Dear Vanessa,

I’ve made some real inroads into greening my life (or, I think I have), but realize that I can’t say as much for my pets. What’s your advice for getting my furry family on track with me?

Thanks, Betsy (Carmel, Calif.)

Yours is a much more important question than most people realize. Pets — pampered and not — have a huge impact on the environment. They (through us) consume vast resources and contribute to a variety of pollution crises. As Stan Cox writes in his article on pets and consumption, America's pets tear open $5 billion worth of presents at Christmas. And that’s just at the holidays. According to BusinessWeek, “Americans now spend $41 billion a year on their pets — more than the gross domestic product of all but 64 countries in the world.” That’s $41 billion for meat, plastics, drugs, chemicals, sweat shops, fossil fuels … you get the point.

Let’s talk about sex

That said, the most obvious way to green your pet is to spay or neuter it. Heartbreaking data shows that about half of all dogs and cats born in the U.S. will be euthanized. The ASPCA has a database of low-cost spay/neuter sources that is searchable by ZIP code.

Keep cats indoors

Cats are predators. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 39 million birds are killed annually by domestic cats – in Wisconsin alone! Putting a bell on their collar helps, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

Compost or bury pet waste

American dogs and cats create 10 million tons of waste a year — waste that could be composted. Instead, most of it ends up in plastic bags in landfills. Essentially, nothing that goes into a landfill will degrade anytime soon, especially if it is encased in plastic. Composting or burying dog and cat waste is a viable alternative to filling landfills and contaminating waterways. A simple “compost pet waste” search will uncover an abundance of guides for dealing with pet poop. You’ll hear plenty about not using animal waste compost on edibles — so to be safe, don't. You need a separate pile for this purpose.

A change of litter

Get this: 85 percent of the 2.5 million tons of clay mined in the U.S. is used for kitty litter. That clay comes at great expense (beyond your wallet). It is strip mined, meaning layers of earth are literally stripped off to get to a seam of clay. It’s a destructive process, effectively destroying thousands of acres of land every year. Plus, clay-based cat litter contains crystalline silica, a known carcinogen. Hmmm ... strip mining and cancer so a cat can poop? If the label on your kitty litter lists sodium bentonite, "natural clay," or if there are no details, then you probably need to look for a new product. There are several recycled and biodegradable litters on the market. Better yet, train your cat to use the toilet. Granted, it takes awhile, but once your cat gets the hang of it, you’ll never have to buy, clean or throw out litter again!


Pet food … when cheap, it’s made of the most unimaginable byproducts. When fancy, it robs food from the mouths of millions. Packaging alone demands a great deal of energy to produce, and then recycle. What to do? I buy natural dry dog and cat food when it is on sale, but our pets generally eat what we eat. Feeding them leftovers, or making just a little extra, cuts down on waste, groceries and costs.

Clean green

For the sake of your own and your other-than-human friends’ health use simple, natural cleaning products. Tea tree and other essential oils work against fleas and ticks; use vinegar or salt and baking soda for stains. You can find an abundance of natural, cheap and safe recipes for cleaning, pest control and pet shampoos on the Web and at the library.

Don’t pamper your pet

Waste, pollution, chemicals, energy dependence, hunger and poverty are all products of keeping domestic pets. The list goes on. Did I mention the $5 billion of Christmas presents for pets in the U.S.? Your cat or dog doesn’t care how much you spent on its chew toy. Like kids, they are as likely (or more!) to enjoy the wrapping. Paper bags, boxes, old socks, corks, cockroaches and old tennis balls all make perfect pet toys. Give your wallet and Mother Nature a break.

How pet owners can reduce their pet's impact on the planet
There are plenty of steps you can take to make your furry friend more earth-friendly.