Man’s best friend may be his dog, but Fido’s poop is another story altogether.

I’m continually amazed by dog owners who think of my lawn as a bank account, with plenty of deposits but no withdrawals. Many inconsiderate dog walkers simply don’t want to scoop the poop.

Environmentally speaking, doggie droppings expose us to several diseases caused by parasites like roundworms—potentially fatal infections in young children that can spread throughout the body.

Such infections are underdiagnosed. In fact, a recent study found that approximately 14% of Americans carry antibodies for dog and cat roundworms, meaning they’ve been exposed to the parasite.

“That’s why it’s so important that people pick up after their pets,” says Kevin R. Kazacos, DVM, PhD, a professor of veterinary parasitology at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine in West Lafayette, IN. “The No. 1 thing that people can do to stop the spread of disease from their pets to their families is to regularly take the animal to a veterinarian. That’s the first line of defense. Secondly, people need to clean up their pets’ poop.”

Never allow children to play in areas soiled with pet or wild animal feces, Dr. Kazacos says. Kids who eat dirt also are susceptible to parasites.

“There are really a number of parasites that can affect your pets, including heartworm disease, roundworms and hookworms, and all of these can be, to varying degrees, very serious health problems,” says James O. Cook, DVM, a veterinarian in Lebanon, KY, and president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. “What’s worse, these can be zoonotic conditions, which can spread to the rest of the family. If your pets show any signs of infection, take them to your veterinarian as soon as possible. And when you obtain a new puppy or kitten, have your veterinarian treat them early in their life because they commonly have parasites without any symptoms.”

Common signs of parasite infection in dogs and cats include changes in appetite or coat, diarrhea, coughing and reduced activity, but many infected animals will not show any symptoms. Your veterinarian can detect a worm infection with a simple fecal test. If an infection is found, the vet may recommend a deworming program.

Editor’s Note: Check out Flush Puppies—biodegradable, water-soluble and flushable doodie bags.

For Your Organic Bookshelf: Parasites (Natural Pet Care Pocket Series)

Photo courtesy of AVMA/ARA