Blue-Green Algae Poisoning in Horses
Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, poisoning is a condition caused by the ingestion of water containing excessive growths of toxin-producing blue-green algae species. Of the more than 2,000 species of blue-green algae identified, at least 80 are known to produce toxins poisonous to animals and humans. Many more species and toxins have yet to be identified. Heavy blue-green algae growth or blooms occur when water sources are contaminated with excessive nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, and weather conditions are hot and dry. In farm settings, stagnant ponds contaminated with fertilizer run-off or direct manure and urine contamination are prime places for blue-green algae blooms to occur.

The most common species of blue-green algae in North America associated with poisoning are Anabaena, Aphanizomenon, Oscillatoria, and Microcystis. Not all strains of these genera are capable of producing toxins, and in those that do toxin production is sporadic. Environmental factors such as water temperature, sunlight, water pH, and nutrient concentration affect when toxins are produced. Intoxications are most common in the summer and early fall when water temperatures are warmest.

These algae can produce several major toxins. Some algae produce potent neurotoxins that cause clinical signs such as muscle tremors, respiratory distress, seizures, profuse salivation, diarrhea, and rapid death within minutes to hours. Other algae can produce hepatotoxins (toxins affecting the liver) that can cause acute death or a more delayed death after signs of acute liver failure occur. Photosensitization, a skin condition affecting nonpigmented areas of skin, can occur in animals that survive the acute stages of liver damage. Other types of algal toxins occur in other regions of the world. Blue-green algae toxins are released when algal cells are damaged and die in the water (e.g., after water is treated with an algaecide such as copper sulfate), or when ingested water reaches the animal’s digestive tract and disrupts cells, releasing the toxins.

Most animals exposed to blue-green algae toxins die acutely. Treatment is supportive and symptomatic. In some cases animals can recover, but death typically occurs so quickly that the animals are found dead near the water source.

It is impossible to tell visually if a water source contains blue-green algae or to determine which species are present without laboratory analysis. Blue-green algae blooms often impart a blue-green sheen to water, but not always, and bluish-green biomass accumulations in water are not always blue-green algae. Even when blue-green algae are present, toxic compounds may or may not be produced. Some water testing laboratories and veterinary diagnostic laboratories can test water for the presence of blue-green algae and several of the algal toxins.

Preventing blue-green algae poisoning is important. The following steps can help minimize the risk of algae poisoning in your animals:

  • Provide constant access to clean, clear fresh water, and fence off or otherwise prevent access to stagnant, scummy ponds. Do not allow animals to contaminate the water with feces and urine.
  • Prevent fertilizer or manure run-off into water sources.
  • If a water source is treated with an algaecide such as copper sulfate, prevent animal access to the water for at least a week or longer to allow degradation of any released toxins in the water.
  • When traveling with animals, do not allow them to access murky, scummy ponds or other suspect water sources.

Cynthia Gaskill, DVM PhD, clinical veterinary toxicologist at the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, provided this information.

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