Cats vs Sea Otters?
Is it possible for a house cat to kill a sea otter?
The answer is yes. Okay, I know this sounds a bit odd since sea otters live in, well, the sea, and cats loathe, detest and despise the water, but it’s true. All right, all right, I’m not talking about cats actually chasing down and tackling a sea otter, but there is in fact a way, indirectly, that our beloved kitties can cause problems for those wonderful and playful otters.
The Science of Water
My background is in environmental biology, wildlife biology and water pollution prevention. These are all very closely related topics that mesh nicely with one another. Because of this, I learned a lot about the environment and how pollution can come in many forms. I’ve done educational outreach to school-aged children where I taught hour long courses in the difference between the sewer and storm water system. Basically, the storm water system is the one where all sorts of pollutants left lying around outside can end up getting washed down the storm drain, which then drains to the nearest creek, river, stream, bay or ocean.
Pollution and the Environment
When careless people throw paper cups, bags and other trash into the gutters or sidewalks, it will likely end up in the storm drain. When it rains or when people water their lawns too much and the excess water runs down the gutter, the trash will be swept away down the storm drain. But what about smaller, more innocuous things like pet waste? Can that have an effect on the environment and wildlife? Indeed it can.
Pet owners who don’t pick up after their pets can be unwittingly contributing to pollution in the water systems by allowing their pet’s waste to wash into the water ways. There are many parasites in pet waste that can not only infect humans, but other animals as well. Such is the case with Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii), the nasty little parasite that is passed in cat feces. Toxoplasmosis is a disease that can infect people, especially people with a suppressed immune system. Pregnant women are usually advised by their doctors not to change cat litter while pregnant because they could contract toxoplasmosis and pass it to their fetus.
T. gondii and the Ocean
T. gondii can be found in a cat’s intestines where it will produce oocysts, or a type of spore or egg like structure, that are then passed into the environment via the feces. People can become infected by not washing their hands after handling soiled cat litter or even by working in the garden soil where cats have pooped. Many people don’t show any signs of an infection, but for some, it can cause devastating problems like seizures or paralysis. Apparently T. gondii isn’t found in dogs.
So how can cat feces get into the ocean and end up in sea otters? There are actually several ways this can happen. Cat owners are probably familiar with advertisements for flushable litter, which may seem like a great idea, but think what might happen if the fecal matter that’s flushed down the toilet contains T. gondii. We’ve already talked about the storm drain system, but the toilet water goes to the sewer, which goes to the wastewater treatment plant. Wastewater treatment facilities are pretty darn good at removing most bacteria and disinfecting the water by using chlorine or several other methods, but they aren’t effective at removing T. gondii from the waste stream. This means that the ‘clean’ effluent, the water leaving the plant, will still contain the parasite. The cleaned effluent is generally discharged into a nearby water supply or directly into the ocean.
Once in the ocean, sea otters seem to be susceptible to picking up the parasite, whether from infected shell fish or from the water, nobody seems to know just yet. But this isn’t the only way otters could be getting the parasites. Again, the storm water system might be flushing infected fecal matter down the storm drain where the water never goes to any plant and ends up going right into the water supply. This is a problem that unfortunately can be caused by both indoor and outdoor cats. Some researchers have found feral cats living near the ocean and the otters in that area tend to have the T. gondii parasite. While that’s not conclusive, it sure seems probably that there’s a connection.
What to do?
The infected otters have symptoms like brain damage, seizures and are so sick that they can’t feed themselves, eventually dying of starvation or dehydration. So what can we, as responsible cat owners, do? The obvious and easiest thing is simply to clean litter by putting it in plastic bags and throwing it in the trash where it’ll end up in a dump and shouldn’t get washed into any storm drains. Next, never, ever flush litter and cat feces down the toilet, even if it’s a flushable litter. Another way to help is to pick up any cat poop that may be lying around on your lawn. Don’t wash it down the storm drain with your hose or leave it for the rain to wash away.
It’s strange to think that Fluffy might have a hand in killing sea otters, but it’s true. Scientists are doing more research to find more effective methods in protecting the otters, but until they do, be extra careful with your cat’s waste.