Miami Beach officials, disturbed by reports of a hookworm outbreak, have taken a rather unique approach to the problem: they’ve created a cat and cat poop map.

This fall, several cases of cutaneous larval migrans were reported – and highly publicized – in the Miami Beach area, something that is of particular concern for a tourist city that doesn’t want people thinking the city’s beaches are biohazardous.

Cutaneous larval migrans is a skin condition caused by migration of hookworm larvae through the skin. Dogs and cats can be carries of hookworms and pass eggs in their feces. Larvae then hatch from these eggs and can penetrate the skin (of people and animals alike) after being in the environment for a few (usually 2-9) days. If someone has contact with infectious larvae, such as by stepping on them while bare foot on a beach, the larvae get into their skin and start migrating, causing this very itchy skin condition.

Feral (stray) cats are the main problem in Miami Beach. Stray cats and beaches are a bad combination, since stray cats tend to have high rates of hookworm carriage, they often defecate in sand on the beach, and of course people often have direct contact between bare skin and beach sand. Identifying where stray cats live (and poop) is important for disease control and public education. “We needed to identify where the cats are eating — and where they’re pooping — to address this problem” stated a program organizer. To do this, city sanitation workers were given GPS devices and instructions to go find cats. Data were uploaded into a mapping system, and areas where cats tend to congregate were identified. Not surprisingly, certain areas of sane dunes are being used as industrial-sized litterboxes by the cats.

This type of information can be used in several ways. It can be useful for evaluating cat populations: where they are, where they go, and what happens to them over time. It can help identify areas where the cat population needs to be addressed through measures such as trap, neuter and release programs (as are being used in Miami Beach). It can also help with development of targeted education programs, by putting up warnings in heavily cat- and cat poop-infested areas. City health officials think that the combination of tracking, the increased spay/neuter program and targeted warnings to sunbathers have helped staunch the outbreak.

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