How to be an environmentally conscious pet parent
You may not have considered it before, but just like humans, pets and the products we use to care for them have a significant impact on our environment. From plastic bags used for pet waste, to harsh chemicals found in shampoos, to excessive packaging used in pet toy and food manufacturing — caring for a pet can take a toll on the planet.
As you take steps to transition to an eco-friendlier lifestyle, consider these five ways to make caring for your furry friend more sustainable, too. We recognize that not all of these changes may be for you, and that’s ok! Implementing just a few of these tips can go a long way toward making pet care more environmentally friendly.
1. Switch to less resource-intensive pet foods and treats
Just as the production of meat for human consumption contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, so too does the production of pet food. In fact, a 2017 study estimated that meat for dog and cat food is responsible for emissions equivalent to 13.6 million cars — and that’s only based on pets in the U.S.!
So how can you curb your furry friend’s impact on the environment? Plant-based pet foods may be an option for some dogs. Alternatively, consider less resource-intensive proteins — like poultry, rabbit, sustainably-sourced fish, or animal by-products — which have a lower environmental impact. There are even new pet foods hitting the market made of insect protein!
In addition to the food source, it’s important to consider packaging. Limit your waste by buying in bulk or seeking foods with recyclable or reusable packaging.
All of the above applies to treats, too. Choose a less harmful protein source or go strictly vegetarian. Even better, make your own treats and store them in reusable containers. Your pet is sure to love homemade treats just as much as store-bought, but you’ll feel better knowing you avoided wasteful packaging and environmentally damaging ingredients. Try these healthy pumpkin pie treats or calming holiday cookies.
2. Pick up after your pet
Picking up after our pets is something we all have to do. Unfortunately, many common practices and products don’t prioritize the earth.
Disposing of dog waste
Did you know that dogs, on average, produce 274 pounds of poop per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency? Not only is picking up after your dog the neighborly thing to do, it also prevents fecal runoff.
What is fecal runoff? It’s when rainwater or meltwater carries bits of feces into the water system and ends up in lakes, rivers, or anywhere that waste water and storm water go. In short, this means that anything good or bad in your dog’s poop — bacteria, parasites, phosphorus, etc. — washes into our water systems. In fact, one study estimates that pet waste bacteria make up 20-30% of the total bacteria found in watersheds.
When possible, use a pooper scooper or other reusable tool to remove dog droppings. If you’re on poop patrol in your own yard, place these directly into a trash bag you are already using. For an on-the-go solution, replace plastic bags — which can take 10-1,000 years to breakdown in a landfill — with biodegradable bags made from plants.
It's especially important to pick up your dog's waste before weather events like rain and snow. The Minnesota Zoo's Super Scooper initiative highlights the importance of cleaning up after your pet to protect Minnesota's wildlife and waterways. Sign the pledge to be a Super Scooper today!
You can also explore composting your dog’s waste. Composting allows organic waste a second life, turning something that would sit in a garbage facility producing unnecessary methane into usable soil. Dog feces does not decompose on its own, though, so refer to this step-by-step guide from the USDA.
Alternatives to traditional kitty litter
While dog poop is compostable, cat feces is not. This is due to a parasite, toxoplasmosis, that can live in cat feces and cause disease in humans. For the same reason, cat feces should not be flushed down the toilet into water systems.
Cat litter is the most common method for managing cat waste. Most traditional litters contain bentonite, a high-absorbency clay that can hold eight times its volume in water. It clumps and binds well, which makes it useful for daily waste collection. However, bentonite is sourced on an industrial scale via environmentally damaging strip mining. Using eco-friendlier, recyclable, or locally-sourced alternatives can reduce the carbon footprint of your litter.
Planet-friendly alternatives to bentonite clay-based litter have both pros and cons, listed below. Be prepared to try a few, as you or your cat might prefer something other than the first alternative you try, and understand that some products may be pricier than traditional litters.
- Paper pellets or shreds: Paper pellets or shreds can be made from recycled paper fibers and are a dust-free and soft alternative to clay. You can make your own paper shreds for free, but paper doesn’t clump and needs to be changed out more often. It also lacks odor control, so things like baking soda should be added.
- Wheat: This litter alternative is biodegradable, clumps well, and has little to no dust. However, it can stick to the sides of the litter box, which can make cleaning more difficult.
- Wood shavings or pellets: Wood litter options are biodegradable, lightweight and smell pleasantly of wood when cleaned regularly. Horse bedding equine pellets also work well. Like clay-based litter, wood shavings or pellets can be messy. Plus, you'll want to research the type of wood used, especially if you make or source your own, as some wood species are toxic to cats.
