Doggy Doo Do's & Doo Don'ts: How Our Canine Buddies Affect Ecosystems
We use the word "poop" 19 times in this piece.
There's nothing better than unclipping your pup from their leash and watching them take off like a... well, dog that was just let off-leash. When your dog is happy, you're happy, and we feel the same way. Bringing your best friend with you on the trails is likely one of the reasons you decided to get a dog in the first place; they motivate us to get out more, they push (or pull) us to move quicker, and their happy trotting and floppy tongues can turn a bad day into a great one. Being a good dog owner means ensuring they get outside frequently, and it also means cleaning up after them.
We know you've heard it before: "Pick up your dog's poop or else," and we also know it can get irritating. After all, there are plenty of reasons why people would believe it is okay to leave their dog's logs when they fall in the woods- "other animals poop in nature, and no one has to pick that up," "my poop bag brand is labeled biodegradable," "it's just poop, it's natural." These make sense initially, except for one thing- dog poop is profoundly different from wildlife poop on a molecular level.
Let's consider what these animals are eating.
Wildlife mostly eat plants and other animal species from the ecosystem they live in (except litter and improperly secured trash cans, but that's for another piece). So when they poop, they are returning familiar nutrients to the ecosystem. Think of these ecosystems as a "closed loop with no gain or loss in nutrients or resources"; the materials are circulated and returned to where they came from.
Our dogs, however, are typically eating highly processed dog-specific foods that contain nutrients, plants, and chemicals that are foreign to the ecosystems in which we bring our dogs. When a dog introduces foreign agents into the mix, invasive plant species, synthetic chemicals, and harmful nutrients can wreak havoc on an otherwise harmonious and healthy ecosystem.
Here are some specific examples of what we're talking about:
When a dog does its business, and that business is left behind, it decomposes, releasing all of its nutrients and pathogens that often then make their way into bodies of water. When this happens, excess growth of invasive and toxic algae and weeds can occur, which over time will make that water useless for all humans and animals alike. According to the National Academy of Sciences, dog poop is the leading cause of phosphorus pollution in most urban watersheds.
Aside from damaging our beautiful but fragile ecosystems, dog poop left behind can also cause illness and other health risks for humans.
Although poop in your yard may look like it has disappeared after a while, its contents have not. Dog waste carries microorganisms such as roundworms, E. Coli, and Giardia that can survive for up to four years in a given environment. Other diseases carried by dog waste include Campylobacteriosis, Salmonellosis, Yersiniosis, Cyclospora, Toxoplasmosis, and many more. This means that children who play in your yard are susceptible to these microorganisms long after the poop has decomposed. If poop is left on the street or a trail, those microorganisms can make their way into a storm drain and then into our drinking water.
Tired of scary and gross dog poop science? Here are some things you can do to help mitigate some of the damage caused by abandoned dog poop:
Always carry waste bags with you. Many trailheads and parks have bags available for free. If you forgot to bring your own, make sure you stock up before continuing.
Always throw away your dog's waste. That's right, in the trash. Even if your poop bag says it's biodegradable, the nutrients in the poop are not, and they will stick around long after the bag has decomposed. Dog waste is not compostable as it is not a safe fertilizer. It also cannot be recycled.
Please do your best to ensure your dog does its business at least 200 feet away from any body of water. This will help ensure that the harmful contents of dog waste don't pollute the water.
If you let your dog poop in your yard, try to clean it up at least a few times a week. For your health and the health of your community, keep your yard clean to prevent the spread of illnesses in drinking water. If you have kids, clean up the dog poop every day.
If your dog poops well into your trail excursion, or if you spot abandoned bags along trails, pick them up. We know it's gross. But while many dog owners drop their bag intending to grab it on their way back, the bag is left behind more often than not. A fun tip from Volunteers for Colorado is to carry a "Crapsule" with you. It's essentially a water bottle that you vow to never EVER drink from again and store bags of dog waste in to dispose of in the nearest trash can.
As with all issues affecting our environment, we all must step up and do what we can to curb the damage. Chances are you don't consider piles and bags left by other dog owners a fulfilling part of your hike, so to help make the outdoors a pleasant space for everyone, please pick up after your dog! Having a clean outdoors will not only ensure their longevity, but it will also improve everyone's experience and safety.