For a great many of us, our dog or cat is a dear companion.
How we care for our pet matters, for the animal’s well-being, of course, and also for the well-being of our planet. One way our pets impact the environment is through their waste–that’s right, poop. Our nation’s dogs and cats produce more than six million tons of it a year! And there are pathogens in these dogs’ and cats’ feces that are transmissible to humans and wildlife.
Dog poop can contain E. coli, Salmonella, Giardia, roundworm, and more. But cat poop is much worse. It can contain a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, a pathogen associated in humans with miscarriages, fatal food poisoning, encephalitis, and even schizophrenia, scientists say. Toxo is common in urban and suburban soils, where house cats use flowerbeds as litter boxes.
Toxo is also very harmful to wildlife. In the 1990s, a mysterious die-off of sea otters off the California coast turned out to have been caused by toxoplasmosis. The parasite could have reached the otters through runoff from the land and also through the flushing of cat poop down the toilet. While sewage treatment kills many pathogens, it unfortunately does not reliably kill toxo. Scientists attribute about 16% of current sea otter deaths to toxo.
Toxo has spread through the oceans and has been found in dolphins, walruses, beluga whales, and even polar bears. The health consequences to these animals is not known.
So how can you manage your dog’s or cat’s ‘output’ in ways that do not harm humans and other animals? Audubon writer Susan McGrath recommends the following:
FOR DOG OWNERS:
- Check online to learn what your local sewage utility wants you to do. Some utilities call for bagging the poop tightly in plastic and throwing it in the trash. Don’t bother to invest in biodegradable dog poop bags. Given the low-oxygen environment of the typical landfill, very little biodegradation can take place anyway. So save your money and use ordinary plastic bags instead.
- If your utility prefers that you flush dog poop down the toilet, you can scoop up the poop in a plastic bag, empty the contents into the toilet, then tie off the bag and dispose of it.
- If you have a small dog, you might consider buying flushable dog poop bags. These bags are not recommended for use with large dogs because their larger output may be toilet-clogging.
- If you’re willing to go to some trouble, you might follow the example of Sharon Slack of Vancouver, British Columbia, who composts her dog’s poop! She cut the bottom out of an old trash can and bored some holes in the sides. She then buried the can, to just below the rim, in an out of the way spot in her garden. With a small shovel, she adds each poop deposit to the can. Now and then she sprinkles in water and an over-the-counter enzyme product used in septic systems. When the compost is finished, she spreads it in her garden and starts another batch.
FOR CAT OWNERS:
- Because of toxo, do not flush cat poop down the toilet. Instead, bag it tightly in plastic and put it in the garbage.
- Some kitty litters are more environmentally friendly than others. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends avoiding clay-based silica, clumping, and sand litters. They are obtained through strip-mining, which is very harmful to land.
- Litters EWG considers greener include plant-based products made from wheat, corn, ground corncobs, alfalfa pellets, and recycled newspaper pellets.–April Moore