Toilet-Trained Cats vs. Sea Otters: Part II

In yesterday's blog, I looked into allegations that efforts to toilet train cats were decimating the California sea otter population. A parasite called Toxoplasma gondii frequently shows up in cat feces (this is also the reason you shouldn't mess with litter boxes if you're pregnant) and, if flushed, can infect sea snails that the otters depend on -- with fatal results.

Yet, according to a 2007 post on The Daily Green, flushing your cat's litter down the toilet can also save the planet. They argue that more than 4 billion pounds (almost 2 billion kilograms) of litter winds up in landfills every year and that the clay that it's made from originates in environmentally destructive strip mines -- all this on top of the potential stink.

There's another possible counter argument as well. While you should never risk contact with a litter box while pregnant, indoor cats that feed on commercial cat chow are far less likely to carry T. gondii. This is because the cats pick the parasite up from the various critters they're likely to kill and eat. While there's always the risk that your furry friend will corner a tasty mouse indoors, your kitchen is probably not the all-you-can-eat rodent buffet that that outside world is.

Additionally, runoff from outside or feral cats could also be contributing to the presence of T. gondii off the California coast. In fact, another lethal brain pathogen in otters, Sarcocystis neurona, has been linked to opossum feces. I think we can all agree that the opossums are probably not using public restrooms.

So what do you think? Will we have to choose between strip mines and dead otters?

Learn more about cats and otters at How Cat Shows Work How Sewer and Septic Systems Work How Toilets Work Why are otters playful? What happens to abandoned mines?

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.