What’s Lurking in the Water – Understanding Blue-Green Algae

Weather and water conditions in many parts of the country have created or will create conditions favorable for the rapid growth of blue-green algae. Please be on alert with your horses, other animals and yourselves, and use precaution around water sources.

These single-celled organisms are actually algae-like bacteria instead of being true algae and are also referred to as Cyanobacteria.  They grow rapidly and may produce the pea-soup green color in some bodies of water, along with some foul odors.  The rapid growth periods, called “blooms” most frequently occur when there is a combination of warm weather, intermittent or limited rainfall and an accumulation of nutrients, particularly phosphorus and nitrogen. Blooms can range in color from green, to blue, brown or red. Water sources of fresh, brackish or salt water can all be affected by harmful algal blooms. Most often, slow moving water sources are the most suspect, although harmful algal blooms can occur in any water source with favorable conditions.

The planktonic groups produce the pea green water while the mat-forming groups produce dark mats that start on the bottom and float to the surface.  The planktonic species (Anabena, Aphanizomenon and Microcystis) are believed to be most likely to produce toxins which can be harmful or fatal to animals when ingested. Although, you cannot tell by looking at the bloom whether or not cyanotoxins exist. (Fact Sheet on Toxic Blue-Green Algae, Purdue University, Carole A. Lembi)

Toxins may be ingested when animals drink the water, when they lick their coats after being in the water, or when they inhale water droplets.  Animals are more likely to consume the water if fresh, clean water supplies are limited from other sources. Not all animals are deterred by foul odors that may be produced from the blooms.  Animals that drink or have exposure to the water during a period when cyanotoxins are being produced may be affected, but toxins are not always produced when there is a bloom.

Providing a source of fresh, clean, safe drinking water is the best way to avoid causing animals to consume questionable water.  If animals go swimming, they should be cleaned off before they have a chance to lick their coats, try not to engage in physical exertion near the water supply where inhaling water droplets could occur.

Preventing access to waterways is one way to prevent toxin exposure. Swimming in, contact with, breathing in water droplets or drinking water in ponds/lakes/streams is not recommended during temperatures or conditions that are favorable for blooms to exist. Most often slow moving water or calm water that has a greenish appearance are those most suspect to algal blooms, however they can exist an any water source if the conditions have been favorable. If contact has occurred watch for symptoms and promptly notify your veterinarian. When in doubt keep your animals and yourselves out of the water. Provide access to fresh, clean water at all times for your animals.

Toxic symptoms may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Rash and skin irritation
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Seizure
  • Death

While not all “blooms” may produce toxins, avoiding exposure to or consumption of suspect water is recommended.  Risks of illness after the blooms are gone are low, however some toxins can still remain in the water once the blooms are gone. More information is available from local and state pollution control sites or extension sites. Health Departments recommend, when in doubt, keep out of the water.

Preventing run-off of nutrients into ponds and lakes is also important to help reduce the risk of these algae blooms.  Keeping vegetation around water sources can help naturally filter. Drought conditions in some areas have also increased the concentration of nutrients in the remaining water in ponds, lakes and streams.

Horses, Heat and Humidity

Water into bucketSummer is in full swing, including the heat and humidity. Horses, similar to humans, may have a difficult time coping and cooling off with the combination of heat and humidity. The added challenge of cooling off partially results from the inability of the sweat to evaporate in humid weather. The combination of sweat and humid weather acts like an insulation, making horses even hotter. Some horses have diagnosed trouble sweating (anhidrosis) during hot and humid weather, which adds other challenge to cool off. Consult Veterinary support if your horse has trouble sweating.

Some ways to help you and your horse cope with hot humid weather is to calculate the temperature-humidity index (THI). Add the air temperature (in degrees Fahrenheit) to the humidity percentage. For example, if it is 80 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity is 60%, the THI is 140. When the THI reaches 150, horses will have difficulty cooling off, at 180 working a horse can be unsafe to the horse’s health and you should actively help the horse cool off.

Another supportive tool is to take your horse’s temperature. Normal is between 99.5 and 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit at resting, and can range between 103 to 104 degrees during exercise. When a horse’s temperature reaches 105 this is dangerous and the risk of overheating or health damage can occur. Above 105 degrees horses are likely to suffer heatstroke and require immediate Veterinary attention.

Helpful ways to keep horses cool in hot humid weather:

1. Clean and cool water available at all times

Horses prefer fresh, cool water in sufficient amounts when it is hot and humid. Keeping clean and cool water in deep buckets in the shade will help keep water cool. In addition to the automatic waterers (if available) additional deep buckets may be required to allow horses to gulp water versus sip smaller amounts. I often will consume a substantial amount of cool water in one sitting in a light colored container when it is hot and humid.

