Fran Haddock and Jo Wills are both small animal veterinary surgeons with a passion for sustainability. None of the products mentioned in this article are sponsors.

Have you ever considered the environmental impact of your pet? Although it may not be highest on your eco-action list, pets carry significant environmental paw prints throughout their lifetime due to their food and living requirements, health care, harm to wildlife and waste production. More studies are needed but in the book ‘Time to eat the dog? The real guide to sustainable living’ authors Vale and Vale estimate the carbon footprint of feeding a dog to be roughly twice the eco-footprint of building and fueling a Toyota Land Cruiser, or a Volkswagen Golf for cats! 

However, pets have a huge role in bringing companionship, happiness and health to so many people, with a study in 2018 suggesting that pets provide benefits to those with mental health conditions. A new survey in September 2020 found that having a pet appeared to act as a buffer against psychological stress during lockdown. Do these positives always outweigh the negatives, or have pets become another extension of a consumerist society that needs a drastic rethink? Here we will examine ways to reduce the environmental impact of your pets, with a focus on dogs and cats.

Pet Ownership

Pet ownership is on the increase with the PDSA’s annual 2020 report showing that approximately 51 percent of UK households own a pet, including 10.1 million dogs and 10.9 million cats. Dogs Trust estimates that 130,000 dogs come into UK rehoming charities each year. With the pandemic seeing a drastic increase in impulse puppy buying, this is only expected to increase further. Tips for improving your impact from pet ownership include:

  • Do not under any circumstances buy or adopt a pet unless you have thoroughly researched the commitment and are 100% sure you can provide the time, money and love a pet requires.
  • If possible (and again after thorough research), rescue an unwanted pet rather than buying from a breeder.
  • Get your pet neutered, at the age advised by your vet.
  • If using a breeder, research thoroughly and do not buy from any situations suspicious of puppy farming. It may feel like you are rescuing them from a bad circumstance, buying the puppy only encourages further unscrupulous breeding. 
  • Consider sharing a pet with a member of your family, or just walking your friend’s dog rather than buying your own. 
  • Thoroughly research your breed and avoid breeds with known health issues.
  • Consider pets with lower dietary carbon footprints that can eat vegetable scraps such as small herbivores (like rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters) and chickens, or even just a smaller dog! 

Diet

As omnivores and carnivores respectively, dogs and cats carry a significant dietary footprint due to their high meat consumption, with one American study suggesting that their diets may constitute 25 percent of the environmental impacts from meat production. Raw pet diets have been popularised – which often have a high meat content (although granted sometimes use up body parts humans prefer not to eat). There has also been a concerning rise in “human-grade” pet foods – with a move away from feeding with by-products of the human food system as pets become increasingly anthropomorphised. Many pets are also overweight with owners feeding more than daily recommendations, with roughly one third of all food being wasted this is an important area to target. Tips for improving your pet’s dietary impact include:

  • It is perfectly healthy to feed pet food that contain by-products from the human food chain. A lot of research and money is put into the pet food industry to create nutritionally balanced food for your pet from food that may otherwise go to waste. Contrary to recent trends most dogs are not intolerant of grains, so high protein, meat only diets are usually not necessary or suitable for dog’s digestive tracts.  
  • Support ethical pet food brands which still use by-products but source meat from free range and organic farms, and use MSC certified fish. One example of this is Yarrah dog and cat food.
  • More research into whether dogs and cats could safely be vegetarian or vegan is required. The advice for cats is still a definite no as they are obligate carnivores meaning their diet requires nutrients only found in animal tissue. For dogs (that are omnivores) it may be more feasible providing nutrition is correctly balanced. This is best done via a commercially prepared complete food and through speaking to a veterinary nutritionist. However, it is worth considering if it is ethically right to enforce dietary choices on pets that would otherwise choose to eat meat. 
  • Consider pet foods which use protein from potentially more sustainable sources such as insects, for example Yora. This is another promising area that needs further independent research to ensure the nutritional and environmental benefits weigh up, which will hopefully expand as humans reduce meat consumption. 
  • Don’t overfeed your pet and try to reduce how much of their food you waste. 

Waste

Pets come with a lot of waste, but we’re not talking about their poo just yet! The majority of pet toys, food, medicines and accessories come wrapped in plastic packaging, and are often made from plastic themselves. With so much choice, there’s a lot of competition between manufacturers and so packaging is made simply and easy – through the use of crude oil.

In a way, it’s ironic that by enriching our own pets’ lives through the use of toys, we are actually harming animals thousands of miles away in the ocean. 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in our oceans every year with 1 in 2 marine turtles having eaten plastic, and 90% of seabirds having plastics in their stomachs. It’s clear animals are choking on our plastic use, so what can we do to minimise this impact from our pets?

  • Use tinned food or aluminium trays over pouches for wet food which can be recycled. If you use pouches, find a terracycle drop-off point near you that will recycle them.
  • Consider a manufacturer that uses compostable food packaging such as Beco, the main downside of this is it often reduces shelf life and is more prone to damage in transit, so could end up contributing to food waste. 
  • Some of the large plastic sacks of food are recyclable and it looks like more will be in the future – check the bag and contact the manufacturer!
  • Find out if your local low waste store sells loose dry food and cut out the packaging altogether.
  • Find ethical and eco-friendly toys made from recycled plastic (though they can release microplastics on washing) or natural and sustainable materials. Possible brands include Beco, Snooty Catz, Life Before Plastik, and Green & Wild’s. (Or just give cats a cardboard box and a foil ball!)
  • Make homemade pet treats and cut out the packaging altogether.
  • Go second hand for beds, food bowls and crates. Charity shops and ebay are good places to search for these.
  • If you do buy new, buy products made from sustainable materials like bamboo/rice husk bowls and hemp dog collars
  • Try not to transfer society’s taste for materialism and consumerism onto our pets.

