The animal-waste problem is, and is not, a load of crap

Researchers in Snohomish County estimate that pets there account for waste equivalent to a city of 32,000. That's a lot of nasty bacteria in surface-water runoff.
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In Snohomish County, 35 percent of surveyed dog owners claim they usually pick up their pet waste.

Researchers in Snohomish County estimate that pets there account for waste equivalent to a city of 32,000. That's a lot of nasty bacteria in surface-water runoff.

Anyone who's ever stepped in the stuff when it's fresh will tell you something about the pet-waste problem in the Puget Sound region. But it was left to stalwart researchers in Snohomish County to dig into it and report how serious it really is.

With a grant from the state Department of Ecology, Snohomish County's Surface Water Management team held its nose and produced what seems to be the definitive dog-poop study in the U.S. What they found is pretty disgusting.

Pet crap in Snohomish County equals the human waste from a city of 32,000. That's the size of Bothell, no offense intended. And far too much of it lies where it falls until it washes away in storm drains or ditches, into creeks and lakes and the Sound.

Until now, pet-waste control programs around the world have centered on public areas, such as sidewalks and the spot just off the curb where you stepped the other day on the way to your daughter's wedding. The Snohomish County study focused instead on the spaces where most of the stuff gets deposited: the back and front yards, where little kids can play in it and where it stays until the next big rain.

Some 126,000 dogs poop in Snohomish County every day. They produce 20 tons per day of your best friend's worst habit. That's just one county's production.

Thirty-nine percent of Washington households have dogs, a number derived from veterinary surveys and marketing studies. Among those 39 percent, there's an average of one and a half dogs per household. That means 372,000 dogs in King County, and their hygiene is unlikely to be any better than that of dogs in Snohomish County. So King County dogs would appear to produce 48 turd-tons a day, all headed downhill by way of creeks and lakes, into Puget Sound.

With the traveling turds go some ugly disease germs:

  • E.coli: Causes acute diarrhea, can be fatal to children.
  • Cryptosporidium: Microscopic parasites that caused 60 deaths in Milwaukee in 1993; very few cases have been reported in the Northwest.
  • Campylobacteriosis: One of the most common causes of diarrhea-related illness in the U.S.
  • Toxocariasis: Infection caused by parasites in dogs and cats; it can cause liver damage and impaired vision in children.
  • Giardia: One of the most common causes of diarrhea and dehydration. Very contagious, very common in Washington.

All these microorganisms live in the dog waste that thousands of dog owners leave lying around where kids can get to it. Many of the disease germs can survive for weeks or months in the soil, and in water.

The Snohomish County study came about because a large and growing number of local water bodies were found to be non-swimmable — some even non-wadable — because of high counts of fecal coliform in the water. Fecal coliform is found in all open bodies of fresh water, and while it's not dangerous, it indicates the amount of animal waste in the water, with all the pathogens that come with it.

"The fecal coliform was coming from somewhere," says Dave Ward of Snohomish County's Surface Water Management department. "There are no dairies in these urban areas, and almost no septic tanks. We started tracing it back and found the major source to be all these tons of pet waste."

If this were human waste or cow manure, someone would have been raising hell about it long ago. But dog poop? It rates a shrug from those who let old Bones out the door in the morning and don't expect him back until he's done what we pay him for.

"It's off the radar screen for most people," Ward says. "They just don't take it seriously. They don't see any turds floating in the streams, it must not be that big a deal."

Most pet owners interviewed by the researchers claimed to pick up after their pets, at least sometimes. But 7 percent admitted they never do, and 30 percent said they rarely do. Thirty-five percent said they usually pick the stuff up, and 26 percent claim to pick it up every time. Oh, sure.

Another problem in getting the point across: "There's something about this that brings out the 6-year-old in everybody," Ward notes. "We get endless jokes at meetings and in e-mails and by phone, about the nature of our work." To their credit, the Snohomish County staff has capitalized on the latent humor in the subject to capture the attention of dog and cat owners. They compiled at least 60 terms that pet owners use when they don't like to name what they don't like to pick up.

Among other euphemisms, dog piles are known as: pungies, poopies, nuggets, presents (presents?!?), doodies, dookies, tootsies, and — among the more scholarly and precise — feculence (from the Latin faeculentis, "full of foul or impure matter").

Burying or composting Pal's pungies is not a good idea. Some of the worst disease germs can live in the ground or in compost for months or years. Nor do the researchers advocate flushing the doodies down the toilet. "Nothing wrong with that," Ward says, "but it isn't something most people want to think about. If we want them to change behavior, we have to suggest a method they're likely to use." In other words, pet owners who don't think twice about leaving feculence in the back yard don't want to bring it into the shining and sweet smelling bathroom.

So what are you to do if you can't let sleeping dog turds lie? What Snohomish County officials prefer you to do is scoop it up, bag it, and put it in the trash. Then it goes to a managed landfill that's lined, sealed, and eventually covered. A disgusted archeologist will get his hands in it a thousand years from now, but in the meantime nobody's swimming in it.

The Snohomish County study included cat waste but found it to be less of a problem to the water environment than dog dookies. Cat owners may be proud to know that their pets produce about 270 percent fewer tootsies than dogs, a rough estimate, not calculated as an average download from the average cat. And anyway, nobody owns an average cat.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Bob Simmons

Bob Simmons is a longtime KING-TV reporter who has been writing news for print and television for 65 years.