Becoming an eco-friendly pet owner

I think I can speak for most pet owners when I say that we love our furry family and only want the best for them. About 70% of homes had at least one pet in 2020, and with the pandemic, adoption rates have been on the rise. Unsurprisingly, with that there is an environmental cost. We are here to provide information on your pet’s environmental impact and how you can be more mindful as a pet parent.


Food

The damaging effects of the meat industry and factory farming are well known, but pets are often left out of the conversation. Cats and dogs are the most popular pets in the United States, and both should have primarily meat-based diets to remain healthy.


Production

It is estimated that about 64 million tons of CO2 are produced annually by the meat that cats and dogs consume. The food in your pet’s bowl comes with similar problems to human-grade meat production. There is significant land use change as farmers need more grazing space for their livestock, high levels of methane are produced by the animals, and the energy necessary to make and transport that food is considerable.

The best thing you can do to prevent these associated issues while maintaining the health of your pet is to purchase sustainable food products or to make their food. Websites like The Good Shopping Guide rates pet food brands based on their environmental impact and whether or not it has ethical accreditation. When it comes to making your pet’s food, it is highly recommended you do so under your veterinarian’s guidance. It is easy to find recipes online, but you want to make sure that you are maintaining your pet’s health. Be sure to ask your veterinarian what they would recommend for each of their meals and closely monitor their behavior and health as you make changes.


Overfeeding

We have all seen overweight cats and dogs on social media, but overfeeding pets is a serious issue for their health and for the environment. It is estimated that about 100 million pets in the United States are either overweight or obese. This is often an issue of pet parents offering too much food and too little exercise. You can significantly cut your pet’s environmental footprint by asking your veterinarian how much food they would recommend you offer each day.


Waste

Waste, and I am not talking about food scraps or torn-up toys, has been found to be a big problem for water quality, and eventually human health. If you leave your pet’s waste in the yard or on the ground in the park, the nutrients and pathogens present will run off into local waterways. Similar to chemical fertilizers used on farms, these pollutants build up in the waterways and cause excessive algal growth that clouds the water and makes it difficult for native species to survive and for humans to use that waterway safely. Below are a few things you can do to prevent these issues.


Be prepared

If you are at the park, always be prepared by bringing doggy bags to pick up the waste and dispose of it in a nearby trash can. Also, avoid allowing your pet to use the restroom within 200 feet of a waterbody, and never throw your pet’s waste into a storm drain.


Compost

Typically it is not recommended to compost waste from a primarily carnivorous animal, but there is a safe way to compost your dog’s waste so it can be used on non-food vegetation. When composted correctly, the pathogens present in dog waste can be destroyed and are effective at preventing the pollutants in the waste from reaching our waterways. This dog waste composting guide from the Natural Resources Conservation Service provides step-by-step instructions on a variety of compost bin designs, materials to include in your compost, as well as a guide for regular maintenance; there is even a record keeping sheet.


Overpopulation

Approximately 6.5 million animals are taken into U.S. shelters annually, which is only a fraction of the number of homeless animals. The overpopulation of pets increases the amount of waste that enters our waterways and damages native populations.


The damage

Domesticated cats are considered one of the biggest threats to our native bird populations, as they kill anywhere between 1.3 and 4 billion birds annually. While free roaming cats contribute to this high mortality rate, homeless cats have had a much more significant contribution to the extinction of 63 species, and their overpopulation is only exacerbating the issue. Cat populations can grow exponentially, as an average cat can have 2-3 litters of 1-8 kittens per year and 80% of newborn kittens come from community or stray cats. This means that colonies of homeless cats can expand in size within a very short period of time, and those cats need to eat.


Solutions

The best possible solutions include spaying/neutering your cat, and not allowing them outside. By fixing your pet, you reduce the likelihood they will have a hand in increasing the pet population if they were to get out of your home. For strays, you can find a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program nearest to you with a simple search. This page from the Iowa Humane Alliance has great tips on how to participate in TNR programs. These programs are instrumental in reducing the stray population. If you aren’t sure if a stray in your neighborhood has been fixed yet, take a look at their ear. Ear tipping is a common practice in which the veterinarian will clip the tip of an ear after spaying or neutering the animal. Additionally, many veterinarians will put a small tattoo on the animal’s abdomen.


Insecticides

One of the most important parts of being a pet parent is keeping our pets healthy, and that includes preventing pests. Flea and tick insecticides are regular treatments given to most pets in the United States. Like any pesticide, these topical treatments build up in our waterways and represent an additional pollutant that has negative health effects for the biodiversity of that waterway. In a study published by Science Advances, the chemical fipronil has been found to exceed toxic levels in U.S. waterways and streams. Fipronil is a common ingredient in many topical flea and tick treatments marketed toward dogs and cats, and is also used in many yard sprays.


You may be scratching your head and wondering what to do; you don’t want your pet to be infested with fleas and ticks, but you don’t want to damage the environment. Believe it or not, there are a variety of natural remedies that, when used together, can become a great deterrent for nasty pests.


Plants

Aromatic plants like mint, citronella, rosemary, fleawort, rue, tansy, and wormwood are all natural flea repellents. It is recommended that these plants be potted to keep invasive species, like mint, under control. Potted plants have the added benefit of being moved where you need them most. The best places for these plants are around your home’s entrances, windows, and spaces your pet frequents.

Herbal remedies

Herbal sprays can be an all natural and safe method for keeping pests out of your home. This recipe calls for 4 liters of vinegar, 2 liters of water, 500 milliliters of lemon juice, and 250 milliliters of witch hazel. Before applying a heavy spray around your home, it is recommended to vacuum thoroughly and wash bedding.


Diatomaceous earth (with caution)

Diatomaceous earth is made up of fossilized remains of small aquatic organisms, diatoms. The skeletons of these tiny creatures contain silica, which absorbs the oils and fats from the cuticle of the insect’s exoskeleton. Additionally, diatomaceous earth is very abrasive, which allows the silica to penetrate the exoskeleton more easily. While this is a non-toxic and all natural pesticide, it does pose risk to humans and animals. It is recommended that if you do choose to dust your yard with diatomaceous earth that you wear gloves, eye protection, and a mask. You should also purchase the human grade version to further reduce risk.


At the end of the day, we all want what’s best for our pets and what’s best for our planet. While it may have felt like there was no way to support both, several ways exist to make it possible. Just as we are mindful of our own habits, we can be mindful of our pet-related habits.

 

Resources

An Overview of Caring for Outdoor Cats. (n.d.). The Humane Society of the United States. https://www.humanesociety.org/sites/default/files/docs/caring-community-cats-overview.pdf


Burgess, P. (2021, June 21). American Pet Products Association Releases Newest Edition of National Pet Owners Survey; Biennial research reveals trends on pet ownership, spending, shopping habits, pet acquisition, and more. American Pet Products Association. https://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_releasedetail.asp?id=1242


Community cats are the most at-risk animals in shelters. (n.d.). Best Friends Animal Society. https://bestfriends.org/advocacy/protecting-community-cats


Composting Dog Waste. (2005, December). United States Department of Agriculture, Natural resources Conservation Service, and Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs142p2_035763.pdf


Diatomaceous Earth; General Fact Sheet. (n.d.). National Pesticide Information Center. http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/degen.html#whatis


Do You Scoop the Poop?. (n.d.). Rhode Island Stormwater Solutions, Rhode Island Department of Transportation, and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. https://cfpub.epa.gov/npstbx/files/Pet%20care%20fact%20sheet.pdf


Hewitt, A. (2017, August 2). The truth about cats’ and dogs’ environmental impact; UCLA researcher finds that feeding pets creates the equivalent of 64 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. University of California, Los Angeles. https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/the-truth-about-cats-and-dogs-environmental-impact


Miller, J., Schmidt, T., and Moran, P. (2020, October 23). Common insecticide disrupts aquatic communities: A mesocosm-to-field ecological risk assessment of fipronil and its degradates in U.S. streams. Science Advances, 6(43). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abc1299


Okin, G. (2017, August 2). Environmental impacts of food consumption by gods and cats. The Public Library of Science One. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0181301

Panic, J. (2019, October 19). How Many Kittens Can a Cat Have?. Cat Cave Company. https://catcaveco.com/blogs/main/how-many-kitens-can-a-cat-have


Pet Obesity Epidemic Fact Sheet. (2018, January). Vet Innovations Incorporated. https://vetinnovations.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/180123-new-2018-pet-obesity-epidemic-fact-sheet-copy-final.pdf


Shelter Intake and Surrender. (n.d.). American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. https://www.aspca.org/helping-people-pets/shelter-intake-and-surrender#:~:text=Of%20the%20approximately%206.5%20million,00%20dogs%20and%20860%2C000%20cats).


Termite, V. (2015, July 9). Plants that repel fleas and where to put them. Vulcan Termite and Pest Control Company. https://www.vulcantermite.com/home-pest-control/plants-that-repel-fleas-where-to-put-them/


Top 8 flea home remedies. (n.d.). Ehrlich. https://www.jcehrlich.com/fleas/top-8-flea-home-remedies/


Why You Should Spay or Neuter Your Cat. (n.d.). Pet Health Network. https://www.pethealthnetwork.com/cat-health/cat-surgery-a-z/why-you-should-spay-or-neuter-your-cat#:~:text=An%20average%20cat%20has%201,kittens%20in%20just%207%20years.


Yandell, K. (2013, January 30). Cats Pose an Even Bigger Threat to Birds than Previously Thought. Audubon. https://www.audubon.org/news/cats-pose-even-bigger-threat-birds-previously-thought

 

About the Author

Bri Hull is the Communications Associate at the Tallgrass Prairie Center. Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, Bri came to Iowa to attend Wartburg College. In her time in Iowa she developed an interest in environmental science and stayed to learn more about ways she can help her community. In her time with Green Iowa AmeriCorps, Bri hopes to learn how to become more green and how to reach out to her community to do the same.

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