Leslie Jaremchuk doesn’t have anything against dogs. In fact, the North Vancouver resident quite likes them. It’s the piles of dog droppings that the mother of two encounters so frequently on sidewalks, in parks, on her lawn, by her neighbour’s bushes, on school grounds, and on the hiking and biking trails near her home that she finds so offensive.
“I love dogs,” Jaremchuk tells the Georgia Straight. “It’s the poo I have to walk past or that my kids step in that bothers me. You would not believe how often they run through poo. Or there will be poo on our bikes. It infuriates me beyond belief.
“The cleaning process is disgusting,” she adds. “If it’s on your shoes, you have to get out the stick or the hose, and then who knows where it ends up. I grew up with a dog. If you have a dog, you follow the rules and you pick up the poo. I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for people. If one person does it, it makes other people think, ‘Why can’t I do it?’ People don’t have the decency to think that what they do affects other people. They drop all sense of social responsibility. It’s a health issue, too.”
She’s right: dog dung has germs that can make people ill. Feces can contain bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella as well as parasites—roundworms, hookworms, and tapeworms—according to Dr. Eleni Galanis, interim medical director of prevention and control services with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. Less common are other parasites, such as cryptosporidium and giardia, and bacteria like campylobacter and leptospira. Children are especially prone to pick up bugs from unscooped poop.
“Kids do have higher risk because they’re just not as careful; they’re running around and they’re less likely to wash their hands, and also their immune systems are still developing,” Galanis says in a phone interview. “But anyone can get them. What you find in poo can make you sick.”
There are many conscientious dog owners, but there are still many others who have no problem leaving their pet’s poop on the ground (never mind those who scoop it up in a plastic bag, then toss it into bushes or trees).
“Everyone claims that they’re a responsible dog owner, but studies have shown that up to 40 percent of waste goes unscooped,” says Maggie Ashley, operations manager of PooPrints Canada, which has a program that identifies irresponsible pet owners via DNA identification of the poop of participating pooches. “When you consider the average-size dog produces 270 pounds of waste a year, that’s a lot of crap laying around.
“According to the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the average dog dropping contains three billion fecal bacteria,” she adds. “Those bacteria can transfer to kids and adults.”
Some parasites found in dog poop cause zoonoses, diseases or infections of animals that can be passed to humans, explains Loretta Yuen, a veterinarian at Amherst Veterinary Hospital. Hookworm eggs are shed in the feces of dogs, and, once larvated, can infect people. When the larvae come into contact with a human host, they penetrate through the skin and produce itchy, rashlike lesions. Tapeworm eggs shed in dog feces are immediately infectious to people. Depending on the type of tapeworm egg ingested, people can end up with an infection confined to the gastrointestinal tract, Yuen says, or parasites can, potentially, become encysted in the liver or lungs.
“By picking up feces, [parasite] eggs don’t have the chance to get into the next infective stage,” Yuen says on the line from her Alma Street clinic. “Pets can also shed E. coli and salmonella through feces. They can get those by eating raw meat, just like humans. It’s a popular trend in Vancouver, but that’s a whole other story.”
Being infected with roundworm can be especially dangerous. Eggs that are shed in a dog’s feces can remain infectious while sitting in grass, sand, or soil.
“When eggs are ingested by a human, the larvae can cause vomiting and diarrhea or may migrate internally through organs like the lungs or liver,” Yuen says. Although rare, some types of roundworm travel throughout the body, potentially resulting in blindness or neurological disease.
That is just one reason Galanis says pets should be dewormed.
“Pet owners should take their pet to the vet on a regular basis for deworming treatment,” she says. “We also recommend picking up feces so it’s not left in the environment for other animals to inadvertently consume or for us to get sick. Worms may not cause any symptom, but in the worst-case scenario, worms can travel from our intestines to various parts of our body, to the eye or organs like the brain or liver. It’s very, very rare, but it’s hard to treat.”
Campylobacteriosis, salmonellosis, and some E. coli infections have similar symptoms, including diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and fever. For those with compromised immune systems, these infections can be life-threatening, according to the Canadian Public Health Association.
“A lot of people may have symptoms that they would pass off as the flu or a cold, but it could be contamination,” Ashley says.
There are also environmental effects of dog waste left on the ground. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, when pet waste is left on the ground, it can be picked up by storm-water runoff and washed into storm drains or nearby bodies of water. When this waste ends up in water bodies, it decomposes and releases nutrients that cause excessive growth of algae and weeds. This makes the water murky, green, stinky, and even unusable for swimming, boating, or fishing.
According to the EPA, studies performed on watersheds near Seattle revealed that almost 20 percent of bacteria found in water samples came from dogs.
“It’s important for us to wash our hands after we’ve played with dogs or picked up their poop,” Galanis reminds. “It’s a civic measure but also a public-health issue.”