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Dog Poop Poses Disease Risk: Scoop Fido's Feces While It's Still Fresh

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Once a week, Dwight Farias-Rios visits Max's yard to clean up after him. The owner of Call of Doodie, a pet waste removal service in New Jersey, is typically welcomed by about 14 mounds of the American Bulldog's feces -- some droppings fresher than others.

"Poop is gross," Farios-Rios told The Huffington Post. "It's also not healthy."

That can go for both pets and their human companions.

In fact, Max had been suffering sequential bouts of giardia infections before his owners hired Farias-Rios to do his weekly dirty work. "A vet had fixed Max up," he told The Huffington Post, "but then he kept going back out into the yard and catching [giardia] again because the owner didn't clean up his waste."

A long list of potentially infectious agents are known to live in dog and cat feces -- from E. coli to tapeworms. But perhaps less well known is the fact that a lot of these parasites actually become more infectious as the poop ages.

"It takes many types of parasite eggs a while to ripen," said Dr. Emily Beeler, an animal disease surveillance veterinarian for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Toxoplasmosis, which is more common in cats than in dogs, typically takes more than 24 hours to become infectious, she explained. Roundworm can take up to three weeks, and then may remain infectious for years in contaminated soil and water. (A recent CDC study found 14 percent of Americans tested positive for roundworms.)

Of course, this is not to say that fresh is always best. Newly dropped doo-doo still contain tons of bacteria, noted Dr. Beeler, which may also pose a health risk.

"People just tend to think [old poop] is not as smelly, a little less disgusting," and therefore easier to scoop or simply ignore, added Dr. Beeler, who co-authored a report on the link between animal feces and infectious disease this summer.

In his song "Ordinary Average Guy", quoted by a HuffPost reader WarrenPease in the comments section of a July poop-scooping story, Joe Walsh reflects this common attitude:

Every Saturday we work in the yard /
Pick up the dog doo /
Hope that it's hard (woof woof)

While Farias-Rios noted that Max is back to being a happy and healthy hound, Emily and other experts warn that once-a-week poop-scooping -- which is also typical of other businesses in the arising industry such as The Grand Poobah, Entremanure -- is still not enough to ensure the safety of pets and people.

"We recommend daily pickup of stool, no matter who is doing it," Dr. Beeler told HuffPost.

Max actually does his "doodie" in the front yard, potentially exposing neighborhood dogs in addition to himself. Further, both he and the neighboring mutts could also share the parasites, viruses and bacteria with their owners. When HuffPost spoke with Farias-Rios, he had just returned from doing an estimate at another potential client's home. The family's dogs use the backyard as their bathroom and end up stepping in their own poop and tracking it inside.

"Now there's a possibility of E. coli poisoning for the kids and family," he said. Of course, not all pathogens affect humans, and not all pathogens that affect humans show symptoms in pets.

Janet Geer, spokesperson for Seattle-based Puget Sound Starts Here, a partnership of regional governments dedicated to improving local water quality, also urges more frequent clean-up to limit these risks. As HuffPost reported in July, her organization is leading a campaign, complete with a music video to the tune of "No Diggity," aimed to persuade people to pick up after their pets. The public service announcements instruct how to "bag it up" and toss it in the trash.

Since the launch of Dog Doogity, Geer said she continues to see increasing social awareness and decreasing evidence of fugitive feces. Some Puget Sound-area cities have recently instituted new laws, even going as far as to require the removal of pet waste from private property every 24 hours, on top of an all-out ban on leaving any poop in public.

The education campaign continues. "A lot of people around here still think of it as organic fertilizer," she added.

Like many parts of the country, local water pollution is a growing concern in the Seattle area. When it rains, feces left on sidewalks or yards can wash into storm drains and ditches, which then flow untreated to the nearest lake, stream or wetland and ultimately wind up in the Puget Sound. Even in small doses, E. coli can get into the water system and cause significant trouble.

In addition to releasing nutrients into the water that can feed on algae and kill marine life, excrement contamination can also send unlucky beach-goers home with bouts of diarrhea or hives.

As performer Martin Luther sings in the video, "Hey yo, you don't want to swim in poo."

The Washington State Department of Ecology has studied the local sources of pollutants and linked higher counts of fecal coliform -- an indicator for the potential presence of harmful pathogens -- to residential compared to commercial areas. "This spells out dogs," Geer told HuffPost.

So what can be done to protect the public from parasitic poop, and help them to enjoy only the health benefits of pet ownership?

Some communities are enlisting high-tech solutions such as DNA testing or video surveillance to track culprit dogs and their owners.

But Michael Brandow, author of "New York's Poop Scoop Law: Dogs, the Dirt, and Due Process," doesn't see these strategies catching on. Instead he suggested on Pet Life Radio that the answer is far more simple: peer pressure and the "policing of each other" that comes with increased awareness.

And this peer pressure can be of the active variety, as described by another HuffPost reader. "I've gotten into the habit of always carrying extra bags with me when I take my dogs out," wrote NatureNerd in a comment on July's story. "When I see someone not picking up after their dogs, I will walk up to them and say, 'Oh, did you forget a bag to pick up after your dog? That happens to me too. Here, have one of mine.' So far, has worked every time."

In addition to regularly cleaning up after their dog -- or hiring help to do the task -- pet owners should also make sure that they get their animal regularly checked for parasites, advised Dr. Beeler.

"They should follow any treatment protocols that their vet recommends," she said. "This helps protect people too."

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