Environment

What's the Most Eco-Friendly Pet? The Answer May Surprise You—and If You Own a Cat or Dog, Here Are 7 Ways to Make Their Lives More Sustainable

Abandoned pet pythons in the Everglades have created an ecological crisis.

Photo Credit: Jacob Schroeter / Shutterstock

Google "how pets harm the environment" and you'll find articles decrying a litany of environmental sins committed by dogs and cats. Dogs and cats eat and poop, apparently, and they can harbor and pass on diseases to humans and wildlife. A 2009 book (Time to Eat the Dog) claims a dog harms the environment as much as an SUV. Specifically, it found feeding a medium-sized dog is twice as bad for the planet as driving a Toyota Land Cruiser, whereas feeding a cat is equivalent to driving a Volkswagen Golf.

Still, odds are few will ditch their furry friends out of environmental concern. Furthermore, with the number of pets who are rescues, one must weigh environmental sustainability against animal cruelty. Companion animals are not produced in factories based on supply and demand, and choosing not to adopt one won't mean there are fewer in the world—unless, of course, your local shelter euthanizes them. Rescuing a shelter pet saves lives, and no-kill shelters improve the quality of life for the animals adopted.

But there is a more practical question: How can one keep pets in a way that reduces their impact on the environment? Before considering more common pets like cats and dogs, let's consider other species that are either decidedly environmentally friendly or ecologically harmful.

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Pets for Tree Huggers: Rabbits, Goats, Chickens, and Ducks

While hardly a substitute for a dog or cat, these species tread lightly on the environment. All four produce waste that is valuable fertilizer. Rabbits can eat grass, although most rabbit owners still buy alfalfa pellets as feed. Goats are often fed alfalfa and grain, but they will eat many other types of foliage and can be used as four-legged lawn mowers. Chickens and ducks eat manufactured feed, too, but will gladly supplement their diets with grass, bugs and food scraps.

What's more, if you eat eggs, the eggs your pet chicken or duck produces can offset the eggs you buy from the store, detracting from their carbon footprint. Obtaining milk from a goat requires more effort (and requires the goat reproducing), but if you're up for the work, your goat can be a source of milk and cheese.

The Worst of the Worst: Exotic Pets

Enough people decided to buy pythons and then abandon them in the Everglades that they created an ecological crisis. Of course, abandoning your pet in the wild is not intrinsic to pet ownership. What about the pet owner who obtains an exotic animal and then keeps it?

Even if you keep your parrot or monkey in ideal conditions, if the animal was taken from the wild, environmental harm almost certainly occurred. To take a baby monkey from the wild, one must kill the mother and the other monkeys protecting it. According to one estimate, 10 monkeys die for each one captured in the wild.

And so many African Grey Parrots are captured from the wild that their wild populations have almost disappeared in some places. Furthermore, for each wild parrot successfully sold to a pet owner, others died along the way.

Common Pets: Dogs and Cats

Most of us don't have pet monkeys, we have dogs and cats. Are they really furry little SUVs in terms of their environmental impact? The truth is, the impact of your pet on the environment depends. Here's a rundown of ways to assess and limit your pet's impact on the planet.

1. Spay and Neuter Your Pets. The obvious. Keep your pet from creating more pets in need of homes.

2. Avoid Doggie Consumerism. Does your pet really need a full wardrobe and numerous Halloween costumes? What about toys? Kittens really need to play, and dogs need to chew: it is a biological urge. But when your pet prefers the box the toy came in to the toy itself, resist the urge to keep buying more toys.

3. Pet Food Is Okay. Marion Nestle, who co-authored Feed Your Pet Right with Malden C. Nesheim, puts to rest concerns about pets' "wasteful" diets. "Commercial pet food is made from byproducts of human food production that would not be used for any other purpose; they would be burned, rendered, or buried in landfill," she explains. So you can rest easy that your pet's food is not adding to the impact of global agricultural production.

4. Choose Environmentally Friendly Cat Litter. This is tricky, because it will be decided in part by your cat. You can give your cat a box filled with Yesterday's News, a cat litter made from old newspapers, and your cat can poop on the floor next to it to let you know she does not like the litter. But if your cat will tolerate it, Scientific American recommends litters made from newspaper, wood shavings, sawdust, wheat, or corn, over clay litters. Clay is a non-renewable resource that can be produced by destructive strip mining. (My cats use Swheat Scoop, made from wheat, without any problems.)

5. What to Do With Poop. In aggregate, pets poop a lot. Dog and cat poop can contain bacteria or parasites, so unlike chicken or rabbit droppings, you don't want to compost it and fertilize your vegetable patch with it. Most of it ends up in landfills. What often goes with it are the plastic bags dog owners use to clean up after their dogs or cat owners use when they scoop out the litterbox. This is where you can improve your pet's pawprint on the environment.

Unfortunately, some of the ways to avoid plastic bags are a tad difficult or inconvenient. Do you put pet waste directly in the trash without a bag? Are you willing to carry a pooper-scooper on a walk with your dog and use it to pick up after the dog instead of baggies?

You can analyze your own situation and find what works. I've kept a small trashcan in the yard as a dog poop receptacle, and used a pooper-scooper to collect my dog's droppings and deposit them in the trash. I've also scooped my cats' litter into a reusable bucket that can be poured in the trash. The question is whether that will make the trash can stink and ultimately generate more waste when you have to replace your entire trashcan.

6. Outdoor Pets and Wildlife.Cats kill. So do some dogs. This is a debate I'd rather stay out of, as there are vocal and fervent believers on either side. One study estimated cats kill billions of birds and small mammals each year, though adds that most of the damage comes from roaming cats. The "happy medium" solution for those who want to let their cat experience the outdoors while protecting songbirds is a "catio"—an enclosed patio for cats that lets the cat outdoors into a limited area where it has no contact with wildlife and is safe from being predated on by coyotes or bobcats or being hit by a car.

Off-leash dogs maim and kill fawns every spring and disturb nesting birds on the beach. Keep your dogs leashed in the spring when baby animals are most vulnerable, and only let them off leash on beaches that are indicated safe for dogs.

7. Minimize Property Destruction by Pets.  Dogs chew. Cats scratch. Pet owners can minimize the environmental impact of pets by either preventing pets from damaging property in the first place, or cleaning up or repairing damage after it occurs.

My own secret weapon is Anti-Icky Poo, a product that effectively cleans any bodily fluid that comes out of my cat—including the time she threw up tuna-flavored wet food all over my down duvet. By cleaning up these messes instead of throwing out anything that gets peed or puked on, I've kept plenty of items out of the landfill, and avoided the need to buy new clothes, backpacks, carpet, and bedding.

It's hardly accurate to label most pets friends or foes to the environment. We all have a footprint on the planet, but there are reasons to keep pets other than whether they heal or harm Mother Earth. If you do keep a pet—or several—putting a little bit of thought and strategy into their care can minimize their environmental "pawprint."

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OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of "Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It."