July, a mixed-breed rescue dog and part-time Sanibel resident, tries on her new life jacket. Island vets say it's best to keep dogs off the water and away from beaches when red tide is in bloom. SC photo by Reeny Linstrom
July, a mixed-breed rescue dog and part-time Sanibel resident, tries on her new life jacket. Island vets say it's best to keep dogs off the water and away from beaches when red tide is in bloom. SC photo by Reeny Linstrom

While dogs and cats may experience the “red tide tickle” in their throats and some coughing like humans, they aren’t showing up at island vets for treatment.

At the Dec. 4 Sanibel City Council meeting, Council member Jason Maughan’s statement that dogs “have experienced a great deal of illness” raised some red flags about the impact of red tide on islanders’ precious pets.

If red tide is affecting people, it has to be affecting some pets,” said Dr. Mark Mathusa, veterinarian at Beachside Animal Clinic on Periwinkle Way. “Dogs can show signs of respiratory stress, but we haven’t treated any dogs for red tide.”

Since he hasn’t treated any dogs for red tide, Mathusa doesn’t think dogs on Sanibel are suffering great illness from it. However, with snowbirds arriving from up north with their pets, they have been bringing them in for some symptoms related to allergies, he added.

They’re fine up north and then they come down here and they’re not,” Mathusa said. “But we see the same thing every year – this is when the salt bush blooms and its white flowers cause allergies like crazy.”

Itchy skin and ear problems are the main symptoms that the clinic has seen in dogs due to salt bush allergies.

Down the road at the VCA Sanibel Animal Hospital, there isn’t any clinical evidence of illness among dogs either.

We haven’t treated any dogs for the effects of red tide,” said Jennifer Nichols, hospital manager. Over her 17 years of experience at the island hospital, she says it depends on the pet as to whether they’ll react to the aerosolized brevetoxins from red tide.

Some will be affected, and some won’t,” she says. “We do advise our clients to keep away from the water and the beach when the red tide is in bloom.”

Walking dogs on the beach can also lead to other issues, says Mathusa.

We don’t really recommend walking dogs on the beach. They can eat sand and become impacted or eat dead fish and get sick,” he said, adding that dogs can quickly ingest other naturally-occurring beach litter such as seaweed, too. “It can happen fast.”

A resident at the city council meeting said her cats may be even more sensitive to the brevetoxins than dogs since they don’t spend more than five minutes on the lanai when the respiratory irritants are airborne.

Smart cats,” said Nichols in response to that anecdote, adding that staying indoors is the best answer for pets and people when red tide is in bloom. Neither clinic has treated cats for red tide either.