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Sea Grant Alerts Millions of U.S. Pet Owners of Potentially Lethal Toxins in NY Waters

Sea Grant Alerts Millions of U.S. Pet Owners of Potentially Lethal Toxins in NY Waters


By Barbara A. Branca and Paul C. Focazio

In a few short weeks since their release, New York Sea Grant’s informative “Dogs and Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs)” brochure (pdf) and fact sheet (pdf) have been well-received via both traditional and social media platforms.

Dog deaths related to HABs are on the rise
Axel, a 16 month old black lab was swimming in a river, downstream from a reservoir experiencing a HAB event. Axel later collapsed and was taken to a veterinarian. Despite treatment, Axel died five hours later. Photo courtesy of his owner, Jerry Benedick via

They’ve become our coastal program’s most widely-shared single piece of content on Facebook, Twitter and in the media since some of Fall 2012’s post-Superstorm Sandy quick response research and extension efforts. Why such the strong response? “It all goes back to our culture,” says author Dave MacNeill, a NYSG extension educator from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego. “Americans are devoted pet owners.”

According to recent figures from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 37-47% of all households in the U.S. have a dog, translating to an estimated 70-80 million dogs owned. “We love our canine companions like they’re part of the family and knowing that their health and welfare could be at risk is what’s inspiring people to act.”

MacNeill knew there was an opportunity for Sea Grant to educate on the topic when he began noticing more and more reports of dogs becoming ill from the toxins produced by HABs in the Lake Ontario area. "People might get sick, but people's dogs are actually dying," said MacNeill.

HABs, especially in the state's fresh water, are overgrowths of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) that cause water quality problems in lakes and ponds, including the occasional production of potent toxins. These toxins can poison people, household pets, waterfowl and livestock. Because HABs are increasing in many areas, the number of dog poisonings from cyanobacterial toxins is also on the rise.

Cyanobacterial bloom in Lake Erie
A cyanobacterial bloom in Lake Erie. It’s impossible to tell visually, by taste or odor whether such a bloom is toxic (a HAB). Water samples must be analyzed for the presence of toxins. Photo by Ohio Sea Grant.

To keep dogs safe around local waterways, these publications– produced with financial support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research – provide pet owners with a safety checklist of symptoms of HABs poisoning and steps that can be taken if a dog is exposed to HABs.

After news of the publications was announced by the Associated Press earlier this month, dozens of U.S. media outlets – daily papers, blogs and waterfowl hunting magazines such as Ducks Unlimited – followed suit, which extended the total potential reach to some 4 million people. One Facebook post shared by some 45 NYSG followers and partners has been seen by over 2,000 users. And just a couple of tweets made their way into the newsfeeds of some 350,000+ Twitter accounts thanks to dozens of reposts, including ones from NOAA (NYSG’s parent federal organization), as well as NOAA Research, NOAA Coastal Oceans, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 2, Cornell Cooperative Extension (and some of its individual County Offices), the National Sea Grant College Program and a handful of its individual Sea Grant programs in the U.S.

"This brochure is a great addition to New York Sea Grant's outreach activities informing the public and management community of the rise and threats of freshwater CyanoHABs," said John Wickham, program manager with NOAA National Ocean Service, and one of MacNeill’s collaborators on the brochure. Others enlisted to assure scientific accuracy included Dr. Karyn Bischoff, a toxicologist at Cornell University Veterinary College, Scott Kishbaugh of NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Dr. Lesley V. D’Anglada of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Dr. Greg Boyer of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Dr. Chris Gobler of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, and colleagues in the Sea Grant network.

NYSG has more information on harmful algal blooms at For interested groups, multiple hard copies of the publications may be made available. Please contact Dave MacNeill at or (315) 312-3042.

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