An article in Saturday’s Toronto Star discussed composting options for people without organic waste pickup or the ability to have a backyard composter, including indoor composters that can be used by apartment or condo dwellers who want to satisfy their eco-friendly side.

They mentioned that one of the composters they highlighted (NatureMill) can apparently handle pet waste, but composting animal feces is not a good idea. Pet waste (feces +/- cat litter etc.) can contain a wide range of potentially harmful parasites and bacteria. The composting process can generate enough heat to kill these bugs, but it’s not guaranteed to do so, and I’d be especially concerned about small indoor composters. Having a few nasty things in the composter itself isn’t necessarily a big deal, but what happens down the line? People can be exposed to these microorganisms when removing compost, and (maybe more importantly) compost usually ends up in gardens where the bad bugs can contaminate the soil, as well as anything grown in the garden.

One concerning microbe is the protozoal parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Cats are the natural reservoir of Toxoplasma and can pass it in their feces (usually only for a short period), but most people that become infected by Toxoplasma are likely exposed to the oocysts ("eggs") outside in gardens, or from contact with contaminated foods (e.g. unwashed vegetables). (Undercooked meat can also be a source of infection, but that’s another story).  Composting may not kill this parasite, so when pet-waste compost is put into flower gardens or vegetable gardens in which people work, the risk of exposure to Toxoplasma may be increased. The risk of transmission from an individual cat is admittedly low, since only a very small percentage of cats are shedding the parasite at any one time (even though most have at one point), but it’s a preventable risk. There are also various other microorganisms that are potential concerns. While composting is a great way to dispose of most organic wastes, it’s best to keep putting dog and cat feces in the garbage or down the toilet (and wash your hands afterward, of course).

If you really feel the need to compost pet waste, the safest alternative is probably to have a separate composter for pet waste that you handle a bit differently: pay careful attention to hand hygiene after handling the compost, and make sure the compost isn’t used in gardens or other areas where people might have contact with the soil.

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