As we approach the holidays, a lot of people are going to eat and/or drink too much, and suffer the consequences. The same can happen with dogs, and sometimes both the dog and their owner pay the price. Dogs get into things they shouldn’t all the time… too much food, garbage, dead critters and various other “dietary indiscretions” can easily lead to diarrhea (and sometimes more serious problems). During the holidays, there’s often a greater opportunity for dogs to steal food or to be fed too many treats or leftovers. Sometimes it’s dramatic – like a 60 pound Lab eating a 15 pound turkey – but often the first sign of a problem is the pile of diarrhea on the floor (usually at 3 AM, in the case of my dog).

So, after yelling at the dog, blaming someone else for leaving food out, and perhaps cleaning off your foot (depending on where you stepped), how do you clean up this mess without getting sick yourself?

The good news is diarrhea from dietary indiscretions is not usually associated with zoonotic microorganisms like Salmonella or Campylobacter. However, those and other potentially harmful bacteria can be found in any dog feces, and you have to assume that diarrhea is infectious. The risk of infection of people is probably low, but you don’t want to take unnecessary chances (especially over the holidays).

First things first: Clean up as much of the diarrhea as possible. Ideally wear gloves, and clean up the diarrhea using paper towels or something else disposable. Don’t wander around the house with the diarrhea-soaked items – bring a garbage bag with you to the scene of the “accident”.

After the bulk of the mess has been removed, your next step depends on a few things, including the surface, what you have available, and whether any high risk people are in the house (i.e. infants, elderly, people with compromised immune systems).

  • Smooth, sealed surfaces (e.g. tile, laminate, sealed wood) are easy to clean and disinfect. A general cleaner can be used to remove traces of diarrhea. If you want to disinfect the area, use a general household disinfectant or dilute bleach solution (1 part bleach to 50 parts water). While general household disinfectants may not kill everything, I’m not sure aggressive disinfection is needed in most households. Thorough cleaning does a very good job, and we aren’t trying to make the house sterile. I’d be more concerned about disinfection in a household with high-risk people (particularly infants who may crawl over that part of the floor). If you are concerned about bleach damaging the surface, use something else or test it on an out-of-the-way area.
  • Carpet is problematic because it’s pretty much impossible to disinfect. After removing as much diarrhea as possible, use of a carpet cleaning spray might be helpful (but it’s more effective for removing stains, not pathogens). A few disinfectants can be used on carpets safely. Bleach isn’t a good idea unless the carpet is already (or was originally) white. Even with a good disinfectant, you’re very unlikely to kill all of the bacteria present, because of the ability of microbes to hide in fabric. Steam cleaning is another option.

Once that’s done, don’t forget the most important step: wash your hands thoroughly. (The second-most important step might be to cordon the dog off in a more easily cleanable area for the rest of the night in case further accidents occur).

Overall, the risk of getting sick from overindulgence-associated dog diarrhea is pretty low. I focus on cleaning up the mess and don’t worry about thorough disinfection.  That’s probably reasonable in a low risk household, but I’d be more wary around high-risk individuals.