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Woman urges caution after beloved dogs die abruptly following day at North Carolina pond

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
August 13, 2019, 10:42:12 AM EDT

With the dog days of summer upon us, many residents may head to their local beaches or lakes to cool off from the heat. Some may want to take their furry friends to splash around in the water. But before diving in with your pets, beware of toxic algae that could be lurking in the water and is deadly to canines.

Last Thursday, tragedy struck a doggy play date at a local pond near midtown Wilmington, North Carolina, when three pups died swimming in water containing toxic algae. Melissa Martin and Denise Mintz took their beloved dogs Abby, Izzy and Harpo to cool off from the intense summer heat.

Within about 15 minutes after leaving the lake, all three of the dogs quickly began exhibiting signs of sickness. Abby, a West Highland white terrier, was the first to show symptoms when she suffered a seizure. The owners initially thought she had been stung by an insect, but then Izzy, a westie, started seizing, Martin wrote in a Facebook post.

The veterinarian recommended that the owners bring the pups to their office. The group rushed to the vet's office, during which time, Izzy became almost “lifeless” and Harpo, also a westie, began suffering a seizure.

“The Westies were really out of it, constantly seizing and unable to breathe well, so we decided we would let them go together peacefully. In the process, Harpo started to go downhill soon after,” Marin wrote.

The vet let Martin and Mintz come see the dogs. Harpo immediately responded and tried to get to Martin.

“The girls were lifeless already. We were able to hold the girls and transition them out peacefully. Then they let me hold Harpo and talk to him and he just looked at me with tears in his eyes. He was so scared,” Martin wrote.

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The vet told them that Harpo was suffering and that his chance of survival was very low, as a result of liver failure and internal bleeding.

“I [Morgan] held him and told him [Harpo] how awesome he was, and reminded him of all the lives he touched. Then we let him go,” Morgan wrote. “We are gutted. I wish I could do today over. I would give anything to have one more day with them,” she said in another post.

Prior to the tragedy, the group was having a great day at the pond. Abby and Izzy had fun chasing a ball and rolling in the mud with each other.

“What started out as a fun night for them has ended in the biggest loss of our lives,” Morgan wrote. “We need your prayers. Not sure we’re strong enough to get through this without them.”

All three dogs had died by midnight on Friday.

According to the Martin’s veterinarian, the cause was poisoning from blue-green algae present in the pond where they played. Martin told CNN she didn’t notice the algae but said the veterinarian told her that the dangerous blooms of cyanobacteria were what appeared to be debris from flowers.

The owners are using their tear-jerking experience to raise awareness of toxic algae and to make sure that every standing body of water has a warning sign.

In a separate post, Morgan shared photos of the body of water that the group had visited on their last swim, where the lake appears to be largely crystal clear with the exception of what appears to be debris from foliage. These photos may contradict what many people may imagine a toxic body of water to look like. Morgan points out that this can happen anywhere.

“Do not let your dogs near standing water. Our westies didn’t even get in the water but played in the mud at the edge,” Morgan writes.

"The recipe for algae to blossom is dry and warm conditions," AccuWeather Meteorologist Tyler Roys said.

In the Wilmington region, temperatures have been on the warmer side since June 1, with the temperature roughly more than 2.0 degrees Fahrenheit above average. Temperatures have been reaching into the 90s for much of July and August so far, Roys said. It has also been a dry summer with roughly only 44% of rainfall this season occurring, 6.63 inches so far versus 15.07 inches as the norm.

"When you have dry and warm conditions, the lake levels drop and algae is able to run wild," Roys said. "What also doesn’t help is if this lake was near farms that used pesticides on their lands that seeped into the lake and led to it becoming toxic."

The North Carolina Environmental Quality advises avoiding waters that smell bad, look odd in color or look murky. Some algal blooms leave a film of muck on the surface and make the water ruddy, but others are difficult to immediately detect, such as the case with the blooms in the pond where Martin’s dogs were exposed.

Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for blue-green algae poisoning, and exposure nearly always leads to death in dogs. According to Blue Cross for Pets, a U.K. animal charity, drinking from a body of water where blue-green algae lurks or licking it off fur can kill a dog within 15 minutes of exposure.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality periodically updates an algae map of the state, marking where algae blooms have been reported.

Martin's story is far from the only one. Similarly, on Saturday, Aug. 10, Morgan and Patrick Fleming took their dog Arya to the lake to escape the heat. They were having the “best day,” playing ball and swimming around in the lake. But 30 minutes later, tragedy struck as they were driving home.

“We noticed her making weird noises and she threw up and pooped in the car. We called our vet on the drive and they suggested we take her in,” Morgan wrote in a heartbreaking Facebook post on Saturday night.

By the time the group had arrived at the veterinary office, Arya couldn’t even stand. The vets told the Flemings that the pup was in such critical condition that she would need to go to the emergency room (ER). And by the time they arrived at the ER, Arya was brain dead.

“Today was absolutely awful. We lost our fun, loving, and crazy girl to what we can only assume was a lake toxin such as blue green algae,” Morgan writes in the post. “Arya, no dog will ever replace you in our hearts. We already miss you more than you could know. I hope you’re running around like a wild girl with all the other border collies in doggo heaven."

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