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The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Triggered a Dog Poodemic

With the pandemic-induced rise in dog ownership, dog waste is now a problem.

Key points

  • The pandemic brought a rise in dog ownership, causing secondary problems, namely more dog waste on streets and trails.
  • The US Environmental Protection Agency has labeled dog waste a pollutant and a potential health hazard.
  • Efforts are being made by municipalities to help curb the dog waste problem.
Peter van der Sluijs / licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Source: Peter van der Sluijs / licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the unexpected effects of the COVID-19 global pandemic has been the rise in dog ownership. Many thousands of potential pet owners facing the loneliness of a lockdown have rushed to shelters and dog breeders to alleviate their isolation with the companionship of a dog. Some newspapers in the UK have reported that the demand has been so high that the price of puppies more than doubled last year. For example, for some popular breeds, puppies were selling for more than £3,000 ($4,250 USD) per pup. Although many options for entertainment have closed down, in most places public parks and walkways, as well as neighborhood streets, are still accessible. Rather than remaining cooped up, people are trying to enjoy some fresh air in the company of their new dog. What that means is that the pandemic has indirectly resulted in more dogs on park trails and city sidewalks and these areas are now becoming littered with feces. If you will put up with a bad pun, we are facing a poodemic, and the issue is growing excrementally.

To see the magnitude of this problem, consider that the latest estimates suggest that there are around 9 million dogs in the UK. Each produces on average around 12 ounces of waste a day. That is more than 3,300 tons in all. The problem is even greater in the US because the latest estimates put the number of dogs there at around 77 million. These dogs produce around 29,000 tons, which is more than the weight of 15,000 automobiles, every 24 hours.

An interesting aside: In the mid-19th century in London, dog poop wasn't considered to be a problem. In that earlier era, dog droppings were labeled "pure" because they contained compounds that were useful for purifying leather. For that reason, dog feces were sought after by tanneries. To meet this demand, "pure-finders" would scour the streets, collecting the droppings left by dogs and selling them to the tanners. However times have changed, and we now know that Salmonella, E. Coli, and Campylobacter are potentially harmful bacteria that are excreted in the feces of even healthy dogs. In 1991, the US Environmental Protection Agency labeled dog waste a pollutant. The agency claims that the waste produced by just 100 dogs over a few days can contain enough bacteria to close a bay and its surrounding areas to swimming and shellfishing.

People do tend to at least take the first step since they go to the trouble of bagging the dog poop, but then they are left with the issue of what to do with it. Because of the pandemic, there is a lack of facilities that normally would be open, such as public bathrooms, and also not as many places for people to throw away their dog-waste bags. In fact, as a cost-cutting measure during the pandemic, many municipalities have stopped collecting dog waste. Some simply place a lid on the garbage cans and put up a sign indicating that this fecal matter is currently no longer being collected. Nobody wants to carry bags of dog droppings with them, and therefore many people have taken to hanging the offending items on trees and bushes, creating an offensive parody of Christmas trees. To give these individuals the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they are doing this with the plan that when they finish their walk they will pick up the bags and carry them out of the park, but the problem is that they may take a different route on the way out, or find themselves lost in conversation and miss what they had left, or perhaps they simply forget.

Often the problem can be solved at the very beginning of a walk in the park. The fact is that most dog waste is left along the first 200 yards of the trail. A dog gets out of the car and he's excited, smelling other dogs in the vicinity. He stops to evacuate his bowels. Usually, if there is any garbage can in the vicinity it is found at the beginning of the trail, placed there so that people can dump their trash before they begin their hike. Unfortunately, although people do stop and bag the poop, they refuse to walk back a short distance to the trashcan and instead end up leaving the loaded bag as a marker along the way.

Some environmentally sensitive dog owners have resorted to feeding their dogs high-protein, low fiber diets, which tends to reduce the size and bulk of the droppings. Of course, there still are droppings, only smaller and less frequent making them easier to manage.

Some municipalities have issued guidelines to dog owners. As one example, in Vancouver, Canada, residents are encouraged to flush the dog poop (unbagged) down the toilet, or to drop the dog waste into a composter in their backyard. Of course, that doesn't solve the problem of people's unwillingness to cart the material back to their homes in the first place.

Recently the city of Toronto created new street litter bins with a "dog-poop" compartment. It is part of a pilot program to address the increase in dog waste in the city. It began as a response to a 2020 audit that identified 45 percent of waste (by weight) in street litter bins as organic material, and 99 percent of that organic material is dog waste. This new pilot project followed the success of the city's 2018 program that involved installing green bins in parks with off-leash dog areas. That effort resulted in the diversion of nearly 500 tons of dog waste that otherwise might have ended up on the ground, polluting the area. Unfortunately, even with the help of local governments, the solution to this poodemic is similar to the solution to the pandemic, namely for individuals to take responsibility for their own behaviors and to change their habits, but experience shows that that is a slow and iffy matter.

References

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