You naturally want the best for your furred family member. You invest in high-end pet foods and spoil her with toys and designer sweaters. Kudos for being an awesome pet parent.
But sometimes our good intentions can negatively impact the environment. Let’s face it, we all do things that are wasteful—from using plastic water bottles to making less-than-savvy consumer choices. We may do them for convenience sake, out of habit, or because we’ve been swayed by slick marketing.
With a few painless tweaks you can help reduce your pet’s paw print and become a better steward of the planet—without sacrificing the great love and care you already provide.
Following are some of the most wasteful things pet parents do.
Using Plastic Bags to Pick up Dog Poop
Using plastic dog poop bags to pick up and dispose of your dog’s poop may be convenient, but it’s also clogging up landfills and posing a threat to wildlife. You may see biodegradable bags as a solution, but Dr. Justine Lee, a Saint Paul, Minnesota-based veterinarian offers a cautionary tale. “I put one into my compost pile, and it’s still there after seven years.” The most sustainable way to deal with pet waste—admittedly not the most convenient—is to pick it up with newspaper, says Diane MacEachern, founder of Big Green Purse, a site that inspires people to live green and healthful lives. “Bring it home, and flush it down the toilet, then fold up the newspaper inside another newspaper and throw that away.”
Another option is to repurpose other bags you already have around the house. “If you can avoid buying new bags, even if they’re supposedly biodegradable, you’ll waste fewer resources on the manufacturing end, and use less energy in manufacturing and shipping the biodegradable bags, as well,” she says. If you must use new bags, opt for those made of bioplastic. Most plastics are made from crude oil, and rely on a manufacturing process that produces carbon dioxide, according to The American Chemical Society. Bioplastic bags are renewable, and are made from the sugars of plants like corn, wheat, and potatoes.
Using Clay Cat Litter
“We have a huge cat litter problem,” says Sandy Robins, author and pet life expert. Most of the cat litter sold today, she says, is clay-based. Clay litter may be more absorbent, but it also clogs landfills. According to Stanford University, 150,000 tons of it ends up in our nation’s landfills each year. In addition, most clay used for cat litter is a result of strip mining, a practice that Stanford University says causes environmental damage. Trees and vegetation get cleared, soil excavated, and explosives are used to break up rocks.
A small change in your cat litter box cleaning habits can make a big difference. “What people do is dump cat litter every one to two weeks instead of picking up clumps,” says Lee. At home she lines a 10-gallon bucket with grocery bags, then dumps it once a week into the trash. Another alternative, she says, is to choose eco-friendly kitty litter made of wheat, corn, or wood. “But if you do switch kitty litter, it has to be done gradually.” Cats can be pretty picky about their litter box, and the last thing you want—even if it’s an effort to be eco-friendly—is to have a cat that doesn’t use her litter box.
Not Picking Up After Their Dogs
Your dog’s poop may be natural, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the planet (or nice to look at, for that matter). “Flies will lay eggs in it, other dogs will come along and eat it, and if there’s a lot of rain, the poop could run off into the street and into our sewer system, eventually finding its way into streams, rivers, and lakes,” says MacEachern.
Cold weather doesn’t get you out of pooper scooper duty, either. “Some pet owners think that when it’s cold outside, it somehow minimizes the impact of the waste. But that’s not true,” she says. “As soon as it warms up, frozen poop thaws.”
Not Getting Pets Spayed or Neutered
There are a lot of good reasons to get your pet spayed or neutered—from potentially prolonging his life to preventing pet overpopulation. It also reduces strain on the planet in a big way. MacEachern says not spaying or neutering is probably the worst thing a pet parent can do.
The more pets there are on the planet, the more energy and resources that need to be used to make food, cat litter, and other supplies. “[Pets] only burden the planet’s resources if we don’t take care of them properly,” she says. “We can be responsible by not over-breeding.”
Not Protecting Pets From Fleas and Ticks
Decent flea and tick protection probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when looking for ways to save the planet. From a health standpoint, we know fleas and ticks can be detrimental to animal and human health. “Not treating for fleas and ticks is very unfair to the dog or cat because it puts them at risk for getting Lyme disease. It also puts the pet owner at risk; you could get bitten by a tick that’s on your pet and you could get Lyme disease, which can be very debilitating,” explains MacEachern.
But also consider this: If your house becomes infested with fleas, MacEachern says that the chemicals and insecticides needed to get rid of the parasites can be detrimental to the environment.“
Buying Too Much Pet Stuff
We can love our animals and provide them with optimal care without buying more stuff than they need. “Pet parents can be as bad as ‘kid’ parents when it comes to how many toys they buy for their dogs and cats,” says MacEachern. “Dogs and cats actually need very few toys—only one leash, only one raincoat or winter coat (if any). They don’t need sweaters and booties unless they’re really tiny and fragile.”
Instead, she advocates reusing items. “Pet parents can shop at thrift stores for feeding bowls, coats, and toys, and recycle these items there when they’re finished with them.” Also check with your local humane society–they may offer gently-used pet items for sale, or even for free. Make sure to add a reusable thermos to your shopping list to avoid having to use plastic water bottles when traveling.
Wasting Food and Water
It’s not just human food that goes to waste. The problem, says Robins, is putting out food for your cat and dog that may not get eaten. It then stands out for hours and loses its palatability, so your pet won’t eat it. “So you’re throwing away food and creating more food waste.” To reduce waste, discuss portion size with your vet. You may be overfeeding your cat or dog without even realizing it. Robins also recommends trying automatic feeders or food bowls designed to assist with portion control.
Drinking water is another resource we waste. Instead of having to dump out the water and replace with fresh, Robins recommends investing in a pet drinking fountain that recycles water through a filter. “Water is moving instead of sitting, so you don’t have to keep filling it.”
Not Reading Product Labels
Robins believes you can reduce your pet’s carbon paw print by being a savvy consumer. “Buying a product that looks good may not necessarily be good for the environment.” She suggests looking for pet products—such as toys and bedding—made from recycled materials. Some brands even use 100 percent plastic soda bottles as bed filling.
Paula Fitzsimmons is a freelance writer and researcher specializing in companion animal health and nutrition, and science. She’s written for clients like Prevention magazine, PetMD.com, PawCulture.com, Parrots magazine, and University of Texas-Arlington. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and feathered family members, including parrots Whit and Sweetpea.