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Pet Waste: Dealing with a Real Problem in Suburbia

Pet waste is not the predominant or most toxic pollutant in urban streams, but it is one of many small sources of pollution that can cumulatively have a big impact if left unmanaged. The New Jersey Department of Health has estimated that there are over 500,000 dogs in the state. Add to this figure cats and other smaller pets, and a significant volume of waste is being generated daily.

Pet waste contains bacteria and parasites, as well as organic matter and nutrients, notably nitrogen and phosphorous.

Some of the diseases that can be spread from pet waste are:

  • Campylobacteriosis- a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea in humans.

  • Salmonellosis- the most common bacterial infection transmitted to humans from animals. Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, headache, vomiting, and diarrhea.

  • Toxocarisis- roundworms transmitted from animals to humans. Symptoms include vision loss, rash, fever, or cough.

In addition to these diseases, the organic matter and nutrients contained in pet waste can degrade water quality. When pet waste is washed into a surface water body, the waste decays. This process of breaking down the organic matter in the waste uses up dissolved oxygen and releases ammonia. Low oxygen levels, increased ammonia and warm summer water temperatures can kill fish.

Excess phosphorous and nitrogen added to surface waters can lead to cloudy, green water from accelerated algae and weed growth. Decay of this extra organic matter can depress oxygen levels, killing organisms. Objectionable odors can also occur.

Flies and other pest insects can also increase when pet waste is disposed of improperly, becoming a nuisance and adding another vector for disease transmission.

Managing pet waste properly is something that everyone can do to make a difference in their respective watersheds. Truly, proper individual actions result in significant water quality improvement when carried out by the majority. Unlike some forms of stormwater pollutants, pet waste can be easily and economically managed by the individual.

Sometimes, the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude exists regarding pet waste. Employing this flawed thinking, waste is often disposed of in the street stormwater catch basin. Aside from dumping directly into a water body, this is the single worst place to dispose of waste. In the next rainstorm, the accumulated waste is transported quickly and efficiently to the nearby receiving water course, polluting it. Water quality monitoring studies in New Jersey have emphasized this specific problem. That said, then, specifically what can be done?

Proper Onsite Disposal

Flush it

Pet waste itself (not the litter or bedding material) can be flushed down the toilet. The water from the toilet goes either to a septic system onsite or a sewage treatment plant that removes most pollutants before the water reaches its outlet. The used litter should be disposed of in a securely closed bag in the trash.

Bury it

A good option is to install an underground pet waste digester in the yard (Doggie Dooley or equivalent Before buying one, check with your local health official to ensure that it is permitted, and if there are site location restrictions.
You can also bury the waste directly in the yard. Dig a hole or trench that is 6 inches deep, away from vegetable gardens, play areas, and away from any lake, stream, or well. Often, the woods is an ideal spot. Microorganisms in the top layer of soil will break down and digest the waste, releasing the nutrients for uptake by adjacent vegetation.
Never add the waste as a fertilizer to the garden or to the compost pile. The disease organisms will continue to survive and create a significant health risk.

Trash it

Check local ordinances first. Putting pet waste in the trash is against the law in some communities. Even if legal and easy, it’s not the best solution. Waste can contribute to the landfill problems in the state.

Leave it to someone else

Believe it or not, a number of professional pet waste disposal services exist in New Jersey. These businesses will completely remove the waste from your yard and dispose of it themselves, for a fee. See: for a list of service providers.
If you leave the waste to decay in the yard, be sure it does not become a problem. To prevent water pollution, clean up areas near shallow wells, storm drains, ditches, and watercourses. Always remove pet waste from areas where children play….for obvious reasons, kids are the most frequent victims of diseases from feces.

Odinances, signage and education

Many communities have "pooper-scooper" laws that govern pet waste cleanup. Some of these laws specifically require anyone who walks an animal off of their property to carry a bag, shovel, or scooper. Any waste left by the animal must be cleaned up immediately. Call your local health officer to find out more about pet waste regulations.
In recreation areas, trails, and public parks, ‘scooper signage’ along with plastic bag dispensers and disposal cans should be provided. This idea is especially critical at streamside or lake shore walking trails.
Public education is critical when addressing the pet waste problem. Interestingly, much of the public thinks of problems associated with pet waste as being only nuisance related-odors or aesthetics. An actual example of this is the woman walking her dog in the park who had brought along a brown paper bag to collect the 150 pound mastiff’s waste. This she indeed dutifully did, and then proceeded to dispose of the bag by….tossing it into the lake!

Brochures, newsletters, signage, local public service announcements, and evening seminars are all ways to get the word out to the public. One very effective way to reach people is to have a flyer enclosed in tax bills or other municipally-generated mailings that go to all property owners.


The problem of pet waste disposal in suburbia is a real one. Research has indicated strongly that water quality is negatively impacted by this pollutant in New Jersey. However, unlike many other sources of water degradation in the state, improper pet waste management is a dilemma that can be easily corrected through education by organizations and common sense actions by individuals.

For more information, contact the NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Watershed Management at (609) 984-0058 or E-mail or your local branch of Rutgers Cooperative Extension.