How to lower your dog or cat’s carbon pawprint

You can love your pets and the planet at the same time.
Woman on laptop with dog and bag of vegetables.
You can spoil your fur baby sustainably. Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels

Pets are amazing—they reduce anxiety and loneliness for so many people, especially during the past year or so of sporadic lockdowns and working from home. Last summer, one particular shelter saw a more than 30 percent increase in dog adoptions compared to 2019. But in an increasingly changing world when it comes to climate, there’s a lot to consider about an animal’s carbon pawprint.

“I like dogs and cats, and I’m definitely not recommending that people get rid of their pets or put them on a vegetarian diet, which would be unhealthy,” UCLA geography professor Gregory Okin, who authored a 2017 paper on environmental impacts of pet ownership, said in a press statement. “But I do think we should consider all the impacts that pets have so we can have an honest conversation about them. Pets have many benefits, but also a huge environmental impact.” 

Manage pet waste responsibly

When it comes to pet ownership, especially for dogs, dog owners should ensure that they properly dispose of their dog’s waste instead of leaving it on the ground. If their waste is left on the ground especially around rainfall, the waste can get into waterways which can make people and marine life sick. 

“[Dog waste] also contains nitrogen and phosphorus, which contribute to slimy and sometimes toxic algae outbreaks,” said Jon Devine, senior attorney for NRDC’s Water program in a blog post

[Related: How to help your pet with separation anxiety.]

Of course, always be sure to pick up your dog’s waste and dispose of it instead of leaving it out. But not all disposable bags and tossing methods come equal. Biodegradable bags especially can be misleading, and only really work if you take care of them properly by flushing (make sure your bags are flushable), burying waste, or testing out dog waste composting. 

Cats are a little more complicated—while you can train them to use the toilet, there are potential issues for both the cat and our water system associated with a potty-trained kitty. Still, there are several eco-friendly cat litter options for your feline friends that won’t cause the same health problems as traditional clay-based products.

Protect your pet, and other animals, when you go outside

Cat owners should consider keeping their cats indoors. According to a 2013 study in Nature Communications, outdoor cats can kill billions of birds in a year, which is especially harmful if a cat owner lives near endangered bird species. 

Having strictly indoor animals can also prevent unwanted litters and may reduce your need for harsher flea and tick removers or prevention. Of course, you should still protect your animals from pests, and some more sustainable options for that are as simple as regularly cleaning your pet’s bedding with soap and hot water. 

Another method, especially for longer furred or haired pets is to groom and comb them regularly so that any potential fleas don’t go unnoticed before they spread to other pets or people in the same household. If you happen to find a few fleas on your pet, you can give them a bath with Dawn dish soap in a pinch. However, this method does not prevent fleas from coming back and is more of a temporary fix according to some veterinarians. 

Sometimes there’s a flea infestation that’s too severe to not use the more common chemicals for. The Natural Resource Defense Council recommends using chemicals like s-methoprene or pyriproxyfen, which are less toxic ingredients for tackling fleas. Avoid products that have synthetic neonicotinoids like imidacloprid and dinotefuran which are harmful to both bees and younger children. 

Rethink buying every toy—and reuse what you can

Bringing a furry friend into your life is a long-term commitment—one that requires toys, food, clean water beds, leashes, and more.  As much as we love spoiling our pets, overbuying items and toys can be wasteful, especially if the pet doesn’t use them often. 

One way to avoid waste is to DIY toys for that pet with home materials that are safe for them to play with. There are a number of online guides, including one for dog toys that can be made from repurposed household items like older t-shirts and towels. This is especially useful for pets who go through a lot of toys due to their size and energy.  

Another way to navigate supplies for pets can consider looking for social media groups where other pet owners are giving away or selling used items affordably. This ensures that items that are still good for everyday use are not being thrown away and sitting in a landfill. When a pet passes on, it’s best to see if some of their items can be reused (after being cleaned) by other families with pets. 

Eco-friendly food options 

Finding environmentally friendly pet food options can be a little tricky depending on the pet—especially considering how many pet options are animal-based, which creates a higher carbon footprint than plant-based foods

“What we know is that about 25 percent of the proteins raised in the United States goes to feed pets, so that’s a big impact,” Caitlyn Dudas, executive director of the Pet Sustainability Coalition, told Forbes, “and it’s also an enormous opportunity for this industry to think really critically about the role we play in the sustainable regeneration of our farming communities and our farmlands around the United States.”

[Related: What you need to know before bringing a puppy home for your kids.]

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any options at all. Consider purchasing food from pet food companies that are working to lower their carbon footprint. Some of those include Purina which is working to make 100 percent of packaging reusable or recyclable by 2025 and Hill’s Pet Nutrition which is launching a recyclable bag in Europe this year and working to launch recycle-ready packaging in the US by 2022. 

You could also consider adding grains and vegetables to some of your pets’ food or trading out unhealthier bones and treats for crunchy carrots or apples. If you are considering going fully vegetarian for your dog (something that is simply not possible for cats), make sure to talk to your veterinarian about it first.

“It is theoretically possible to feed a dog a vegetarian diet, but it’s much easier to get it wrong than to get it right,” Dos Santos, president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA) told the BBC. “You would have to do it under the supervision of a veterinary-trained nutritionist.”