- Walnuts: Made of ground or crushed walnuts, these litters generally have a pleasant smell and can clump well to help with odor control. Unfortunately, these can have larger amounts of fine, dark dust, which can stain things when exposed to moisture.
- Grass pellets or granules: This alternative is fine, soft textured, and biodegradable with minimal dust. It can also last a relatively long time. It has no native odor, but can be a bit too lightweight for larger cats, which may have trouble staying atop it.
- Corn: There are two main varieties: ground kernels and ground whole cobs. Both are biodegradable, but the latter is more environmentally friendly. Corn layer crumbles for chickens also work well. However, corn doesn’t clump, so odor control isn’t great, and it has its own odor that may not be for everyone. It should be changed regularly to avoid mold and can attract critters.
3. Use non-toxic grooming and cleaning products
Safer pet grooming products
Not only are organic, natural ingredients better for your pet and their skin, they’re also safer for the environment.
Traditional shampoos and conditioners often contain a myriad of harsh chemicals (including pesticides and carcinogens) that can irritate your pet’s skin and pose serious health risks if consumed. And those same chemicals can pollute waterways, which in turn harm fish and wildlife.
Fortunately, natural pet grooming products are plentiful and often just as effective at keeping your best friend fresh and clean. Specifically, you’ll want to avoid products containing artificial dyes and fragrances, parabens, sulfates, and mineral oils.
Cleaner cleaning products for pet messes
In addition to rethinking how you keep your pet clean, you may want to evaluate the products you use to clean up after your pet. That’s because many household cleaners which are unpleasant or toxic to humans can be doubly bad for pets and the environment. The next time you have to clean a pet mess, rather than reach for a spray bottle of synthetic chemical cleaner, try one of these gentler alternatives:
- White vinegar: This can be used in place of some ammonia-based cleaners, offering a similar streak-free shine without the harsh fumes.
- Baking soda: An odorless, non-toxic mild bleach alternative. Mix with water — not vinegar — and use to clean away mild messes or odors.
- Hydrogen peroxide: An antibacterial disinfectant and strong oxidizer, it can be used to remove mold and mildew and can clean some staining. It can also be mixed with hot water to scrub hard floors. Be advised that it can cause some bleaching or mild discoloration for fabrics, so always test a tiny amount in an out-of-the-way spot first.
- Liquid castile soap: A vegetable-based soap that is good for breaking up grime and grease, or messes where water alone won’t cut it. Don’t combine it with vinegar, as it can reduce the efficacy of the soap.
And to sop up those pesky pet messes, remember to use a reusable towel or rag versus single-use paper towels.
Along the same lines, avoid adhesive-based lint rollers to remove pet hair from clothing and furniture, and instead opt for a waste-free tool like a velvet pet hair brush, pet hair vacuum attachment, or other reusable tool.
4. Opt for more sustainable materials
We all know the harm plastics have on the environment. For starters, plastic items can take up to 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill. Even worse, most plastics end up in nature where they wreak havoc on countless species and ecosystems. Just as you would take steps to limit the use of plastic in your day-to-day life, you can apply the same consideration to the products you purchase for your pet.
From pet beds and pet bowls to collars and toys — these days plastic alternatives and eco-friendly goods are more readily available. Look for products made from natural, sustainable, or recycled materials, like:
- Clothing, blankets, and pet beds made of bamboo
- Collars, toys, and clothing made from recycled plastic bottles
- Small pet bedding made of natural fibers or recycled paper
- Stainless-steel or ceramic pet bowls versus traditional plastic dishes
In addition to buying sustainable, extending the life of existing products can also help reduce waste and the impact on the environment. Try shopping for gently used pet products at second-hand stores or asking friends or family for toys or supplies they no longer use.
And when it comes to pet entertainment, take a look around your house for opportunities to upcycle items into toys — like turning old clothing into pull-toys or a DYI snuffle mat, using toilet paper tubes to hide treats or add to your critter’s habitat, using cardboard delivery boxes for a cat playhouse, or giving your child’s old stuffed animals new life as a plush toy for your pet.
5. Help control the pet population
Adopting from your local shelter and sterilizing your pet are two critical ways to keep the pet population in check. Doing so not only reduces the overall impact pet waste, pet food, and pet products have on the environment — it also helps ensure there’s a loving home for each animal. Now that’s a win-win!