There’s an unfortunate truth when it comes to pets and the environment: The sweet dog or cat sleeping next to you on the couch is an eco-outcast. Well-loved pets and their owners contribute to a $47 billion pet industry filled with bacon-flavored treats, ergonomic beds, chamomile shampoo — and a mini-mountain of pet waste.
Research out of UCLA shows that our meat-eating furry friends create the equivalent of about 64 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, which has about the same climate impact as a year's worth of driving from 13.6 million cars. Meat-based diets require more energy, land and water to produce, and do more environmental damage in terms of erosion, pesticides and waste, the study notes.
"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," said geography professor Gregory Okin in a 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."
Some surprising stats from Okin's study, which estimated that there are 163 million cats and dogs in America:
- Cats and dogs account for 25 to 30 percent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the U.S.
- If cats and dogs occupied their own country, that nation would be fifth in the world for meat consumption.
- America's pets produce about 5.1 million tons of feces in a year, as much as 90 million Americans.
- Dogs and cats eat about as many calories as the population of France in one year.
All of this may have you wondering about your own pet's carbon footprint. Here are a few ways to reduce your cat or dog's environmental impact.
Ease up on the kibble
An overwhelming number of cats and dogs walk around with a little too much extra "fluff" under their fur. Two or three extra pounds can make a huge difference on a 14-pound animal; it’s excess weight that can lead to costly complications such as diabetes, heart disease and joint-related issues. (Sound familiar?) Have a heart-to-heart with your vet during your pet’s next checkup. Together, you can determine how much food really belongs in that bowl each day.
Get the good stuff
Most dogs will happily consume whatever you put in their bowl, but "chicken by-product meal" isn’t that yummy or healthy. Read the label on your pet's food carefully. Ingredients are listed by weight, so look for a quality protein such as beef, lamb, chicken or fish among the first few items and avoid cheaper versions loaded with corn, food dyes or other additives. These options may cost more, but dogs and cats typically eat less of it — and they generate less waste (that means poop) — so it could be a win-win.
However, you don't necessarily need to fork out more money to buy high-end pet food. Typically, this designer pet food is made with "human-grade" meat while most standard pet food is comprised of organ meat that would otherwise have gone to waste in a landfill — leading to more greenhouse gases. Dr. Cailin Heinze told The New York Times that pet food made with organ meat is perfectly fine and that human-grade meat isn't necessarily healthier for pets.
"For every cow or pig that we slaughter there’s a lot of organ meat, so feeding cats and dogs organ meat rather than the same exact muscle meat that humans eat is sustainable because it can help reduce the number of animals we have to raise," Heinze said.
Heinze also notes that designer pet food typically includes ingredients shipped from other countries, which also leaves a large environmental impact. "Shipping lamb or venison from New Zealand is probably not the most environmentally sustainable option when you can buy pet food containing chicken that was raised closer."
For guidance on decoding your dog’s kibble, check out DogFoodAnalysis.com, where editors regularly review popular brands and break down the list of ingredients.
Get moving — together
Your dog isn’t the only family member with an expanding waistline. Burn calories and make new friends by taking a stroll through the neighborhood together. A daily 15-minute walk can help both of you de-stress and burn calories. This free workout also beats a pricey gym membership.
Recycle those containers
Dog and cat food bags and cans, as well as toy packages, should hit the recycle bin. If the food container has a plastic lining, separate that part before sorting.
Get the green poop bags
Before plastic shopping bags become extinct in your area, make the transition to biodegradable versions. A compostable, corn-based option from BioBag can be flushed and it even meets California’s strict labeling standards.
Seek out cruelty-free products
It’s hard for a pet lover to imagine another animal suffering. Thousands of companies have pledged to forgo animal testing as part of their manufacturing process. For a list of cruelty free pet products and companies, visit PETA's website.
Streamline the toy stash
If you have enough plush toys to fill a storage box, it may be time to cut back on visits to the pet accessories aisle. Most pets have a few favorites, the rest just take up extra space. Throw your pet’s favorite stuffed toys in the washing machine to kill germs and dust mites and to give them that "new toy smell." (A few hours in the freezer also kills dust mites.) Then donate the leftovers to a local animal shelter or rescue group so another pooch can share the love.
Foster a dog or cat
The Humane Society of the United States estimates that about 6 million dogs and cats are turned in to shelters each year. Nearly half of those animals are euthanized. Rescue groups try to make a dent in that number by pulling adoptable pets and placing them with volunteers. “We could save so many more animals if we just had enough foster homes,” said Taylor Brand, founder of Rescue Me! Animal Project in Atlanta, which helps dogs and cats find a forever home. Consider it an opportunity for your pet to provide on-the-job training in such canine pleasures as playing fetch, walking on a leash or couch cuddling. Search for a rescue group in your area and consider opening your home to a dog or cat today.
Spay or neuter
It may be tempting to have a miniature version of your furry best friend, but plenty of shelter puppies await a permanent home. There’s also the issue of cleaning up after an unaltered dog who’s “marking” the house. If that isn’t enough incentive to visit the vet, there are health benefits to getting your dog and cat spayed or neutered.
Be a good neighbor
It may be a pain to pick up poop, but the risk of illness from harmful pathogens and bacteria can be much more problematic. Place dog poop in a handy biodegradable bag for disposal or flush it. Just don’t ignore it. If you’ve ever stepped in a fresh pile of yuck, you can appreciate the power of paying it forward.
Besides, it’s good for you and the planet. With just a few of these changes, you can help dogs and cats play nice with the environment.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in May 2010.