Those of us who are fond of the environment and our pets sometimes feel like eco-traitors, thanks to the periodic stories about how pets are ecologically unsound and we’re singlehandedly responsible for global warming. The actual news on pets and the environment is a bit more complicated than some news stories might suggest; as Marion Nestle put it in a takedown of the claim that feeding animals is environmentally destructive, many of these studies are relatively simple and don’t compensate for all the factors involved. For instance, commercial pet food is made with remaindered products, creating a use for scrap materials that would otherwise need to be handled in some likely energy-draining way.
But the fact of the matter is that pets do have an environmental footprint, and it can be quite large. Dogs and cats can be destructive to the natural environment as well as hazardous for native wildlife and plants. Those with medical conditions can generate quite a footprint as they undergo treatment which may involve radiation, medications, and frequent car trips to the vet.
I talked with veterinarian Lidja Gillmeister from La Jolla Veterinary Hospital about some of the measures they’ve taken to make their clinic green (the American Veterinary Medical Association has more information on greening clinics) as well as actions pet owners can use to shrink their carbon footprints. It turns out you can have your pets and your trees, too.
At the clinic, they instituted a rigid recycling program: “This includes any medical supplies (eg. syringes, fluid bags, etc) for which it is not contraindicated, boxes from our deliveries, paper products and the standard bottles/cans/boxes from items consumed by staff.” They also went digital not just with medical records, but also radiographs, which cuts down on exposure to chemicals used in developing x-ray films.
She says disposal of pet waste is a particularly important issue, at the clinic and at home. Biodegradable waste bags and litter products are available, although no uniform testing to confirm biodegradability is in place, which can make it hard to verify the claims on packaging. As she points out, “landfills...are typically very densely packed with little oxygen,” which makes it hard for products to break down. It’s especially important, she adds, to take special care with cat waste, which shouldn’t be dumped or flushed in the sewer because it contains pathogens harmful to sea life that aren’t eliminated in standard wastewater treatment.
One option she suggested was composting; while animal waste cannot be handled like food waste, composting units are available or people can make their own. Keeping pet waste aerated will help it break down quickly and efficiently, and it can be used on ornamental plants.
She also advises pet owners to consult their local vet clinics or waste management companies about expired and unwanted medications (that goes for human as well as animal medications). These shouldn’t be disposed of in the toilet because they can enter the water supply and endanger animal life. Specific guidelines can vary by region; in some areas a hazardous waste disposal pickup day may be available for people who need to get rid of medications, paint, and dangerous chemicals. In others, it may be possible to throw medication, tightly sealed, into the garbage. Needles and other sharps should always be handled in an approved sharps container.
Smaller pets tend to have a smaller footprint, but pets of all sizes should be kept indoors or in controlled areas, not just for their safety but that of songbirds and other animals. In ecologically fragile areas like wetlands, off-leash dogs and cats can disrupt nesting birds, damage native plants, and cause other environmental issues. A pleasant side bonus: Indoor cats and properly fenced dogs tend to live longer and experience fewer health problems.
Owners should also think about greening things like pet toys, which are often made from plastic, mylar, and similar substances that won’t break down easily. Keeping a rotation of biodegradeable toys in use can ensure that pets don’t get bored, and reduce the amount of pet-related garbage. It’s also possible to use objects from around the house as pet toys, depending on the pet; knotted ropes, for example, can be enjoyable for dogs, while cats may enjoy emptied and closed medication bottles.
Happy pets and happy environments, it turns out, can go hand in hand.