Scoop the Poop: It’s Your Environmental Doody (pun intended)

By Nyssa Baechler

The message is clear: Scoop the poop! Photo credit: WWW.IMGUR.COM

You have probably seen the many different iterations of the same signs: some ask, some tell, and some threaten by using pleasantries, profanity, or puns to get you to pick up your dog’s poop. Whether the signs make you giggle or gasp, the message is clear —Be responsible and scoop the poop! However, the entire reasoning behind the signs might not be so clear.

As a dog owner, I have   unfortunately found myself without a bag when my pup decides to “do his thing” in public. I have been forced to get very creative in these situations in order to avoid public ‘poo-shaming’ or have made the decision to forego scooping and hope it doesn’t come back to haunt me in my dreams. Yet, I used to never bat an eye when my dog chose to ‘go’ further off the trail in the wilderness or out of sight of passersby. Picking up your dog’s waste is part of the responsibility of being a dog owner and is especially important in urban areas so it doesn’t end up on the bottom of someone else’s shoe. But did you know that it is not just a social responsibility (and an avoidance of ‘poo-shaming’) but also an environmental responsibility to pick up Fido’s poop whenever and wherever he chooses to ‘go’? There is undeniable scientific evidence that dog waste is not just an urban menace: it is an environmental pollutant and a human health hazard!

Why should you care?

Dog waste can contain bacteria, parasites, and pathogens that can directly and indirectly cause people to get sick. Although it may look like the poo in your yard has disappeared over time or washed away, some micro-organisms (such as Roundworms, E. coli, and Giardia) can persist and survive in your yard for up to four years if not picked up! Think of how often you use your backyards and lawns, and imagine what microscopic beasts could be proliferating there if the dog poo is left untouched.

A common culprit associated with water contamination is fecal coliform bacteria, a type of bacteria commonly found in human and animal waste. Although most types of fecal coliform bacteria (except for E. coli) do not pose direct health risks to people, these bacteria are considered “indicator” organisms that can be measured to assess the general quality and health of a water body. The detection of fecal coliform in a water sample indicates the presence of human or animal waste and the potential for the existence of other waterborne pathogenic diseases, like typhoid fever and hepatitis A, that are commonly transmitted through waste and can make people very sick. Harmful bacteria can get into shellfish and cause people who eat the shellfish to get sick. There is a demonstrated relationship between the presence of fecal coliform bacteria found in a water sample and the presence of illness-causing viruses and bacteria that are harmful to humans if accidentally swallowed with water or eaten in contaminated shellfish. People can also be exposed to pathogens when swimming or playing in the water through open cuts, abrasions, or mucus membranes.

Just one of the many very creative clean water campaigns centered around scooping up dog poop. Photo credit: WWW.DOODYCALLS.COM

In 1991, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed pet waste as a nonpoint source pollutant, a category that also includes herbicides and insecticides, toxic chemicals from motor vehicles, and even acid drainage from abandoned mines. As the name suggests, nonpoint pollution does not come from a single identifiable source and instead comes from many dispersed sources ­—piles of waste left on lawns, streets, sidewalks, or within any vicinity of a waterway. During rainstorms, the abandoned piles of waste wash downhill and either directly enter waterways or pass through stormwater treatment plants before ultimately ending up in the ocean. Generally, storm drains do not connect to a treatment facility, so the poo heads straight into lakes, streams, and marine waters.

By the numbers

Unlike wild animals that wander freely and disperse their poop over expansive acreage, pet owners, especially in urban areas, tend to frequent many of the same locales, trails, and dog parks. There are about 89.7 million dogs in the United States. On average, a dog excretes between 0.5 and 0.75 pounds of waste per day. One gram of dog waste contains about 23 million coliform bacteria, nearly twice the amount found in the equivalent amount of human waste. It is estimated that only about 60% of dog owners consistently pick up their pet’s poo – that leaves a heck of a lot of poo and pathogens lying around to get washed into our waters in the next rainstorm!

In just a few days, 100 dogs can produce enough bacteria that, if left on the ground, could wash into the ocean and temporarily close a bay, and all watershed areas within a 20-mile radius, to fishing and swimming! Scientists have developed methods of tracing different bacteria found in water samples to the species of origin. For example, the city of Seattle sits on the shores of the very productive Puget Sound and is estimated to be home to over 125,000 dogs. In Seattle waters, about 90% of harmful bacteria can be attributed more broadly to animals, and between 20% and 30% can be directly blamed on dogs (or more appropriately, on the dog owners who neglect to pick up poo). From coast to coast of United States, pet waste has been linked to problems with drinking water contamination as well as the closure of beaches and bays to recreational and commercial shellfish harvest. Similar to agricultural runoff, dog waste also contains a lot of excess nutrients. Surplus nutrients in stormwater runoff that make their way into streams and the marine environment can lead to excessive aquatic plant growth and algal blooms that, as they decay, deplete water of oxygen that is vital for the survival of fish and other aquatic life.

Most cities and parks provide free bags for pet owners who have forgotten their own. Photo credit: https://www.co.pierce.wa.us/1817/Pet-Waste

What you can ‘doo’ 

  • ALWAYS carry poop bags with you whenever you are out and about with your dog. Take more than you think you will need…you never know.
  • PICK IT UP! Every. Single. Time.
  • Tie the bag closed and toss it in the garbage. Dog poop CANNOT go in compost or yard waste bins. I repeat, DO NOT compost dog poop!
  • Pick up poops in your yard weekly (more often is better and definitely before a big rain).
  • Hire a dog poop collection service. Yes, this is real, and they exist in many cities and counties. They do it so you don’t have to.

There is mixed information regarding the appropriateness of flushing dog poop down the toilet. Whether it is safe to do so depends on the sewage treatment processes and the amount and frequency of poo flushing, so make sure you check with your municipality before flushing dog waste.

My dog Jax sleeps soundly knowing his mother picks up his poop on the regular. Photo credit: Nyssa Baechler

There are many sources of water pollution that impact our rivers, lakes, and oceans, that require expensive, complex actions and policy to remedy. Dog poop is not one of them. The solution is simple: Do your ‘doody’ and pick up after your dog.

Dog poop doesn’t magically disappear. It might not be there the next time you walk by, but that is because either a ‘poo fairy’ picked it up for you (i.e., a responsible individual), or it, and all of the bacteria and pathogens, washed into the closest waterbody. So, if you think picking up dog poop is unpleasant, think about swimming in it. You’re welcome.