We are a country of animal lovers. According to the American Pet Products Association, ninety and a half million families — or 70% of U.S. households — have pets. One hundred and thirty-five million cats and dogs live in our homes, and many more amphibians, fish, birds, rodents, and reptiles bring joy into our lives.
We love our furry (or hairy or feathered) friends and family, but like us, their needs have an impact on the environment. Here are some ways you can reduce your pet’s environmental paw footprint.
1. Chow Down Sustainably
Many of us choose our eating choices to reduce our personal carbon footprint. When 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions come from meat production, leaving meat or dairy products is one of the most significant lifestyle changes we can make for the environment. But what about our pets?
In the United States, about a quarter of the calories from meat are consumed by cats and dogs; if they were a country, they would be in fifth place in meat consumption (and sweetness). UCLA geographer Gregory Okin says meat-based pet food is responsible for 64 million tons of greenhouse gases a year, equivalent to the annual emissions of 13 million cars. Fortunately, we can take our pets with us on our own plant-based trip.
Dogs are natural carnivores and have evolved to eat an omnivorous diet, which means they can make a healthy transition to a balanced, well-designed vegetarian (or even vegan) lifestyle. After researching the needs of your breed and consulting with a pet nutrition expert, you may want to consider switching to a plant-based pet food and slowly incorporating it into your current feeding routine, eventually completely replacing meat-based foods.
Concerns about protein intake are a common reason for rejecting a plant-based diet (human and dog). But while dogs need protein in their diet, Dr. Jennifer Coates found that the right vegan and vegetarian dog diets have the right levels of protein and amino acids (the building blocks for the body’s own proteins). Animal keepers can choose foods with lower animal protein and more plant-based protein alternatives (it is also worth noting that humans can easily obtain all the necessary protein from plant-based sources).
Among the companies researching alternative plant-based protein sources, Wild Earth uses seaweed, yeast (which actually contains more protein than steak) and an umami-flavored mushroom called Koji in their products. Chippin takes a different approach. The company gets the protein from crickets, on which millions of people – many of whom live in East Asian countries – rely on it as a source of protein.
If vegan or vegetarianism is not right for your dog, choose less effective meat such as chicken instead of beef. Some pet foods also use animal by-products that would otherwise be wasted, such as organ meat or bone meal.
Unlike dogs, cats are “mandatory carnivores” and cannot produce certain proteins themselves, such as taurine, so they need to take it from fish, beef, chicken and other meats. It is not healthy to change their diet to exclude meat, but cat owners can choose pet food brands that follow higher animal welfare standards or use only MSC-certified fish.
For all pets (not just dogs and cats!), Choose food packaged in a recyclable container or buy in bulk to reduce plastic waste and Terracycle non-recyclable packaging. If you’re really dedicated, try cooking simple meals and delicacies for your pets.
2. Non-toxic care and pest prevention
The unnatural dyes, sulfates, parabens, triclosan, phthalates, and synthetic fragrances we use in our own body products are also common in our favorites. Many of these unnatural additives end up in waterways and harm wildlife.
Be careful when washing your pet products green – as we do when choosing our own shampoo and deodorant – and research which products are best for your animal. For dogs, try Castle Baths or Ethique Shampoo, Conditioner and Soap Pieces for minimal waste. For both cats and dogs, you can try Wysong while bathing, and Chagrin Valley Soap & Salve Company products for all kinds of furry pets, from ferrets to guinea pigs.
To prevent pests, start with basic, non-toxic measures: frequent bathing in hot water, grooming, and regular vacuuming. If more serious measures are needed, avoid flea collars containing the pesticides tetrachlorovinphos, propoxur, permethrin, and amitraz. Non-toxic products such as Pest Peeve Flea Prevention are safer for the environment, your pet and young children in your household. See a list of NRDC’s better anti-flea and tick products.
3. Watch the business
It is estimated that the feces from pets are equal to the total amount of waste in Maryland each year – but if you ensure proper disposal, the impact can be minimized.
When buying cat litter, read the ingredient labels to avoid sodium bentonite clay, which is often obtained by strip mining that causes soil erosion and groundwater contamination. Shredded newsprint, sawdust or other compostable material also works instead of the typical litter. However, do not flush the cat cavity on the toilet, warns the NRDC, unless it is a strictly indoors pet with negative toxoplasmosis. While it seems a better solution to throw waste in the trash, sewage systems are not designed to treat parasites typical of cat waste.
