While humans and our insatiable consumerism are the primary drivers of climate change, pets have a surprisingly large impact of their own.
With around one billion pet dogs and cats in the world eating billions of pounds of meat and GMO grains a year, and producing half a billion pounds of waste every day, Rover and Mittens have a massive effect on the health and sustainability of our environment.
So what can be done to make our pets more planet-friendly? Here are 8 ways to reduce the ecological “pawprint” of your cats and dogs, and go green with your pet.
1. Purchase Pet Products Wisely
Just as you try to avoid toxic plastics, flame retardants and noxious household chemicals for the sake of your own health, you should also consider your pet’s health when purchasing toys, bedding and grooming products.
Read labels! Buy organic bedding, and choose toys, collars and leashes made from natural materials or plastics that do not contain vinyl, phthalates or BPA. (A hemp collar and leash is an especially nice choice.)
Use eco-friendly pet shampoos that are free from toxic chemicals and manufactured with natural ingredients.
And if your pet has an accident indoors, use eco-friendly, non-toxic cleaning products to clean up after them.
2. Keep It Simple
The needs of dogs and cats are very simple: Food, water, exercise, medical care, a collar with tags, and lots of love. But the $60 billion dollar pet industry would have you believe you need an ever-increasing amount of consumer goods for your furry friend.
Although it might be fun, purchasing lots of fancy toys, decorative collars, fancy little outfits and other accessories adds significantly to your pets’ environmental footprint.
All that stuff is not only totally unnecessary for your pet to be happy and healthy, but all those products use up a tremendous amount of oil, water, trees, chemicals and energy in their manufacture, packaging and transportation. That’s a lot of resources and money for toys and clothing your pet is unlikely to appreciate at all.
If you’ve ever seen a dog chase a stick or ball, or a cat with a ball of yarn or crumpled paper, you know that it doesn’t take something with a $10 price tag to entertain your pet for hours. (Though don’t play fetch with tennis balls; they contain lead.)
3. Feed Your Pet Thoughtfully
Believe it or not, although cats and dogs eat a LOT of meat (A single dog can eat an average of 350 pounds of meat a year!), it doesn’t have that big of an environmental impact. That’s because most pet food is made from meat byproducts.
About 50% of every food-producing animal does not get used in human foods. The bones, blood, organs, ligaments, and almost all the other parts not generally consumed by humans are used in pet food, animal feed, and other products. In other words, pets eat the protein that humans will not eat.
Even the grains and vegetables that our pets and livestock eat are not fit for grocery store sales (like blemished produce, broken-grain rice and field/dent corn). Because our pets gladly eat things that humans won’t, the idea that the environmental impact of pet food is additional to the impact of human food is largely incorrect.
Pet food production greatly reduces waste in our industrial agricultural system, keeping valuable food resources out of the landfill. Anyone who has run a homestead knows the value of closing the nutrient loop by feeding animals scraps.
Of course, that’s not to say that pet food has no environmental impact. Dog and cat food, and meat byproducts generally, provide about 15% of profits to the meat industry, and contribute to the overall planetary impact of industrial meat production.
Most cereals that pets eat are GMO corn and soy, which contributes to the amount of carcinogenic glyphosate (Roundup) and other pesticides in our environment.
Pet food also requires a lot oil, energy and water for processing, packaging, and transportation.
So, to keep your pet’s environmental “pawprint” small, buy pet food in bulk quantities whenever possible.
Choose food made from food-grade meat byproducts, not “prime cuts.” Animals do not get any special benefit from eating the cuts of muscle meat that humans eat. In fact, the steaks and chicken breasts that humans prefer are far less nutritious than organ meats, so giving them to your pets only adds to the burden of industrial meat production—and your budget.
Avoid canned food as it is often laden with toxins that can sicken your pet. The 2017 Ecology Center study called Pets Beware: Toxic Chemicals in Pet Food Can Linings found:
- Almost all cat food cans tested (95%) had a polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-based coating
- Most dog food cans (81%) had a bisphenol A (BPA)-based coating
- Pet food cans overall had a higher frequency of both BPA-based and PVC-based coatings than human food cans.
BPA and PVC are hormone-disrupting chemicals that migrate into food and have been linked to health problems in humans and animals.
Most dog food cans contained coatings made from the endocrine disruptor BPA, recently linked to metabolic and gut microbiome changes in dogs consuming canned dog food.
If you can afford it, buy pet food that is made from organic, sustainably-raised or grass-fed animals (not from industrial CAFOs), and non-GMO grains. Here are some greener pet food brands on Amazon for dogs and for cats.
Perhaps the most sustainable solution is to enlist your pet in your food recycling efforts. We Americans waste a lot of food—around 40 percent, according to recent estimates—which means we also waste all the resources that went into producing that food. So, if you have more meat or vegetables than you can use before they spoil, or if you have scraps like vegetable cuttings, fish heads, organs or bones leftover from preparing your food, consider turning your excess food into some pet chow.
