How to minimize your pet’s carbon footprint

Our pets help us connect to nature. By sharing our lives with these once wild creatures, we become more in tune with the natural world. The social and emotional sustenance we derive from it makes us better citizens of the Earth.

But we have entered a new era: let’s call it the “Sparky’s CO2 emissions calculation” phase. Just feeding cats and dogs in North America emits up to 64 million tons of greenhouse gases per year, according to one researcher. Factor in all the indirect emissions—transportation to and from the vet, the plastic-palooza that’s a big-box pet store, plus all that poo—and things start to look ruff.

Fortunately, however, the same principles that help you live more sustainably also apply to Fluffy and Fido. What’s good for the environment is also good for your pet – no compromise on tasty treats necessary.

Get a pet

First, adopt; don’t shop. Millions of animals are available from shelters and rescues who, unlike breeders, neuter and neuter their rooms, reducing overcrowding. You don’t have to limit yourself to a dog or a cat. Some shelters are home to herbivores like rabbits, rodents, goats, and reptiles (did you know some are vegan?) who would love to move in with you.

Feed your new best friend

Most of a pet’s carbon footprint comes from their food. If America’s 163 million dogs and cats founded their own country, Fluffistan would rank fifth in the world’s meat consumption. As more and more people treat their pets as members of the family, the care and subsistence industries are responding with high-end products, which is both good and bad. For one thing, your local pet store probably carries food made with organic, sustainably grown ingredients, maybe even plant-based. On the other hand, people’s decision to turn to “human grade” pet food is a morally questionable choice in a country where more than 10% of the population is food insecure.

The truth is, pets aren’t picky. They are fine with eating “snout to tail”. Look for Green Petfood, Royal Canin and other food brands that incorporate rendered animal by-products. Try Chippin’ treats, make delicious, low impact crickets. Ask your local pet store about brands that participate in recycling programs, like Tetra Pak.

FTW Homemade Meals

The internet is full of sustainable pet food recipes, but talk to your veterinarian first about your pet’s specific nutritional needs. Veterinary scientist Jordan Schaul recommends favoring meats with the lowest carbon footprint, such as chicken. You’ll want to mix equal parts of unseasoned protein (try to source from local farmers or butchers who have unpopular cuts and offal), raw vegetables, and root vegetables like sweet potato and pumpkin. Save money on treats by freezing loose peanut butter pieces or dehydrating leftover food like sweet potato peels. No matter the food, don’t overfeed your pets.

Alt Cap: The illustration shows a woman cutting vegetables while a cat and a dog look on.  Alt Cap: The illustration shows a woman cutting vegetables while a cat and a dog look on.Plant-based pooches?

Cats are obligate carnivores that require sulfur-rich amino acids like taurine at levels typically available only in meat-based diets. But contrary to their reputation as “descendants of carnivorous wolves,” most dogs are good candidates for flexitarianism, or even veganism.

Caroline Buck, co-founder of Petaluma (which makes pet food formulated with protein from peanut butter, chickpeas and peas), explains that by evolving as scavengers alongside humans, dogs have become accustomed to handling starches and glucose and “have long been omnivores”. If your dog has a meat-rich diet, you’ll want to gradually adjust his microbiome to a plant-based microbiome.

fun and games

A zero- or low-waste lifestyle for your pet is more feasible than you might think. Look for toys made from recycled materials, such as denim or rope, and consumable chew toys. Invest in durable leashes, harnesses and collars (check out brands like Wanderruff, who make them from recycled consumer plastic) and tell your local pet store how much you prefer plastic-free products. As with human goods, supporting local businesses helps reduce emissions, and DIY is always the most climate-friendly option. Remember that pets aren’t fussy, so get creative with scraps of rope, fabric, and cardboard. Schaul says your feline doesn’t need a fancy cat condo — “your shelf is just as stimulating” — and your dog doesn’t need to travel great distances to beaches and trails Instagram worthy. As long as the dogs are out regularly and enjoying scent stimulation, nearby fields and parks make for epic outings. Do a favor to wildlife ecosystems by keeping dogs on a leash in all but designated off-leash areas. And if your cat loves the great outdoors, consider a “catio,” which prevents your cat from wreaking havoc on birds and small mammals and potentially transmitting deadly pathogens through their feces.

Beautify your pet

Check for shampoos and other skincare products that don’t contain unnecessary chemicals, artificial colors and fragrances, parabens, sulfates, and mineral oils. The ointments or DIY options from Green Groom and Buddy Wash are better for the planet and for the pet.

The illustration shows a calico cat with three different food bowls.When nature calls

All that food has to end up somewhere. American pets produce more than 5 million tons of feces a year, more than those of 90 million Americans. When cleaning up your yard, put the poop in the trash bags you already use. Better yet, consider flushing your dog’s waste down the toilet (but never your cat’s – toxoplasma, a parasite found in cat feces, can infect marine life). You can also compost dog feces: Schaul says you’ll need a mix of nitrogen-rich materials like food scraps and grass clippings, and carbon-rich materials like sawdust or leaves. For cats, avoid cat litter containing bentonite clay, which comes from surface mines, and look for biodegradable options like Yesterday’s News from Purina and Cedarific from Nepco. If you must use puppy urine pads, get machine-washable ones.

Say goodbye

We all hate to think about the death of our pet, but a little planning ahead can lessen the heavy ecological impact of a pet burial. Look for biodegradable caskets and urns (Passages International makes these from willow, mulberry bark, and recycled cardboard). Cremation is generally safer and more durable than burial. Yard burial is illegal in some states and can pose dangers to animals that may scavenge your pet’s body – lingering illnesses and euthanasia drugs can be transmitted this way. Honor your deceased pet’s legacy by donating used toys, bowls and bedding to your local shelter (but check first to make sure they accept them).

This article appeared in the Summer 2022 quarterly edition with the title “How to minimize your pet’s carbon footprint.

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