By some estimates, owning a dog carries the same carbon footprint and commuting by SUV. I learned this fact on a British triva show, though, so I’m not sure about the reference: it was hosted by Stephen Fry for whatever that’s worth.
Even if I had the original research that fact was based on, I’d probably have some nitpicking to do though. What kind of SUV? How far is the commute? What kind of dog? How much does it eat? There’s also the fact that if you don’t own an SUV, you just don’t own an SUV – if you don’t own a dog, either someone else does, or that dog is homeless.
Regardless of the specifics though, there are clearly environmental impacts associated with pets. I’m not saying don’t own pets – I personally have four snakes, three salamanders, a fish, two geckos, three cats and a huge crazy dog beast. Owning pets has many benefits, especially for children, from decreasing risk of allergies and reducing stress to fostering compassion and connection with the natural world. Also it’s just the best.
So how do you keep the environmental impact of your pets to a minimum? Unfortunately there’s some terrible advice out there, but fortunately there’s a lot you can do.
Possible impacts can be broken down into a few categories: direct impacts, food, waste management and other misc. impacts.
Direct impacts are the obvious, direct effects pets have on the environment. Think of outdoor cats killing birds and small mammals, and you have the idea. Dogs can do the same sort of thing, although since there are wolves and coyotes in much of Canada that ecological niche was never really empty. You can also consider the impacts of poaching for the exotic pet trade to be a direct effect: destruction of habitat and removal of species from their natural environment obviously disrupts the local ecosystem. Fortunately, by keeping pets indoors/on-leash most of the time, and ensuring that exotic pets are obtained legally from reputable captive breeders, these effects can be avoided.
Food is probably one of the most confusing parts of pet ownership, and not just from a sustainability standpoint. Just like human nutrition, pet nutrition has a lot of misinformation floating around on the Internet and in magazines. The bottom line is to feed your pet a diet it does well on, meaning one that doesn’t cause stomach problems, provides appropriate nutrition and doesn’t trigger any allergies or chronic health problems. Although there are all sorts of options out there, for most animals this will mean some sort of pre-made kibble or canned food, usually from a veterinarian or a pet food store, although there are increasingly good options available at grocery stores.
A couple additional points about pet food: there are a lot of myths, and lot of bad sustainability suggestions out there. You may have heard about the horrors of wheat, or soy, grains, corn, by-products etc., but the fact of the matter is that unless your pet has a specific allergy to something, these are all pretty safe.
Appeals to the naturalistic fallacy would have us believe the best and most natural thing is for our pets to eat raw meat, preferably organic and free-range, but in reality this is expensive, wasteful, and often not great for the pet. While cats are obligate carnivores and require some meat, dogs are omnivores and actually don’t (although it’s much easier to give them proper nutrition if meat is part of their diet).
Just like reducing consumption of animal products in our own diets is a good idea to be more sustainable, eating lower on the food chain helps pets be more sustainable too. Think about everything that has to into producing a raw or “human grade” meat pet food – so much livestock, so much land devoted to grazing or raising food for that livestock, so much energy involved in processing and storing raw meat safely.
By-products are simply what’s leftover after the parts of an animal used for human consumption are removed. Organ meats, bones, cartilage etc. all contain a lot of nutrients, and it would be silly – and wasteful – to simply throw that away. While some advertisers would have you believe by-products are just indigestible bits of feather and hair, this simply isn’t true – they’re a way to make sure the entire animal gets used.
The type of meat is also important. Again, just as chicken has a lower carbon footprint than beef when it’s eaten by people, the same is true for pet food. Really diving into the weeds on this can get complicated (is it local beef vs imported chicken? How was it raised?), and of course your pet’s health is important here too, but in general poultry and smaller fish like sardines and herring (or the general “whitefish” often seen on cat food labels) are a more sustainable choice than beef, pork, or top predators like tuna. Shrimp and other seafood are an exception to the rule: although lower on the food chain, then are often some of the most damaging foods from an environmental perspective, unless you know they’re coming from a safe and sustainable source.
And don’t be afraid of plant protein. In fact, animals who have dietary allergies usually have them to specific proteins in meat, and most veterinary clinics carry a vegetarian dog food specifically for dogs with multiple allergies. Remember that dogs are omnivores, and that while cats require some meat, they can also digest a lot of plant material. Unless it specifically makes your pet sick, corn, wheat, pea protein, soy, rice, etc. are all sources of good nutrition for most domestic pets, especially when mixed with some meat by-products.
Personally, I have a ridiculously huge and hungry rescued Doberman named Thor. Thor loves bacon, steak and salmon. He also loves pizza, sweet potatoes, grass, and tofu though, and he loves vegetarian kibble so much we use it as cookies. I feed him a mix of whatever reasonable quality kibble happens to be on sale and leftover, dog-safe people food. I also collect freezer-burnt meat friends and family would otherwise throw out (as a vegetarian myself, I don’t generate a lot of this on my own!) and make what we call “Spoiled Dog Stew” by simmering it in a big pot of brown rice or oats with some carrots, greens or sweet potatoes tossed in. Thor always knows it’s for him when he sees the ancient chicken legs go into a pot, and he gets so excited. Leftover turkey scraps from holidays get the same treatment. I’m lucky that Thor is one of those dogs who can eat almost anything without getting sick (a pound of stolen butter with the foil once!), so your mileage may vary, but with a little research, cooking food scraps is a great way to reduce waste and spoil your pets. Of course you can also cook with ingredients bought specifically for the purpose. The usual rules of sustainability apply – organ meats, poultry, sustainable seafood, plant-based protein, local if possible – and you may need to talk to your veterinarian to ensure you’re feeding a balanced diet, but it’s a good way to control your pet’s food supply if you can manage it.
