond on your property, the test kit would be perfect for periodic testing.
If you want more information about blue-green algae, take a look here.
What should you look for in case you suspect your dog has been exposed to cyanotoxins? Good information here.