Pet parenthood is wonderful. That goes without saying.
Just think about everything your furry friend does for you: Filling your life with cuddles and snuggles, comforting you when you’re tired or sick or stressed, and providing you with much-needed companionship in your loneliest moments. Even when life is treating you well, pets have a way of making our days still brighter. Many academic studies have demonstrated that dogs and cats improve moods and increase happiness.
And whenever our pets are a cause for stress or worry, it’s probably their health that you’re fretting over: Treating them at the vet, feeding them the right food, managing their stress and anxiety, and more.
What you may not be thinking about is your pet’s negative impact on the environment. And we get it: Pets are family members, and no one wants their Corgi or Siamese to trigger pangs of environmentalist guilt. Pets are supposed to bring us happiness.
But the fact is, pet parents should consider their furry friend’s impact on the environment. That's because — not to be a downer — those impacts are pretty big.
Greenhouse gas emissions: Pets’ diets have a huge carbon impact
Toxic substances: Pets products and waste can impact local environments and waterways
Pet overpopulation: The environment suffers if animal populations aren't kept under control
Now let's be clear: The last thing we'd want to do is discourage you from pet ownership. Rather, this guide will help you become a more environmentally responsible pet owner by minimizing the ecological impacts of your furry friend's day-to-day life.
Consider a Sustainable Pet Food
Climate change remains a grave threat to our planet, and our pets have a remarkably large carbon footprint. (Or maybe "carbon pawprint" is more fitting). According to a 2017 study from UCLA geography professor Gregory Okin, cats and dogs create about 64 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of 13.6 million cars driving for a year. This accounts for 25-30% of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the United States.
Simply put, our furry friends (and their meat-based pet food diets) are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Don’t blame them, they’re not doing it on purpose.
The good news is, there’s plenty you can do to reduce your pets’ carbon impact, simply by managing their diets.
There’s growing evidence that dogs can thrive on insect-based or plant-based foods — and there are more and more pet food companies that cater to just those sorts of diets. But just be aware of a few things:
You should never change your pet's diet without consulting a vet to make sure they're still getting the right nutrients
If your pet isn't responding well to a new insect-based or vegetarian diet, you should strongly consider switching them back
Cats can't digest certain enzymes without meat, which means a plant-based diet is a no-no for kitties. Meanwhile, the safety of insect-based cat food is still being studied (whereas the Association of American Feed Control Officials voted in 2021 to approve a certain insect protein for use in dog food.)
Choose Eco-Friendly Toys and Supplies
Pet supplies and toys are hardly the worst offenders when it comes to pet-related ecological impacts. (By a wide margin, pets' biggest environmental impact stems from their diets.) Still, such items can be bad for the environment. In particular, plastics — both from packaging and from pet products themselves — can wind up polluting oceans and occupying landfills.
Look, we’re certainly not telling you to stop buying any plastic toys and supplies. That would be nearly impossible — plastic is fairly omnipresent in the world of pet stuff. But there are ways to make a positive change.
As a general rule, the more often you have to replace something, the more environmental waste you’re producing. So if you’re going to buy plastic pet products, try to get ones that are designed to last a very long time. A sturdy and durable plastic frisbee or chew toy will stay out of the landfill for quite a while. But a flimsy toy that your dachshund can puncture with a strong bite? Not so much.
There are also ways, here and there, to ditch plastic altogether. Stainless steel food and water bowls are much more environmentally friendly than plastic ones, and they’re unlikely to become trash anytime soon.
And if you’d like to get really conscientious, many biodegradable pet products are now available. For instance, in recent years a growing number of pet brands have begun selling toys and pet beds made entirely out of hemp. If your pet tears or damages such items, you can simply compost them.
You can even find various brands of biodegradable and compostable poop bags on the market. Unlike standard plastic bags, these are made from plants and natural materials. Just be aware that some of these bags can only biodegrade under certain conditions.
And there’s another way to be an eco-friendly consumer: Seek out recycled, used or reclaimed supplies whenever possible. To be clear, that doesn’t mean you should go dumpster diving. But if you can get your hands on safe products that do the trick — say, bowls or toys gifted by a friend — go for it.
Oh, and some brands specialize in selling pet supplies made from recycled products like rubber and plastic bottles. It's definitely worth checking those out as well.
Use Flea and Tick Meds Responsibly
First, let's just super-duper emphasize that you should absolutely give your pet parasite prevention meds. Cats and dogs are susceptible to fleas and ticks. Those little pests can cause all sorts of havoc, from severe discomfort to blood-borne illnesses like anemia. Most veterinarians recommend using these medications year-round to keep your pet protected.
With that out of the way: The neurotoxic pesticides fipronil and imidacloprid, both of which are commonly found in preventative pet meds, seem to be winding up in waterways. That’s harmful to marine life, and potentially to our own water purification efforts.
This is the key finding of a 2020 US study from Colorado State University, as well as a 2020 UK study from the University of Sussex.
So what can pet owners do to help? Unfortunately, no perfect solution has emerged to address water pollution while still making sure your furry friend gets the parasite protection they need. But there are some things you can do to make a difference.
For one, some researchers advise that it's wise for dog and cat owners to refrain from bathing a pet too soon after applying these medications. Your four-legged friend doesn’t actually need to bathe in a river to contaminate it; the drain in your own home is perfectly capable of moving contaminants into local waterways.
Experts also note that orally administered flea-and-tick treatments tend to contain different chemicals and are less likely to wind up in rivers, lakes, and streams — though these medications are not without their own drawbacks or concerns. (Some of these meds may put some pets at higher risk for neurological problems like seizures and muscle tremors, for instance. And at times, some pet dogs and cats can be very resistant to eating tablets.)
One last thing: Don’t duplicate treatments. If you’ve already given your pet a 3-in-1 oral medication that prevents fleas, ticks, and heartworms, there’s no need to administer a topical flea-and-tick treatment as well; your pet's already covered.
Be Careful with Your Pet's Waste
You don’t need a tremendous understanding of ecological processes to know that cleaning up your pet's poop is good for the environment. But hey, a more detailed explanation can’t hurt.
So here’s the thing: If you leave your pet’s feces just laying around outside, the yuck factor doesn’t remain isolated to that one patch of ground. Rainwater will carry waste contaminants into storm drains and waterways. This can disrupt aquatic ecosystems, and even cause illness in humans by making local waterways dangerous to drink from (or swim in).
For this same reason, you should never flush cat or dog waste down the toilet; as we’ve already established, drains in your home have a way of conveying contaminants to local bodies of water. And pet waste often contains parasites — like Toxoplasma in cats— that can make humans extremely ill. Unfortunately, human waste treatment systems aren’t designed to account for waste that isn’t, well, human.
Here’s the bottom line: Placing your pet’s waste in a bag, then throwing that bag in the trash, is your best bet for a clean environment. You probably knew that already — but now you really know it.
Get Your Pet Spayed or Neutered
Millions of pets enter rescue shelters every year, and only about half are ever adopted. Many are put down. Yikes.
So now we’ll do our best Bob Barker and tell you: You should definitely get your pet spayed or neutered. Otherwise you might contribute to widespread pet homelessness and euthanasia.
Okay, but what’s this section doing in an article about eco-friendly pet parenthood? The answer’s pretty simple: failing to get your pet spayed or neutered carries a steep environmental cost. Exploding animal populations exacerbate all the environmental concerns we’ve been exploring in this article: Many more animals means many more ecological pawprints.
In fact, spaying or neutering your pet might just be the single most important step you can take to reduce your pet’s environmental impact.