You can also limit the environmental impact of your pet’s food by paying attention to packaging. Unfortunately most pet food comes in plastic or plasticized bags, but do what you can to find recyclable packaging, consider buying larger sizes (freezing the excess if necessary to keep it fresh) to reduce packaging, and re-purpose empty pet food bags for garbage bags or other uses (I once grew potatoes in some really heavy-duty dog-food bags with drainage holes cut in the bottom). In some areas you may be able to buy food in a reusable container at a bulk food store, although this might not be practical if your dog eats as much as Thor…
You might have noticed I didn’t really talk about organic options. Of course, if you have a great source of local, organic meat from happy, well-cared for animals, and you want to use that for pet food, more power to you and I don’t mean to dissuade you. Unfortunately, a lot of certified organic food (not just meat but plants as well) is still farmed in an industrial agricultural way that isn’t really any more sustainable than conventional agriculture. While I’m all for supporting local farmers and sustainable growing methods, in general you’re going to make more of a difference simply cutting down on carbon-intensive meat in your pet’s food than you are by switching to organic beef, at least until we get better at sustainable farming.
Of course, with eating comes, well, waste. The unfortunate part of owning pets we all wish we didn’t have to deal with! While it might be tempting to let your dog do its business off in the bushes and let nature take its course, in most areas, with lots of people walking dogs, this would quickly overwhelm the ecosystem’s ability to deal with the waste and can result in contaminated water as well as health risks and smells. Instead, stoop and scoop. Biodegradable waste bags are better than regular plastic which will never degrade, but be aware that in a landfill situation they can actually produce more methane or may not degrade at all. If you can, look into building a pet-waste composter, or check whether your area accepts pet waste in the municipal compost. Note that pet waste should generally be composted either industrially or in a separate pile from your regular compost for gardening, as it needs more heat and time to kill of bacteria and parasites. After a few years though, it’s safe to use in the garden. It can also be used safely around fruit trees, which effectively filter out anything dangerous.
An exception is rabbit droppings, which can be put directly into the garden or regular compost. If you have fish or other aquatic pets, use the waste water from cleaning the tank to water the garden and houseplants: not only does this save water, but the ammonia in waste water is a great nitrogen boost for your plants.
Of course there’s also the sewer system. If your pet mostly does it’s business in the backyard, scoop that up with toilet paper and flush it. Some talented folks train their cats to use the toilet (I would love to stop having a litter box, but my partner doesn’t want to sacrifice convenient use of the toilet while the cats are being trained!), or use a flushable litter (note that these may still cause problems if you have a septic system or live in an older building with finicky plumbing though). Many cat litter options made from unusable wheat, wood waste or recycled newspaper are now widely available, and these are all more sustainable than clay cat litter. They are also more compostable, although where I live in Ottawa, the city accepts all cat litter in the municipal compost system. Some of these alternative litters have other benefits, including less dust, which contributes to healthier indoor air, and re-use of waste products that would otherwise go to landfill.
Other Miscellaneous Impacts
Food supply, waste management, and keeping your pet from murdering wildlife covers most of what you can do to make your companion animals more environmentally friendly, but there are other things. Look for toys and grooming supplies made from recycled or recyclable materials, with minimal, recyclable packaging. There’s a lot of dog shampoos on the market loaded with scents and dyes and foaming agents that just aren’t needed and often irritate the skin as well as contaminate the waterways, and there are a lot of perfectly effective eco-friendly options. Consider making a pet bed from old blankets, cushions, clothing or fabric scraps, especially those made from natural fibres, rather than micro-fibre shedding synthetic beds that will end up in landfill. Vaccinate your pet, and give it any appropriate preventive treatment your vet recommends. If you’ve ever worked in a shelter or veterinary setting, you know how much waste is generated caring for a sick animal – vaccination prevents a lot of needless suffering, and also cuts down on healthcare waste. The same goes for flea, tick, and parasite prevention products. I wish they came in more recyclable packaging, but I also know that most “natural” remedies don’t work very well, and you’re going to end up with much more waste and trouble if your whole house ends up infested with fleas. Doing the most sustainable thing for your pets is fortunately often the healthiest and most compassionate thing you can do for your pets.
And speaking of compassion – rescuing pets is one of the best things you can do. Not only are you giving a deserving animal another chance at a happy, healthy life, you’re preventing animals dying in shelters or as strays, and you’re not creating more demand for the creation of new animals. Certainly there are responsible breeders of all sorts of pets, and captive breeding has even been important for conservation of some species (establishing a commercial seahorse breeding facility in Hawaii completely eliminated illegal poaching of these neat animals from delicate reef ecosystems!), but for most purposes as rescue pet will do quite nicely.
Kathryn Norman is a biologist and sustainability professional with a background in veterinary technology. She is passionate about animal welfare, environmental sustainability and responsible animal ownership.
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