Pet owners mourn loss of dogs who died after swimming at Lady Bird Lake

Following the deaths of three dogs, the City of Austin has released preliminary test results confirming the low-level presence of a neurotoxin in algae at Red Bud Isle. 

The results, released Friday, show the low-level presence of a neurotoxin found in two samples taken from the area. 

Claire Saccardi took her 4-year-old English Cream Golden Retriever Harper to Red Bud Isle last Thursday. When they got home, Saccardi says she gave Harper a bath before Harper collapsed. She was unable to use her front legs and struggled to breathe. She died at the vet shortly after. 

Roughly a month earlier, Mia Mineghino’s dog passed away at the same vet clinic. Her dog, Koda, a 2-year-old German Shepherd-Rhodesian Ridgeback mix, showed similar symptoms after swimming at Red Bud Isle. Mineghino says Koda passed within 15 minutes of leaving Red Bud. 

“For weeks I was just killing myself over what happened to him, I didn’t know. I just wanted an answer I just wanted some closure.” said Mineghino. 

Saccardi says she was also eager for answers.

“I just wanted closure, it doesn’t bring [Harper] back, but I just wanted closure.” she said.

Saccardi spent hours scouring the internet, until she stumbled upon blue-green algae. She was certain it was the culprit. 

“I drove back to Red Bud Isle to see for myself, and I did see algae in the water and tried to warn a bunch of people who were there," Saccardi said. "There were hundreds of people who were there, there was literally a line of cars to get in there, it seemed kind of surreal.” 

Mineghino echoed Saccardi, “it’s like what are you all doing here? My sweet angel just died — you wanna scream at the top of your lungs.” 

Last Saturday, Saccardi called the City of Austin and told them she believed blue-green algae killed her dog. The next day, an advisory was put out and on Monday signs were put up warning dog owners to keep their pets out of the water. 

For Brittany Stanton and her dog Ollie it was too late. Saturday, the duo went out kayaking on Lady Bird Lake. Ollie, a 2-year-old Golden Retriever, spent much of the outing swimming. After, the two went to Zilker Park for a game of fetch. Roughly 30 minutes into their game, Stanton says Ollie’s back legs gave out. He struggled to breathe, had a seizure, and died. 

Sara Hartley, assistant director of the City of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department, says she hopes the results released Friday can give Saccardi, Mineghino, and Stanton some closure. 

“These results do take us one step closer to knowing that the symptoms they explained are consistent with neurotoxins.” Hartley said. 

She explained the city will never be certain how the dogs died, as toxicology reports were not conducted on the dogs, but circumstantial evidence points to the neurotoxin produced by the blue-green algae. 

“All of our pets had excessive salivation, drool, they all had ataxia or not being able to have a steady gait, weakness not being able to hold themselves up, tremors, seizures. They can also have blood in urine, diarrhea, vomiting, abdomen,” Stanton said. 

Hartley says the city will keep Red Bud Isle closed until the toxic algae clears up. The city is also asking pet owners to keep their dogs out of Lady Bird Lake.

All eight samples taken from the lake did not test positive for the neurotoxin. Officials say just because the samples came back negative does not mean the neurotoxin is not present in other areas of the lake. The algae can also move. 

“These are changing conditions on the lake. We are in the middle of the hottest time of year, and we have other environmental factors like low flow that make this ripe for algae blooms,” Hartley said. 

Friday, additional algae samples were taken from the mouth of Barton Creek. Samples of water and algae were also taken at the Walsh Boat Ramp at Lake Austin, and downstream at the Longhorn Dam -- those tested negative for the neurotoxin. 

Hartley says based on the current blue-green algae event, the city is re-evaluating how testing is conducted, something Saccardi, Mineghino and Stanton find comfort in.  

“You know, for Harper and Ollie and Koda, that their lives had purpose. And I guess that’s really sweet.” said Saccardi.