2. Provide appropriate feed for the horse’s activity

Feeding excess hay in hot humid weather can contribute to added body heat from the digestive process. Feeding smaller amounts more frequently or use of a slow feeding hay bag may be beneficial. Feed a quality balanced feed that is designed for the exercise requirements of the individual horse. If I am a daily jogger, my nutrient requirements vary significantly from a marathon runner in training.

3. Consider individual fitness

Physical fitness and environments vary between individual horses. Research has shown horses well-conditioned and of optimal physical fitness tend to cope with hot humid weather more easily than those who are out of shape. Horses residing in climates with extreme heat and humidity tend to cope better than horses traveling and adjusting to different climates. Although the horses may cope better if they are acclimated to the heat and humidity, it is still important to observe safe exercise and offer healthy ways to help horses keep cool.

Moving to a Boarding Barn – What I’ve Learned

For the 25+ years that I have owned horses, they have always been ‘home’. That is to say, kept on the same property where I lived. Recently I moved Ferris, one of my geldings, to a boarding barn in preparation for a career change (from dressage to Hunter… he LOVES the jump!) and sale. The decision to sell him was incredibly challenging emotionally. I bred him, raised him and did his initial training. But I also came to realize that, though he can do the lower level dressage work, his heart is in the jump….something that I’m not in a good position to do. Moving him to a boarding barn gave me access to a friend and trainer who is helping re-schooling him as a Hunter in preparation of selling him.

The move from home care to a boarding barn means having another person provide daily care and handling, and was something that took me some time to get used to. Thankfully, Mandy, owner and manager at the barn, was very understanding with me, is great at communicating and has done a fantastic job with Ferris for the last few months. If you are considering a similar move, whether for a short endeavor or as a lifestyle change, here are some tips I picked up from my recent experience.

Change in lifestyle
Ferris in StallAs I’ve shared in a previous blog, my operation at home is anything but fancy. We have a run-in/lean-to for the horses and they choose when to be in and when to be out. Ferris was used to spending a good bit of energy moving around 24/7 and burning calories to stay warm. With his new living situation, Ferris is now in a stall (in a heated barn) from 4PM to 8AM with pasture turnout during the day. I was initially concerned about this change in activity level and energy needs, potentially leading to excessive weight. As I soon discovered, he quickly adjusted and settled into the barn lifestyle … adores his stall!

Hay transition
Hay/pasture makes up most of a horse’s diet, therefore any change in hay, whether it be a different cutting, supplier, or variety should be made gradually. When I moved Ferris to Mandy’s barn, I also sent along a few bales of his current hay so that she could slowly transition him to her hay. He moved from grass hay to grass hay, which helped. In his new barn, he also has consistent access to hay day and night to keep his system active.

Water System
You might not think it’s a big deal, but a new water system may be disruptive. For example, at home, we have an outdoor, group automatic drinker while in his stall, Ferris has an individual one. Thankfully, the sound of water being replenished is similar, though he did scare himself the first time he drank! Since water is such an important element of a horse’s health and wellbeing, it’s a good idea to monitor their drinking the first few days after making the move. You might also train your horse to drink before you move him.

Feed Transition
Because he was living mainly outdoors at home, I was feeding Ferris a product that is high in fat, designed for hard keepers. It was a really good fit with his lifestyle at home, however the house feed at his new barn is SafeChoice Original, a similar, but slightly different product; higher in fiber and protein, lower in fat. Though Mandy will accommodate a different feed, I wanted to simplify by having him on the house feed. As with his hay, I brought along  bags of his feed from home to transition him to the SafeChoice in his first 7-14 days. At first, he refused to touch his feed (our best guess is that it was the stress of all the changes) so we backed off transitioning him and let him eat his normal feed for the first week. After that, we were able to start the transition again and today, he’s 100% on SafeChoice Original.

Stress of the Move
As you can imagine, the change in environment, smells, sounds, pasture boundaries, routine, activity level and horses were all very stressful for Ferris. He did show his stress for the first few days, but by day 4 had settled into the new routine and environment well. With the stress of all the changes and an increase in work load, he did lose some body condition in the first month, which was addressed with adjustments to his feed and hay.

All Settled In
Today, Ferris is really loving his new job and lifestyle! He is being ridden 5 days a week, of which one day is over jumps. His weight is back to a healthy BCS of 6 and he is adding endurance and muscle each week. We did adjust his feed routine a bit by adding a ration balancer to help with amino acids needed to build his muscles while balancing the energy from grass turnout. He is becoming more consistent and happy in his work and I am able to rest easy knowing he is comfortable and well looked after. Very soon, I will put him up for sale so he can find success in a second career as a Hunter.

