Tragic dog death prompts warning over river algae

Janine Haslett is urging dog owners to be aware of the dangers of algae in Canterbury rivers after losing her beloved chocolate lab.

Tucker died within two hours this month after swimming in the Waimakariri River.

Haslett, who lives in West Melton, said the sociable, energetic 11-month-old swims and fetches poles while his quieter sister Tess mostly watches from the riverbank.

Haslett’s partner Paul Foster had taken the couple to the river, about 2km upstream from the popular Willows spot, which has a dog park.

But within half an hour of arriving home, Tucker had diarrhea and was suffering from seizures.

When she and Foster drove him to a Christchurch veterinarian, Tucker became unresponsive. He was pronounced dead upon arrival.

An autopsy was not performed and the cause of death is unconfirmed, but the vet suspected cyanobacteria poisoning.

Haslett said that while Foster noticed areas of brown algae — which they commonly saw around rivers when they went swimming with their dogs — he didn’t see any cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae or toxic algae, at the spot.

This type of algae is a known poison for dogs. It is found in rivers as thick dark brown or black mats that are slimy or velvety in texture and have a musty odor.

Haslett theorized that the cyanobacteria might have been in the water in unseen amounts and accidentally swallowed by Tucker.

She believed that the low river levels at the time were likely increasing concentrations.

She wanted to share her story to warn other dog owners. She and Foster weren’t taking Tess to the rivers again in the summer.

“I would hate if anyone else had to go through this, it’s absolutely horrible,” Haslett said.

“Tucker was like family life. He was a speaker, very playful, a lot of people in the community knew him.”

The Waimakariri River was not the subject of a cyanobacteria health warning or advisory notice at the time.

Shirley Hayward, head of the science team at Environment Canterbury – Surface Water Science, said river health alerts would be issued on the basis of human health, not canine health.

“We monitored several locations along the Waimakariri River. All sites have low levels of cyanobacteria that are well below human health guidelines associated with swimming,” Hayward said.

“It’s important for dog owners to know how to identify potentially toxic cyanobacteria in rivers to prevent their dogs from getting sick.”

Community and Public Health has issued a health alert for the Selwyn River from Whitecliffs Domain past the Glen Tunnel campsite due to moderate to high cyanobacteria coverage in the area. There are also warnings on the Rakahuri/Ashley River at the Rangiora-Loburn Bridge and on the Whakatipu/Twizel River at the picnic area upstream of State Highway 8.

A toxic oil warning has been issued for the Cam/Ruataniwha River following Sunday’s fire at Sutton Tools’ manufacturing facility in Kaiapoi. Oil has been discovered in the Kaiapoi and Waimakariri rivers downstream where they meet the sea.

Freshwater researcher Susie Wood told Radio New Zealand she estimates there have been more than 200 dog deaths nationwide in the past 10 years because dogs have eaten or licked mats of algae in rivers. She said climate change and nutrients and sediment entering the rivers were factors that contributed to the increase in algae levels.

Canterbury’s Medical Health Officer, Dr. Cheryl Brunton said that two cases of human cyanotoxin poisoning have been reported to the Canterbury District Health Board in the past five years.

Late last year, a child developed a rash after playing in the water at Chamberlain’s Ford on the Selwyn River. The first case happened in 2020 and involved a person who experienced tingling hands and feet and stomach cramps after exposure.

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