Dog ownership is a wonderful experience, but it comes with a lot of responsibility. Namely, dogs poop.

It seems like a no-brainer. When your pooch does its business on a walk, it's common courtesy to pick up after them. But when going for a walk, it's become almost inevitable that you will pass – or step in — an unsavory pile of dog waste that someone's left behind.

It's not just gross and smelly; dog poop can be infectious to you and your pet. It's loaded with microorganisms that can get people sick, and one single gram contains nearly 23 million E. coli and other fecal coliform bacteria.

Effects on the environment and your lawn

One of the most crucial reasons to pick up after your dog is its environmental impact.

You may think that dog poop can act as a "fertilizer," but that's a common misconception. While the nitrogen in cow manure can be a fertilizing agent, too much nitrogen can kill your lawn. Because of their diet, dogs can have up to two and a half times more nitrogen than cows in their waste, which can burn your grass.

Dog waste also contains harmful bacteria and parasites that can contaminate soil and water if left untreated. When it rains, a hose is used, or sprinklers are turned on, the runoff can carry these contaminants into storm drains, eventually reaching rivers and oceans. This pollution can harm aquatic life, lead to beach closures, contaminate farmland and compromise the overall ecosystem we live in.

It can also cause "tragedy of the commons," which is the contamination of public parks by dogs as a potential source of conflict among park users. According to a study by Scientific Reports, "dog feces act as deterrents for other park users including other dog-owners, and their presence often leads to loss of trust in park managers and local authorities as negligent." Green spaces aren't just a great communal space for a picnic or pick-up soccer game, they are beneficial to our mental health, so it's pertinent that we keep them clean.

Effects on humans

Whipworms, coccidia, roundworms and hookworms can all be found in dog feces. Roundworms and hookworms specifically can live in many different species, including people.

Tiny larvae can enter your body by unintentional oral consumption or from small scrapes on your skin after coming into contact with contaminated dirt.

Once in a human body, these parasites can mature and migrate through the bloodstream into the lungs, and can gain access to digestive tracts where they leach nutrients by attaching to the intestinal wall, leading to anemia or malnourishment.

It can happen in an instant, so the next time you're outside, be wary of wiping sweat from your brow with a dirty hand, licking your lips or taking a drink.

Effects on other animals

Dogs, cats and additional wild animals can also develop these same parasitic infections. In addition to hookworms and roundworms, pets are also vulnerable to whipworm, giardia and coccidia.

Abandoned poop can house canine or feline viruses such parvovirus, distemper virus and canine coronavirus, which can cause fatal illnesses in other animals, particularly in unprotected adult animals as well as puppies and kittens.

Other wildlife that may not be domesticated are still in the canine and feline family group, and are susceptible to many of the same parasites and viruses as pet dogs and cats. Wolves, foxes, coyotes, raccoons and bobcats are just a handful of animals at risk of contracting these viruses, and don't have the benefit of vaccinations.

In some states, it's the law

Many states or cities have laws and regulations mandating that dog owners must pick up after their pets. Ignoring these rules may result in fines or other penalties, so by adhering to local ordinances, you not only avoid legal consequences, but also demonstrate respect for your community's guidelines and your fellow neighbors.

How to be responsible

Here are some quick tips to help dog owners responsibly handle dog poo.

  1. It doesn't matter where your pet poops, pick up feces and dispose of it safely.
  2. Not a fan of handling feces with your hand? Consider bringing along a scooper.
  3. Dispose of it properly — the best method is putting pet waste directly from a waste bag straight in the trash can, which prevents water contamination.
  4. Pick it up promptly — many parasites require days to weeks to reach the infective stage, so feces becomes more hazardous the longer it sits.
  5. Keep up with your pet's monthly dewormer.
  6. Ask your vet to test your pet's poop for intestinal parasites on a yearly basis.
  7. Remember, using a hose to "wash" the poop away only removes the visible mess, not the microscopic issues.
  8. Always wash your hands after picking up feces, gardening or working outside.
  9. Whether you use recycled grocery bags or designated poop bags, always make sure they are ready to go before your walk. Or better yet, get a dispenser that can clip onto your dog's leash.
  10. Make sure to always leash your dog while on a walk so you have eyes on them the whole time.
  11. If you have children, make sure play areas are covered or checked regularly for animal waste.