I can’t stress enough the importance of good communication between you and the barn owner/manager. If you are used to daily feeding and caring for your horses, letting go and allowing someone else to do that may be a challenge. For me, it was important to discuss my horse’s behavior, routine and regular handling up front so that Mandy and her team were able to give him an easy transition and provide a positive experience. She has also been very good about telling me what’s happening, and I work to keep her informed of what I’m observing with him so together we formulate a plan. I consider her a partner in his care, and one that I’ve come to deeply trust.

Blue-Green Algae – A Potential Hazard for Horses, Pets and People

drinkingCurrent weather and water conditions in many parts of the country have created conditions favorable for the rapid growth of blue-green algae. Please be on alert with your horses and dogs, and use precaution when around unfamiliar water sources.

These primative organisms are actually algae-like bacteria instead of being true algae and are also referred to as Cyanobacteria.  They grow rapidly and may produce the pea-soup green color in some bodies of water, along with some foul odors.  These rapid growth periods, called “blooms” most frequently occur when there is a combination of warm weather, intermittent or limited rainfall and an accumulation of nutrients, particularly phosphorus and nitrogen.

The planktonic groups produce the pea green water while the mat-forming groups produce dark mats that start on the bottom and float to the surface.  The planktonic species (Anabena, Aphanizomenon and Microcystis) are believed to be most likely to produce toxins which can be harmful or fatal to animals when ingested. (Fact Sheet on Toxic Blue-Green Algae, Purdue University, Carole A. Lembi)

These toxins may be ingested when animals drink the water or when they lick their coats after being in the water.  Animals are more likely to consume the water if fresh water supplies are limited from other sources.  Any animals that drink the water during a period when toxins are being produced may be affected, but toxins are not always produced when there is a bloom.

Providing a source of fresh, clean, safe drinking water is the best way to avoid causing animals to consume questionable water.  If pets go swimming, they should be cleaned off before they have a chance to lick their coats.

Toxic symptoms may include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Rash and skin irritation

Preventing run-off of nutrients into ponds and lakes is also important to help reduce the risk of these algae blooms.  Prolonged drought conditions in some areas have also increased the concentration of nutrients in the remaining water in ponds and lakes.

While not all “blooms” may produce toxins, avoiding exposure to or consumption of suspect water is recommended.  More information is available from local and state pollution control sites or extension sites.   A recent case in Minnesota reported that 2 pets had been killed and a boy was sent to the hospital (MPLS Star Tribune, July 4, 2015, Liz Sawyer) due to exposure to blue-green algae.

The Importance of Clean Water

Would you drink dirty water? Water that had algae, mud, maybe even feces in it? Would you be able to put it to your mouth and swallow?

I would, if it was a matter of survival. Chances are, if it was a matter of life or death, you would too. If that was the only water available and the choice was to drink that water or die, I am betting there are not many people who wouldn’t take at least a sip. But, would you drink your fill of that dirty, nasty water? Would you drink deeply so that your thirst was satisfied and your body was hydrated, all the way down to a cellular level? Probably not. And neither would your horse.

We all know that water is the most important nutrient that any animal can have. It is essential for almost every function, from digestion and respiration, to reproduction and lactation. But what we may often forget is that even though our animals have access to water, that doesn’t mean they are well hydrated. If their water is teeming with algae or full of mud or excrement, chances are that they are choosing not to drink as much as they could.  In the winter, if it is too cold or even frozen over, horses will have lowered intake as well.

A horse that is not well hydrated can run into a myriad of problems, not the least of which can be impactions that can lead to colic. Veterinarians will tell you that winter is prime-time for colic episodes that are directly related to lack of water. This is why it is important to monitor your horse’s water intake and make sure they are getting their fill on a daily basis.

The bare minimum amount of water that a horse needs on a daily basis is 0.5 to 1 gallon for every 100 lbs. of weight in a maintenance environment with a temperate climate. Add in performance demands, lactation, hot weather, humidity, etc. and the demand for water increases significantly. Your best bet? Keeping free choice clean cool water available at all times.

But how do you know if your water supply is up to snuff? There is a pretty easy test to tell. Ask yourself these questions as you stand at your horses’ pond, water trough or bucket:

  • Is it the right temprature? (between 45 – 65 degrees farenheit is preferred)
  • Is it fresh?
  • Is it clean?
  • Is it abundant?
    Would I want to drink it?

If you can answer “yes” to these questions, then you are providing a good water source that your horse should be happy to drink their fill from.

Take this “water quality quiz” today, and then take it again in the middle of winter, when the way you supply water to your horse may be entirely different. Because no matter what the season, water is key to a healthy, active horse.