Here are two great recipe books for homemade cat and dog food:
- The Healthy Homemade Pet Food Cookbook: 75 Whole-Food Recipes and Tasty Treats for Dogs and Cats of All Ages
- Dinner PAWsible: A Cookbook of Nutritious, Homemade Meals for Cats and Dogs
Lastly, feed your pet only what it needs to be healthy. More than one-third of U.S. cats and dogs are overweight. Complications of pet obesity, such as diabetes and asthma, cost veterinary insurance companies $34 million in claims last year.
If your dog or cat is overweight, it’s time to reduce their food intake, which will save resources, improve their health, and trim your budget, too.
4. Waste Not, Want Not
In the U.S., American dogs produce 10 million tons of waste a year. Cat litter accounts for 2 million tons of landfill space (and clay litter, the predominant choice of kitty litter, is not biodegradable). Pets account for about 4 percent of municipal waste, roughly the same as dirty diapers.
Most of our pets’ poop either winds up in a landfill, where it’s embalmed forever in plastic bags, or it sits on the ground until the next storm washes it into the sewer where it can end up in rivers and on beaches.
In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency placed canine feces in the same category of pollutant as oil, herbicides, insecticides, and other deadly contaminants because the waste from just 100 dogs could produce enough bacteria in three days to close a bay and all watersheds within 20 miles to all shellfish fishing and swimming. Dog poop is a persistent source of bacterial pollution in streams, rivers and lakes across the U.S.
Please! Always scoop your poop! (But be sure to use a biodegradable pet waste bag!)
However, instead of landfilling it, you can easily compost pet poop—but you’ll need a separate composting system than the one you use for vegetable gardening. Dog and cat poop can contain E. coli., toxoplasma, and other pathogens, which could contaminate your homegrown produce.
If you have room in your backyard, you can bury an old garbage bin to use as a DIY pet-waste composter. Just do it far from your veggie garden. Or check out the Doggie Dooley. The makers of the Doggy Dooley also sell an enzymatic “Waste Terminator” to break down the poop even faster, and eliminate odors.
You can compost cat litter the same way you would compost dog poop (see above), but you’ll have to switch from clay litter to a more sustainable cat litter that is biodegradable.
Let your pet waste compost decompose for at least 18 months, and then only use it on shade trees, shrubs, houseplants and other non-edible plant life.
5. Protect Wildlife
Predation by domestic cats is the number-one direct, human-caused threat to birds in the United States and Canada. (2014 State of the Birds report.) Humans have allowed housecats to become an invasive species.
In the United States alone, outdoor cats kill approximately 2.4 billion birds every year. Although this number may seem unbelievable, it represents the combined impact of tens of millions of outdoor cats. Half of these deaths are caused by pet cats and half by feral or stray cats. Each outdoor cat plays a part.
The average outdoor cat will also kill 12.3 billion small land animals, including lizards, voles, chipmunks, frogs, and small snakes. (By comparison, wind turbines kill only about 575,000 birds a year.)
The University of Georgia KittyCams project recommends the following:
- Keep cats indoors as much as possible. Here’s some information on keeping kitties happy indoors.
- If you allow your cats outside, consider having them wear a “CatBib,” which prevents them from killing animals.
- Remove bird baths, houses and feeders from your yard if you allow your cat to roam.
- Consider outdoor enclosures or leash training to keep your pet safe while outdoors.
6. Adopt From A Shelter
When you adopt from a shelter, it’s kind of like recycling a pet!
There already are far more cats and dogs in the world than we have homes for them, so why buy a pet when you can adopt one of the thousands of healthy puppies and kittens put into shelters every day in the U.S.?
Check out Petfinder.com to find your perfect furry match.
7. Spay or Neuter Your Pets
More than 70,000 puppies and kittens in the U.S alone are born every day. The overwhelming majority of them are put in shelters, or abandoned to go feral or die.
Spaying or neutering your pet:
- Reduces overpopulation in shelters and in the wild, which also reduces animal abuse and euthanization rates.
- Has many health benefits, including a drastic decrease in the risk of cancer.
- Conserves a lot of food, energy and resources that would otherwise be spent on them in a shelter.
- Saves young animals from the trauma and abuse they often experience before getting to a shelter.
8. Choose Safe Icebreakers
Common de-icing salts (like rock salt, table salt and potassium nitrate) are notorious for tearing up or burning the paws of dogs and cats who walk on them, for sickening children who play in snow and ice that has been treated with them, and for causing corrosion on driveways, vehicles and roadway structures.
Eventually these pollutants run off into the nearest waterway where they kill plants, frogs, fish and other aquatic life.
This winter, head down to your local hardware store or shop online and pick up some “pet-safe” de-icer made from calcium magnesium acetate (CMA), potassium chloride (KCl), or calcium chloride (CaCl2) to melt the ice around your home or business.
When these non-toxic de-icing products run off with the snowmelt, the minerals they contain can actually fertilize the plants they come into contact with. Good brands include: