Living an eco-friendly lifestyle depends not only on the choices we make for ourselves, but on those we make for our pets.
It can be easy to pick up another toy or toss out a whole tray of litter without considering the environmental impact of those actions. Your pet care habits, however, from feeding to accessorizing to waste management, do add up. These habits also leave a surprisingly large carbon footprint.
Your Cat’s Carbon Footprint
A carbon footprint is a way of quantifying the amount of greenhouse gas emitted by the activities of a person or thing due to the consumption of fossil fuels.
A 2009 study by New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington estimated that pet cats leave a carbon footprint equal to that of driving a compact car for a year. That includes emissions from the production, manufacture, transportation, and disposal of everything you use to care for your pet—determined by choices you make each day.
When it comes to changing habits, awareness is a good place to start, but activating habits of good environmental stewardship requires more than knowledge. Once you know you want to change, finding quick and easy tricks to erode old habits and build new ones will set you on an eco-friendly path. Here we give you the knowledge and advice to develop pet care habits that will reduce the carbon pawprint of your cat and create a healthier planet for everyone.
According to the American Pet Products Association, it’s estimated that people in the United States keep 74-96 million pet cats.
That means hundreds of thousands of pet parents are clicking online or driving to the store to buy food and treats, bowls and storage bins, litter and scoopers, toys and cat trees, and so much more. And to do it, we’re using enormous amounts of fossil fuel to grow, raise, produce, package, transport, and dispose of all of these things.
What you can do:
- Be mindful of your impact. Ask yourself if you really need all of those pet accessories that fly across your screens or await you at the checkout. Remember that your cat doesn’t know what’s cool or trendy; only you do.
- Shop locally. Buy what your pet needs from a local pet store to reduce the amount of fossil fuel required to ship and transport items (compared to having them delivered to your door). That said, the products at your local shop may have traveled quite far to get there. The best option is to purchase pet items like food, treats, toys, etc. from a farmer’s market or locally-based company if you have the option.
- Provide pet accessories that are made of biodegradable or recycled materials. Choose items with the least packaging that are dye-free and made with natural or organically produced materials. While they’re more expensive than plastic and rubber, these pet toys require fewer fossil fuels throughout their life cycle. If they’re out of your budget, then read on…
- Make your own cat toys. Gather objects like cardboard boxes, string, paper towel rolls, or balls of aluminum foil, then get crafty. You can look up DIY cat toys for inspiration and instructions. Proud of your DIY cat toy idea? Share it in the comments below.
- Donate or upcycle old pet supplies, so they don’t end up in the trash. Pet shelters and rescues may take donated pet supplies like gently used toys, bowls, blankets, coats, and more.
- Follow through on the little things. Apply your eco-friendly mindset from start to finish. It’s easy to rationalize “bad” behavior after making a few environmentally-friendly choices. Take the time to recycle packaging materials or leftover craft supplies, schedule time to drop off those gently used pet items at your local shelter, and share your new eco-friendly ways with friends.
Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they evolved to receive basic nutrients including protein, fats, carbohydrates—plus vitamins and minerals—from a meat-based diet.
Unfortunately, meat is a very energy-intensive food ingredient, requiring large amounts of fossil fuels, water, and land to produce. It is one of the leading causes of water pollution and of biodiversity loss. Even non-meat ingredients create pollution through fertilizers and pesticides, making your cat’s food a large source of greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition, the machines and materials used to produce and package the food, as well as the trucks and handling methods used to distribute the food all require significant amounts of resources and energy. Fossil fuel is demanded all along the way, resulting in significant carbon pollution.
Recently, there has been a push to offer cat food options that have fewer meat ingredients and more plant protein substitutes. Some companies even offer totally vegan options. Given that cats are obligate carnivores, vegan cat food is controversial. Whatever you feed your cat, pay close attention to its behavior (energy level, mood at feeding time, and litter box habits) to know if the food is agreeable.
