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'There is no cure': Austin urges people to keep dogs away from possibly toxic blue-green algae

Brent Bellinger, conservation program supervisor for Austin’s Watershed Protection Department, crouches beside Lady Bird Lake on May 12, 2023 to take a water quality sample. A sliver of the city skyline and a bridge are in the background.
Corey Smith
Brent Bellinger, conservation program supervisor for Austin’s Watershed Protection Department, takes a water quality sample at Lady Bird Lake on May 12.

Blue-green algae is back in Lady Bird Lake and Lake Austin, according to Austin's Watershed Protection Department. The department says test results will be posted next month revealing whether the algae is toxic.

In the meantime, the city recommends avoiding algae on waterways whenever possible.

Ingesting toxic blue-green algae can present a host of grave health concerns for dogs, including liver and respiratory failure as well as neurological issues, says Dr. Nipuni Ratnayaka, an associate veterinarian at Austin Pets Alive!

“There is unfortunately no cure. There’s no antitoxin for it,” Ratnayaka said. “So it’s really just treating symptoms as they come.”

Some common symptoms for dogs who have encountered toxic blue-green algae include excessive drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice and difficulties with balance.

Some present virtually no symptoms until it is too late.

“Some animals can collapse and just pass away right away with no other noticeable signs,” Ratnayaka said.

Dogs who enter blue-green-algae-infested waters and then lick their fur may ingest the life-threatening toxins. Saltwater bodies and swimming pools are typically safer swimming alternatives for dogs, Ratnayaka said.

That holds true for humans, birds, fish and livestock, who likewise can face adverse health impacts if they encounter toxic blue-green algae.

Humans who touch the algae may experience inflamed, irritated skin or red blisters around the mouth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Humans who ingest the algae may experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhea lasting one to two days, along with other symptoms including earaches, a sore throat and even respiratory effects like atypical pneumonia in some cases.

The detection of blue-green algae, otherwise known as cyanobacteria, is not a newfound phenomenon. Toxic algae blooms have been found on Lady Bird Lake every year since 2019, when several dogs died or fell ill after encountering them. But experts continue to uncover details about the algae’s presence in Austin waterbodies.

“There’s really no good way at this point to really understand why it’s showing up where and when it’s showing up,” Brent Bellinger, conservation program supervisor for Austin’s Watershed Protection Department, said. “But we’re working on that. We got some great statistical minds that are looking at all this data, putting it together so we can make those inferences.”

Not all cyanobacteria produce toxins, but it can be difficult to differentiate the varying types of algae present in a given area, Bellinger said. That's why the city advises to “assume algae may be toxic and [to] avoid it.”

Generally, Bellinger says cyanobacteria thrive on a steady supply of nutrients, particularly phosphorous. They also require ample doses of sunlight and elevated water temperatures.

“This is a big shift in the ecosystem integrity, which is something that [as] watershed protection, we want to keep track of and understand when these large changes occur,” Bellinger said.

The department is entering year three of a pilot water treatment program. One of the central strategies is cutting availability of phosphorus as a way to decrease the presence of blue-green algae.

It remains largely unknown if, and to what extent, the blue-green algae trend is impacting other Central Texas communities.

“We’ve been getting more information anecdotally that other reservoirs are starting to see this,” Bellinger said. “Obviously, not as many of them are as popular as Austin’s reservoir is. There’s not as many dogs that may visit these other systems. So it’s possible the monitoring efforts aren’t quite there yet.”

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