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Dirty Jobs: Considerations for Cleaning up Wildlife Latrines

By Kim Everson, DVM

Making the most of the unseasonably mild November weekend, we set to work converting an old ice shanty into a deer stand instead. The shanty had been abandoned to the weeds years before, but aside from a broken window and a rip in one of the tin-sided walls, the little building was in remarkably good shape. As we sifted through random lumber, old magazines and broken glass inside, we encountered a raccoon latrine in one corner.

An attic raccoon latrine

If you’ve never seen a raccoon toilet before you’re lucky. Raccoon poop is surprisingly large and bulky. Once a raccoon has picked a toileting spot, he and other raccoon will make repeated deposits there. If the public raccoon toilet happens to be in your attic, barn or shed, you have a real mess to clean up. However, cleaning up wildlife waste sites is not without risk. The eliminations of many creatures can carry various disease-causing micro-organisms.

Rodent Excrement

In the early 1990s an outbreak of a sometimes fatal respiratory illness in humans occurred in southwestern U.S. Also known as Four Corner’s Disease and Sin Nombre virus, the causative agent was determined to be  hantavirus and was linked to exposure to mouse droppings. More recently in late summer 2012, eight cases of hantavirus (including three deaths) were confirmed in an area of Yosemite National Park. Hantavirus can be found in rodent saliva and droppings, so people risk exposure to infection when removing rodent nests. Aside from supportive care, there is no specific treatment for hantavirus. To reduce exposure to potentially infectious rodent droppings, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers the following advice.

  • When opening an unused cabin, shed, or other building, open all the doors and windows, leave the building, and allow the space to air out for 30 minutes.
  • Return to the building and spray the surfaces, carpet, and other areas with a disinfectant. Leave the building for another 30 minutes.
  • Spray mouse nests and droppings with a 10% solution of chlorine bleach or similar disinfectant. Allow it to sit for 30 minutes. Using rubber gloves, place the materials in plastic bags. Seal the bags and throw them in the trash or an incinerator. Dispose of gloves and cleaning materials in the same way.
  • Wash all potentially contaminated hard surfaces with a bleach or disinfectant solution. Avoid vacuuming until the area has been thoroughly decontaminated. Then, vacuum the first few times with enough ventilation. Surgical masks may provide some protection.

Pigeon Droppings

Pigeons are an expensive nuisance in urban areas. Their droppings are not only messy, but also are potentially loaded with disease-causing agents. Two types of common soil fungi sometimes grow happily in pigeon poop and can cause serious illness in people when aerosolized. One such fungal disease, histoplasmosis causes fatigue, fever and chest pains in people with high exposure to contaminated droppings. The other, cryptococcosis, can cause lung infections. Both types of fungal disease tend to be worse in immune-compromised people. A third pigeon-poop disease, psittacosis, is caused by bacteria that can be found in the droppings of pigeons as well as some types of pet birds. Inhalation of airborne bacteria may cause flu-like illness and even pneumonia. All three of these infections can be treated with antifungals or antibiotics.

Bat Guano

Bats get a bad enough rap as being a reservoir for the rabies virus. This deadly infection is transmitted via an infected bat’s bite not through the bat’s waste products. Like pigeon poop, bat guano can contain the fungal organism that causes histoplasmosis. In some parts of the world, the excrement of some bat species has been linked to numerous viruses that affect livestock and people.

Raccoon Latrines

Baylisascaris procyonis, intestinal parasite of raccoon

The raccoon poop piled in the corner of my little shed is not just a foul mess. It almost certainly contains a type of intestinal worm called Baylisascaris procyonis that can infect a variety of animals including dogs and humans if accidentally ingested. Human infections are rare, but can be severe if the parasites invade the eye, organs or the brain. Diagnosis of Baylisascaris infection in pets is made by evaluating a stool sample under the microscope. Special dewormers are needed to treat this type of roundworm in pets and may be used to treat human infections with variable success. Raccoons cause so much damage to property that making your buildings inhospitable to them by securing openings and removing food sources (including pet food) goes a long way to reducing your exposure to their fecal parasites.

The afternoon rain prevented us from following through on the CDC’s suggestions for cleaning up a raccoon latrine. But we will be back armed with masks, gloves and shovels. We will probably also have to paint over the raccoon toilet with Kilz primer to seal in odor and make the shack a neat place to hang out. Knowing that we need to take a few simple precautions with our nasty clean-up project will significantly lower our risk of infection.

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