What you can do:
- Feed your pet the right amount of high quality food. Pay due attention to the amount of food your pet actually needs. Look on the package for the recommended serving for your cat’s weight, age, and activity level. Then, mark your scooper or leave a measuring cup for that amount in your storage bin. Moreover, pet owners are now feeding their pets 2-3 times the amount of protein required for a healthy diet. And it is the protein production that is most damaging to the environment.
- Avoid beef. Raising poultry and fish releases significantly less greenhouse gas than raising cows for beef, so foods that primarily contain these ingredients will help limit your carbon footprint.
- Buy organic. Organic food production standards mean less environmental impact than factory-farmed, processed meat products, with the benefit of protecting animal rights.
- Consider the packaging. Buy food and treats with biodegradable, post-consumer recycled packaging, or without any packaging at all. Oftentimes, we buy food and pour it into a food bin, immediately discarding the packaging. If that is the case, bring a reusable bag and buy in bulk to keep packaging out of landfills.
Your pet’s health is another sector that impacts the environment significantly. From vet appointments, to treatments, to supportive care products, great amounts of fossil fuels are used, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The problem is amplified by the number of homeless pets, which is estimated to be nearly 70 million.
What you can do:
- Dispose of pet chemicals responsibly. The same federal guidelines for the disposal of human medications apply to veterinary medications as well. Flea control products, shampoos, dips, and their packaging contain poisonous pesticides and other chemicals that need to be disposed of according to local and federal environmental regulations. Never flush them down the toilet!
- Go non-toxic. Since your cat spends so much time grooming itself, it may ingest the chemicals that it contacts with its paws and fur. In fact, pets accumulate a higher concentration of toxic chemicals in their systems than humans do, leading to illness and disease. Choose environmentally-friendly soaps, detergents, cleaners, disinfectants, cleaners, etc. that are toxin-free. Use enzyme-based cleaners that digest organic substances, such as cat urine, to remove smells. A simple solution of vinegar and baking soda can clean most things in your home and won’t harm your cat.
- Spay or neuter your pet. Controlling the population of cats will reduce the burden on all of the other needs of cats. Shelters and animal rights groups make it easy and affordable to spay or neuter pets, or you can contact your veterinarian.
Americans fill landfills with about 2 million tons of cat litter each year. Add that to the mountain of garbage created by producing and using all of the aforementioned items, and our total landfill input is enormous. Landfills are designed to keep trash dry (so the groundwater isn’t contaminated), which prevents quick decomposition. That is why the three R’s of environmentalism are so important: reduce, reuse, recycle.
What you can do:
- Reduce your use. Your cat requires litter just a few inches deep, so don’t use too much in the litter box. Reduce spilling and kicked-out litter by using a storage container and pour cup with a litter box that has high sides.
- Reuse as much cat litter as possible. If you tend to neglect the litter box, then dump the whole tray and start again, it’s time to try something else. Keep those plastic bagfuls of litter out of the landfill and save yourself the hassle of scooping by investing in an efficient automatic, self-cleaning litter box. It will pay you and the environment back in time, money, and reduced waste.
- Recycle: Use biodegradable or post-consumer recycled waste bags. Don’t dispose of clumps in a plastic bag, which will only extend the time it takes for waste to decompose. Instead, use biodegradable waste bags that disintegrate and allow their contents to decompose more quickly.
- Don’t flush cat litter. Even when a litter claims to be flushable, think twice. The toxoplasmosis gondii bacteria that live in some cat feces is not always destroyed during water treatment. It gets into our waterways and oceans and can harm marine life.
Think Small for a Big Impact
To make a difference, you don’t have to overhaul your entire way of caring for your pet—although you can! If every cat owner did one or two things to reduce their carbon footprint, that would make a huge difference collectively.
Pick a few things that work with your lifestyle and share ideas with other pet owners. In the moment, it might seem insignificant to buy a dye-free pet toy, bulk pet treats, or a different cleaning product. But multiplied by 85 million cats, that’s an enormous reduction in carbon emissions! So think small, because together, we can have a big impact.