In the United States, pet dogs produce 21.2 billion pounds of poop each year. All that poop is polluting water sources, both in urban areas and the backcountry, largely because dog owners aren’t doing a good enough job picking it up. Let’s look at the reasons why dog poop has become such a problem, and examine what we can do about it.
Why Dog Poop Matters
Two reasons: There’s too much of it and it’s full of bacteria and parasites.
To study the issue, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics tracked “canine defecation events” on Boulder, Colorado’s Open Space and Mountain Parks lands for a little over a month last summer. Those 45,000 acres see 5.3 million human visits each year, and many of those visitors bring their dogs along, resulting in 60,000 pounds of left-behind dog poop each year.
Just like human poop, all that dog poop is full of nasty bacteria, and potentially even parasites. One gram of dog poop can contain up to 23 million fecal coliform bacteria, and dog poop is also a common carrier of whipworms, hookworms, roundworms, parvo, coronavirus, giardia, salmonella, cryptosporidium, and campylobacter.
You don’t want to drink any of those things, which is a problem, because rain runoff can wash dog poop right into water sources. A 2001 study conducted on Four Mile Run, a heavily polluted stream in northern Virginia, used DNA analysis to determine that 42 percent of the controllable bacteria load in the water came from dog poop.
Dogs, of course, aren’t the only animals that poop in the woods. But they are they only wood poopers that consume dog food. Where a wild animal is eating resources and nutrients from its ecosystem, then returning those same resources and nutrients to the same ecosystem, a dog is being fed extremely nutrient-rich foods from a bag, then depositing those alien nutrients into nature.
All the healthy nutrients in dog food result in poop that’s very rich in substances like nitrogen and phosphorous—the same ingredients you’ll find in fertilizer. The addition of that nutrient-rich poop to an ecosystem leads to an imbalance that, when it’s washed into water sources, can lead to algae blooms and promote the growth of invasive plant species on land.
And again, the scale of the problem is simply massive. That polluted stream in Virginia is just 9.4 miles long, but its watershed contains an estimated 11,400 dogs, which produce 5,000 pounds of poop every day. That’s an awful lot of fertilizer and even more bacteria.
What to Do About It
We all know what we’re supposed to be doing. Leave No Trace says that appropriate behavior for dogs owners should, “…include both immediately picking up all of the waste, and immediately taking the bag(s) of waste away from the area for proper disposal in a trash or compost bin.”
And yet, the organization’s big dog poop study in Boulder found that only 73.5 percent of dog owners did so. The remaining 26.5 percent is responsible for the 60,000 pounds of poop left behind last year.
Why don’t all dog owners always pick up after their dogs? Well, they should, but sometimes the infrastructure makes it trickier. The study found that conveniently placed waste bins and bag dispensers were the best way to empower dog owners to better pick up after their dogs. “We need to have the right infrastructure in place to make disposal of pet waste easy,” explains Ben Lawhon, LNT’s education director. Boulder does a good job placing such bins and dispensers at trailheads, but there aren't enough along the actual trails. According to surveys of dog owners conducted as part of LNT's study, greater access to waste bins could bring compliance up to 96 percent.
Lawhon also highlights the importance of educating dog owners about the cumulative impacts of dog poop, and how easy it is to clean it up. He wants to help land managers like those in the city of Boulder “inspire” dog owners to pick up after their dogs.
Of course, the burden for bagging and properly disposing of dog poop doesn’t stop in city parks or on hiking trails. As is highlighted by the conditions in Virginia’s Four Mile Run, dog poop can pollute water sources if it’s left on city streets, or accumulates in your yard. Storm runoff almost always enters rivers, lakes, streams, or the ocean without being treated. “The proper place for dog poop is in a landfill,” says Mark Eller, LNT’s foundations director.
But what if you’re somewhere where there are no trashcans? LNT advises adventurers to deal with dog poop in the same way they would their own: bury it in a six- to eight-inch deep hole, at least 200 feet from a water source.
Dog Poop in the Real World
I own two big dogs, whom I can tell you from much experience produce vast quantities of poop. At home, I’m really good about cleaning up the yard pretty much every single day. Around the neighborhood, I bag it and throw it in the nearest trashcan. In parks, I do the same.
There are really only two exceptions in daily life where I occasionally fail to pick up their poop. It’s exceedingly rare, but once or twice a year I’ll forget to refill the bag dispensers on their leashes, and find myself without one at exactly the wrong moment. A conveniently placed public bag dispenser would help me there. And, on out-and-back hikes (on trails without waste bins) that see me return along the same route, I’m guilty of failing to follow LNT’s guidelines as I’ll sometimes stash a bag of poop on the way out, for later collection and subsequent disposal. More waste bins would prevent this.
One place where I am definitely doing the wrong thing is in the backcountry. Prior to seeing the LNT study, I was ignorant of the fact that dog poop introduces foreign nutrients into local ecosystems, and of the negative impacts those poop-introduced nutrients create. If I was on a camping trip, a long ways from a trash can, I always figured it was fine just to make sure my dogs’ poop was off the trail and not close to water.
As an avid fisherman, I know too well that algae blooms are terrible for fish populations, and I definitely don’t want to be responsible for creating nutrient imbalances that can lead to invasive species growth on land either. From here on out, I’ll be burying Bowie and Wiley’s poop, just like I bury my own.
And I hope you will, too. Dog poop is worse for the environment than you probably thought it was. Cleaning it up is part of being a responsible dog owner.