Dog owners are being warned to keep their animals away from the St. John River after three dogs died immediately after visiting the water's edge over the weekend in Fredericton.
Two of the dogs died in Carleton Park on Sunday evening. Another dog died Friday at Hartt Island RV Resort, 14 kilometres west on the St. John River.
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"As a pet owner, you kind of expect you outlive your pets, but you don't expect two of them [to die] in a very short period of time in the same event," said Jeff Wilhelm.
A provincial veterinarian suspects blue-green algae killed the dogs, and said owners should be wary of letting their pets near any areas of the St. John River that have turned a bluish green.
A walk on a hot day
Wilhelm said he and his girlfriend, Angie, took their four dogs for a walk in Carleton Park, between the boat launch and Picaroons Traditional Ales on the city's north side, on a hot Sunday evening.
The couple, who often visit the park with their dogs, let them run off leash because there was no one around. The dogs swam and played in the area for about an hour.
Two of the dogs, Sookie, a 10-year-old papillon, and Peekaboo, a 12-year-old shih-tzu, were drawn to one spot near the water, and Wilhelm said he kept shooing them away.
The couple and the dogs left the area around 7:30 p.m. and walked toward their house, about five minutes away.
But before they got there, Sookie got sick and died.
Dogs stopped breathing
"We got to the base of our street and Sookie started coughing, she fell over and then she stood up and then she was sick," Wilhelm said.
"Then she fell over again. I could see she wasn't really breathing."
Wilhelm thought Sookie was choking, so he tried putting his fingers in her throat to see if he could remove the obstruction.
"She totally stopped breathing, so we ran home and called the vet."
The vet didn't think the dog would make it to the clinic, and the animal soon died at home.
Then the couple noticed Peekaboo was acting strange. Her eyes were rolling around and she couldn't stand up straight.
The couple took the dog to the Douglas Animal Hospital but it was too late.
"Within one minute they were there playing on the beach and less than 10 minutes or so [Sookie] was gone,
Wilhelm said. "And then less than half an hour after that, Peekaboo was gone."
Site contained 'nothing obvious'
Now the couple are waiting for answers from a necropsy being done this week to determine the cause of their dogs' deaths. The examination will cost about $200.
"The only avenue we had was what the vet offered," Wilhelm said.
He said he'll forward the results to the city and police, who have already visited the area where the dogs were playing and said they did not find anything.
"People need to know if there's something they need to be aware of," Wilhelm said.
He worried for other dogs in Fredericton.
"It would be awful for it to happen to somebody else, especially since who knows what it was?" he said. "There was nothing obvious there."
Blue-green algae a possibility
Provincial veterinarian Dr. Jim Goltz said there's no definitive answer, but given the time of year, he suspects blue-green algae as the cause of death.
"We're pursuing that angle as our first investigation into the potential for toxins," he said.
He said blue-green algae grow in warm conditions, when water levels are low and produce different toxins that can affect the brain.
"These can kill animals within half an hour of exposure and after the toxin has been ingested," he said.
They can also produce toxins that damage the liver.
"This usually takes longer to produce the effects," he said.
If people are walking along the river and notice a greenish discolouration in the water, Goltz said, they should keep their dogs away from that area.
"That's the kind of condition where these kinds of issues could be problematic," he said.
Instead of letting pets swim in the St. John River, he advised letting them cool off in a backyard swimming pool.
Health officials investigate
Another provincial official said regional public health staff and the Environment Department are trying to determine if there's a human health risk in the area.
They've visually inspected the Fredericton sites identified by the dog owners and will determine if water sampling is needed, said Paul Bradley, a spokesperson for the Health Department.
Blue-green algae are just one possible cause of the dogs' deaths, Bradley said in an email, without elaborating on the other possible causes.
The province monitors blue-green algae based on reports of algae blooms, and it maintains a list of advisories on its website, he said.
Rare on river
So far this summer, only a bloom on Lake Nictau, south of Mount Carleton, has been reported, according the website on Wednesday afternoon.
But a provincial sign at Nashwaak Lake, about 95 kilometres north of Fredericton, warns visitors to be cautious because blue-green algae blooms have been seen in the water.
Although blue-green algae have turned up on lakes in the province in past years, "to the best of our knowledge it has never been reported in the St. John River," Bradley said.
Jaime Watson, a spokesperson for the City of Fredericton, said the city is aware the three dogs died. But she wanted people to know the drinking water in Fredericton is safe because it comes from deep wells around Wilmot Park and the Queen's Square.
Watson said the city was told the Department of Health is looking into the matter involving the dogs.
"Any advisories or signage, if required, come from the province but in the meantime we have asked the public to use caution and their own discretion with their pets around the river," she said.