A Dog’s Life on the Line: Blue-Green Algae Threatens Pets and People

Henry, a Labrador Retriever, looks dejected while sitting by the water

CLF's top dog loves nothing better than a long swim in the Mystic or Charles rivers – but bacteria and algae outbreaks are forcing him to stay on land.

My name is Henry and, as you can tell from my photo, I’m a dog. Most days, you can catch me doing my dog thing: napping, eating, sleeping, snacking, going for walks with my humans. One of my favorite things to do is heading to the Charles River so I can swim and cool off from the heat (which is much worse this summer thanks to climate change, but I digress). 

But a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t allowed to jump in the river. It looked good to me, but my human said it wasn’t safe. The river had too much bacteria from sewage, because the rain created too much runoff for the pipes to handle. I like to splash around in mud puddles, but even I think that’s gross! 

I couldn’t swim on my next walky either, because the river was covered with a bright green slime. That made it unsafe for me to swim. Turns out the water was full of blue-green algae. It’s scary stuff that looks like a big fuzzy tennis ball in the water. It looks good enough to eat, but the smell is awful! And dogs have gotten sick and even died from swimming in waters where blue-green algae has broken out. All it takes is one swim or one lick. 

Blue-green algae and bacteria can turn up in rivers, lakes, ponds – all the best places to doggie paddle. 

How did this happen? Here’s what I’ve learned: 

Humans built lots of buildings and roads and parking lots where there used to be grass and trees and other good places to roll around in the dirt and mud. The grass and dirt are much more fun. They also absorb water when it rains and snows. 

Now, all that rainwater isn’t absorbed. It runs across the roads and the parking lots right into the Charles and other waters. But along the way, it scoops up things like oil and fertilizer and trash (and, well, dog waste, too). All of that gets dumped into our rivers, lakes, and ponds with the water. And when it’s hot out, all of those bad things in the water make toxic blue-green algae. The algae outbreaks kill plants and fish in the water. They also have scary toxins that can make humans and dogs like me sick. 

Plus, we’ve had so much rain this summer that our sewage system keeps overflowing, so now there’s bacteria outbreaks all over. I (and my human) can’t go swimming or even go out on a boat because we could get sick! Gross. 

These outbreaks aren’t just happening here. Fellow dogs across the country and the world can’t get in the water because of the algae and bacteria

That’s why we pups need your help. Humans can stop the yucky runoff and sewage from getting to the Charles and other waters. The humans at CLF want all those big parking lots and buildings to take responsibility for the polluted runoff they cause. And if they won’t do it on their own, then government agencies need to step in and force them to take action. Also, we need to improve our wastewater system so sewage stops flowing into all my favorite swimming spots. 

Because if we don’t, then these algae and bacteria outbreaks are going to get worse, in New England and across the country. I’ve heard my human say that climate change is causing bigger storms – which means more floods. And it’s warming the water, too, which fuels those slimy, smelly algae blooms. That means more dogs and our people getting sick or dying. We’re not cats – we don’t have nine lives to spare (no offense to my cat friends, but I just don’t understand why you hate water so much). 

A dog’s life should be simple and free of worry beyond when’s our next meal or whose shoe we’re going to gnaw on next. We need you humans to worry for us and take action to keep our water clean for good. 

Thank you for listening to one dog’s plea. 

Henry lives with CLF President Brad Campbell in Boston. We like to think of him as one of CLF’s unofficial mascots. Please help Henry get back in the water. 

  • Henry with his human, CLF President Brad Campbell
  • Henry swimming with a stick
  • Henry swimming in a river
  • Henry playing in the water
  • Henry the Labrador Retriever playing in the water
  • Henry the dog swimming at sunset

Before you go... CLF is working every day to create real, systemic change for New England’s environment. And we can’t solve these big problems without people like you. Will you be a part of this movement by considering a contribution today? If everyone reading our blog gave just $10, we’d have enough money to fund our legal teams for the next year.