Dogs at Dog Beach, Ocean Beach, San Diego, CA. Source: OBrag.org
When owners neglect to pick up after their animals, pet waste gets left behind and can wash into storm drains. The waste then becomes a pollutant in the runoff that drains into local waterways; lakes, rivers, estuaries, bays or the ocean. On land, as well as in the water, the waste left by our pets can spread harmful diseases through numerous types of bacteria and parasites.
Be aware that:
- When animal waste ends up in the water it decomposes, using up oxygen. During summer months, low dissolved oxygen levels harm fish and other aquatic life.
- Beaches and shellfish beds may be closed, if evidence that disease-causing bacteria and viruses might be present is found on routine water testing. Pet waste can be a cause of test results that close beaches and shellfish beds.
- The majority of water pollution comes from small sources - especially at the household level.
- Many towns have "pooper scooper" ordinances that require pet owners to pick up and remove fecal matter from public property. Fines can be imposed on those caught violating these laws.
Microbial and Parasitic Diseases
The average size dog dropping contains about 3 billion fecal coliform bacteria, and up to 95 percent of the waste found in urban storm drains comes from animals. There are an estimated 78 million owned dogs in the United States that produce about 29,000 tons of waste a day.
Pet waste can contain bacteria and parasites, causing infections such as the following:
- Campylobacteriosis: A bacterial infection that causes diarrhea in humans.
- Giardiasis: A protozoan infection of the small intestine that can cause diarrhea, cramping, fatigue, and weight loss.
- Salmonellosis: Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, headache, vomiting, and diarrhea.
- Toxocariasis: An animal-to-human infection that is caused by roundworms found in the intestines of dogs. The parasite can cause vision loss, rash, fever or cough, and is a particular threat to children exposed to parasite eggs in sand and soil. Dogs carrying parasites can pass them on through eggs in fecal matter. A parasitic infection can occur through ingestion or through skin absorption.
Be a Responsible Pet Owner and Protect Water Quality at the Beach
- Always carry a plastic bag to pick up your pet's waste.
- Reuse old bags: grocery, sandwich, newspaper, produce and bread bags to pick up and contain pet waste.
- Keep a supply of bags near your dog's leash.
- Tie bags onto the leash if you don't have a pocket or pack
- Do not throw pet waste near a storm drain; use a trash can. Pet waste can also be flushed down a toilet, but please don't flush the bag.
- Make sure to dispose of pet waste in a sealed bag so it doesn't spill during trash collection.
- Do not flush pet or wildlife waste from your deck or dock into the water.
- Obey local leash laws and seasonal bans at beaches.
References and Additional Resources
EPA has published information on pet waste management, including a summary article and a collection of brochures, posters and public service announcements (search for pet waste) on the subject.
In Massachusetts, the Department of Public Health has published information on Pet Waste and Bathing Beaches.
A newspaper article in Maryland cited more than 50 studies by the Maryland Department of the Environment and Salisbury University tracking waterborne bacteria back to its sources in concluding that up to a third of bacterial pollution in urban areas and an even higher percentage in certain watersheds has been traced back to pets.
An article in the Great Lakes Echo discusses the effects that dog waste can have on beach water quality in Michigan.
In Santa Barbara County, California, Santa Barbara Audubon Society and Friends of Douglas Family Preserve have produced a brochure Eco-Dog's Beach Guide that lists off-leash, on-leash and no pets beaches in Santa Barbara County and also has a list of "Pawsitive Beach Tips" and best management practices for dog owners. A study of pollution sources in the Arroyo Burro watershed in Santa Barbara revealed that among the fecal sources into the lagoon, including upstream human sources and coastal birds, canines were the most important. Canine sources included input via upstream creek water, which decreased after creek-side residences were educated about proper pet waste disposal, and direct inputs to the lagoon and surf zone, where dog waste could have been tidally exchanged with the lagoon.
This article is part of a series on Clean Water which looks at various threats to the water quality of our oceans, and the negative impacts polluted waters can have on the environment and human health.
For information about laws, policies, programs and conditions impacting water quality in a specific state, please visit Surfrider's State of the Beach report to find the State Report for that state, and click on the "Water Quality" indicator link.