In addition to being an unwanted sight on the sidewalk, dog dust carries pathogens and nutrients that, when not collected in the water, cause an explosive growth of stinking algae. Always take a bag with you for a walk to collect and dispose of your waste properly. Like compostable pots, biodegradable poop bags are well-intentioned but do not decompose in a sealed landfill without oxygen. Instead of hell for the little green bags, use plastic bags made from newspapers and look for bags that are made from alternative materials to plastic, such as vegetable starch.
Waste from carnivorous pets should not end up in the compost, as should pieces of meat from the kitchen, so dog pests should not be left in the yard to break down. According to the EPA, pet owners can flush bagless dog dirt down the toilet or bury it in the yard, away from their home and garden, and at least 12 inches below the surface. Otherwise, throw it in the trash unless you live in a city where animal waste composting programs are organized, such as San Francisco.
Rabbits, birds, guinea pigs, and other small, herbivorous pets have harmless feces that can be easily disposed of in the compost pile if their bedding can be composted.
4. Get Crafty toys
After dropping a hundred dollars on a new cat tree, you may find that your cat lover is more interested in the cardboard box it has been put into. It’s important to keep your pets active and entertained, but they certainly won’t notice the difference if you do. some of your own games! Make a knotty toy for dogs from knotted old t-shirts, a crumpled chew toy from a water bottle filled with old socks, or try your hand at sewing your own toys out of fabric from old clothes and blankets.
When buying new toys, look for sustainable brands and products made from recycled or recyclable materials, such as these snacks for little rabbits, chinchillas, and guinea pigs.
5. Shop Used
Pets need all kinds of equipment: clothes, shoes, tanks, cages, lamps, demanding indoor habitats, and more. Instead of buying these things anew, you can save resources and money by buying second-hand. Find what you need in garden sales, used items, and online marketplaces like Facebook Marketplace, Mercari, and eBay, and pass on your own unwanted items to shelters and friends.
6. Be careful with wildlife
If your dog is known to chase squirrels and rabbits, keep them on a leash around wildlife to avoid tragic encounters.
However, cats are the main culprits when it comes to animal attacks. They may be cute and covert inside, but they are prepared to hunt, as we can see when they practice their abilities on the red lasers we use.
According to the American Bird Conservancy, cats kill about 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year and are directly responsible for the extinction of 33 bird species. Compare these numbers to the 700,000 bird deaths attributed to wind turbines and 25.5 million to power lines, and it is clear why the International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified cats as one of the worst non-native invasive species in the world.
To prevent these deaths and the upset of our global ecosystems, it is best to keep cats indoors. Our companions may come from outdoor wild cats, but domestication has dramatically increased their numbers, making their unnatural and dangerous presence outdoors. In order for your cat to get outside, build an illuminated “cation” or leash and take it out for a walk (or rather sit down).
If you decide to roam your cat outdoors, don’t let it out at dawn and dusk, when wildlife is at its most active, and tie a bell around your collar to alert wildlife of their approach. A 2013 experiment by bird ecologist Susan Willson found that cats killed 19 times fewer birds in the spring with a bell-laden collar.
7. Adopt, don’t buy
Are you thinking of expanding your family with a partner? There are so many animals that need a loving, caring owner. The Humane Society estimates that 6-8 million dogs and cats are sheltered in the United States each year, and only half of these are adopted. Buying from a breeder only contributes to the problem of overpopulation of pets, especially when many pets need a loving home. Many animals from breeding facilities also suffer from health problems or are exposed to unhealthy living conditions for profit.
8. Spay and Neuter
Neutering and neutering pets will not only reduce the overgrowth of pets, but will also prolong the lives of many animals. According to the Humane Society, modified male dogs live 18-23% and cats 39-62% longer. In addition, they are less likely to develop certain cancers and behave aggressively.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a degree in English and Environmental Studies and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. In addition to his most recent position at Hunger Free America, he did an internship at Sierra Club in Washington, Saratoga Living Magazine and WHYY, a NPR member in Philadelphia.