Healthcare

Healthcare in the world’s largest economies accounts for 4% of global emissions. Whilst pet healthcare will be considerably less, the industry still accrues a significant environmental footprint from factors such as anaesthetic gases, waste production, energy use, water use and drug manufacture. 

A specific example worth noting in pets is the routine use of antiparasitic treatment to prevent fleas and worms. A recent study identified heavy contamination of UK rivers with chemicals found in spot-on flea treatments downstream from household water treatment plants, which concluded the most likely cause was from pet treatments. These products are extremely potent insecticides and also harmful to birds and fish. This is even more concerning considering 40% of all insects are in decline.

Tips for improving your pet’s impact from healthcare include:

  • Don’t purchase breeds known to be very prone to health conditions. Discussion of specific breed predispositions is beyond the scope of this article. However, the increasing ownership of brachycephalic breeds such as pugs and french bulldogs is worth noting, as these breeds are some of the ones veterinarians see particularly regularly with issues. 
  • Consider treating your pet for parasites if and when there is a problem rather than blanket prevention, this may involve regular checking for fleas and faecal testing for worms, so speak to your vet! 
  • More research needs to be done into which anti-parasite treatment is safest for the environment, but tablet based flea treatments are likely to be safer than spot-ons as they only shed in faeces – providing you can pick up and dispose of faeces. 
  • Feed your pet a healthy diet, ensure they get regular exercise, clean their teeth (if you can!) and take them for vaccinations when due to try and ensure they stay in optimum health. 
  • Support veterinary practices who are actively and openly working on sustainability. 
  • Support groups working to make the veterinary industry more sustainable such as Vet Sustain (UK) and Veterinarians for Climate action (Australia). 

Harm to Wildlife

The 2019 State of Nature report confirms that our UK wildlife is in crisis with 15 percent of species now threatened with extinction. Dogs and cats are predators and therefore have natural instincts to hunt prey, even if they aren’t hungry. It is estimated that cats in the UK catch up to 100 million prey items over spring and summer. There is no evidence to suggest that cats are causing the declines we are seeing in certain wildlife populations, nonetheless this is still a lot of wildlife to be harming! 

Dogs have also been found to displace native birds from natural areas, with another study showing they caused more disruption to water birds than any other activity other than low flying jet aircraft.

Tips for improving your pet’s impact on wildlife include:

  • An indoor lifestyle may be suitable for some cats, provided they have an enriching environment. However, some cats can get stress-related conditions being kept indoors so feasibility depends on your individual cat. Another option is providing an outdoor pen-like enclosure. 
  • Cats that do venture outdoors can be fitted with a collar and bell to give wildlife a warning to their presence.
  • Consider keeping your cat indoors at common hunting times which are dawn and dusk. 
  • Keeping dogs on leads until a good recall is established, especially in wildlife-rich areas. 
  • Consider use of muzzles in ex-racing dogs to help to keep wildlife and other animals safe.
  • Avoid walking your dog in sensitive conservation areas and abide by any rules put in place. 

Problems with Poo

Faeces from dogs and cats aren’t just unsightly and smelly but can pose a risk to ecosystems and human health. If carnivore faeces find their way to water sources it can lead to eutrophication which damages aquatic ecosystems. They also pose a public health risk due to the presence of disease causing microorganisms.

The answer isn’t as simple as using compostable/biodegradable poo bags – dog and cat poo generally can’t be composted due to the risk of it containing harmful bacteria and parasites. Compostable bags therefore end up in landfill which doesn’t have the required oxygen to decompose. This means they end up acting like plastic waste and sticking around for ages, releasing harmful methane in the process. Tips for improving your pet’s impact from their number twos:

  • The priority is to always pick up after your dog even if it goes into landfill. This is of course trickier for cats unless they use a litter tray or you know where they toilet in the garden and can pick it out!
  • For cats, use biodegradable/compostable cat litter (and compost the bits that aren’t soiled!) ideally, ones made from recycled paper or wood by-products such as Natusan. Avoid clay-based cat litter which is extracted via environmentally damaging mining processes.
  • Composting straw/sawdust and poo from rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs and other small herbivores is safe!
  • Composting dog poo is complicated but not impossible. One alternative is to create a dog poo wormery. Here is a guide or you can buy the wormeries ready made. The compost obviously shouldn’t be used on vegetables that will be eaten and is still best avoided in cats due to the harmful parasite Toxoplasmosis. 
  • Support systems that use animal waste in biodigesters to produce energy such as this dog poo powered street lamp.

Bringing it all together – improving our pet’s paw print!

Pets enrich our lives in so many ways and deserve the best possible care as thanks for providing us with so much joy and companionship. When we consider potential environmental impacts of our pets, we discover changes which could have a significant impact to our individual and collective footprints. With interest in environmentally-friendly pet care increasing in owners, pet husbandry businesses and veterinary professionals alike, hopefully this is an area that will only expand in knowledge, options and enthusiasm.


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