At first glance, a pet (most typically a cat or a dog) is a bastion of sustainability-most drink only tap water, use the bathroom outdoors which wastes no water, they bathe very little, wear no clothing, and eat pretty much whatever. However, if one re-examines what it means to live a truly sustainable life style, it becomes clear that there is much to be desired in the way of pet ownership. If we are to make a significant change in the way we treat our planet, it is essential to make changes in literally every aspect of our lives. This post will explore how to modify the way we take care of our furry friends so that we (and they) make the least negative impact as possible.
The most obvious step is to spay or neuter your pet. Not only does this prevent your pet from contracting cancers of the reproductive tract, but it vastly reduces the number of unwanted pets in the world. An ASPCA statistic states that up to 4 million companion animals are euthanized in the US alone because they have not been adopted and underfunded shelters simply cannot care for them all. While animal shelters and humane societies are wonderful social services, wouldn't it be even better if we didn't need them at all? What happens to all those euthanized animal bodies? Some are sold to schools for dissection, some are cremated, but there are undeniably millions of animal bodies just rotting in a landfill or filling up some mass grave somewhere like garbage. The financial burden created by all these unwanted cats and dogs detracts from funding other vital social services and could be lessened significantly if people seriously reconsidered the way they live their lives and took the spay/neuter campaign as a stepping stone to a more sustainable lifestyle.
According to the ASPCA, about 78.2 million dogs and about 86.4 million cats are owned in the United States. Some sources estimate that the dogs alone produce 29,000 tons of waste per day, which ends up in landfills. A study conducted in San Francisco assessed that nearly 3.5% of the content in the city landfill was comprised of pet waste. Responsible pet ownership presently dictates that the human owner pick up the excrement in a little plastic baggy and throw it away! However, one EPA report recommends that the best course of action for dealing with pet waste is to flush it down the toilet. While most of the pet waste bags you find at pet stores are made of plastic, several companies have developed flushable pet waste bags so that the city sewage treatment facility can recycle the water and handle the bio hazardous waste appropriately, rather than allowing it to fester in landfills for eternity.
Pet waste contains E. Coli, Giardia, Salmonella, and can harbor parasites. If left in a landfill facility, these contaminants will eventually leach into the ground water and pollute fresh water environments. Ultimately, the most sustainable pet ownership practice is not to own a pet at all, but since we can't seem to live without them, we must explore ways to make our pets greener.
One service in the NW, Green Pet Compost, offers to remove pet waste from your home and turn it into fertilizer (for non food plants, at this point) by combining it with other organic solids such as wood chips and microbes that break down the solids into usable nutrient rich material. There are only three other services in the entire US that currently do this, but it is such a fantastic alternative to throwing pet waste in a landfill! It really puts a new spin on the old adage "One man's trash is another man's treasure."
For cats, sustainable pet ownership is best attained by keeping them inside. This prevents them from harming native wildlife, each other, and from going to the bathroom in places where the harmful bacterial and parasitic agents can leach into the soil. Mother nature is simply not equipped to process this much waste. We have artificially created an overpopulation situation and must modify our habits accordingly. Avoid using clumping cat litter as clay is not a sustainable resource. The most eco-friendly cat litters are those made from natural sources such as sawdust. There are also commercial products made from pine or cedar. Believe it or not, you can even compost your cats litter (provided that the litter is made from a natural source) and waste into an odorless fertilizer:
Besides the disposal of pet waste and the obvious problems associated with the overpopulation of domesticated animals, the sourcing and practices of commercial pet foods is a large problem. Pet food production is very closely linked to livestock production and the human food system. The protein sources for pet food are frequently the scraps off the slaughterhouse floor that we wouldn't even put inside a hot dog! Sustainable pet food options are closely linked with greener livestock production, but there some things we can do now to lessen our waste and impact on the earth.
First of all, stop feeding your dogs and cats so much! Most pet owners are feeding their pets about 20% more than is required to maintain a healthy body weight. This will cut down on overall spending, but will also decrease demand. Ask a veterinarian about appropriate portion size rather than what is on the back of the bag. Buy only pet foods that list whole ingredients such as "Chicken, Beef, Lamb," etc. rather than ones that list "Crude Protein" since those that list "Crude Protein" tend to come from the less sustainable livestock production methods. Also be mindful of the packaging. Many recycling facilities are unable to process the types of plastics used in pet food bags so look specifically for brands who use paper.
Another great option is to make your own pet food using organic and sustainably sourced ingredients. You can store the pet food in your fridge using reusable glass containers so not only are you providing the best nutrition possible to your pet, you aren't putting the packaging in the landfill or increasing demand for a product that is traditionally sourced without the environment in mind.
Dog owners can also look into vegetarian or vegan pet food options since dogs are omnivores and do not require animal derived protein sources as long as they are getting adequate plant based proteins. Cat owners should be much more careful because taurine, an animal based protein, is required for normal cardiac function in felines.
In summary, we can drastically lessen our personal impact on the world if we re-think some very basic ways we live. Pet ownership is ingrained into our culture, but it can be improved by addressing the way we dispose of pet waste, the way we feed our pets, and, of course, eliminating the issue of overpopulation by spaying and neutering our pets.
There are many more ways we can increase our sustainability as pet owners-what are some that you can come up with?
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