By Sarah Grace McCandless, Animal Planet
Clearly, the size of your pets’ carbon paw print has a great deal to do with the type of animals you have. However, reducing that paw print depends more on the choices you make on their behalf. Keeping in mind the topics discussed here should help you to make greener choices for the health of the planet — and your pet.
If you’re up on your eco-lingo, you may be surprised to learn that the term “carbon footprint” wasn’t even a part of green movement vernacular until the 1990s. Today, however, people commonly use the phrase to describe the amount of greenhouse gases generated by day-to-day activities. You can figure out the carbon footprint of a person or organization, but either way, the measurement reflects the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-eq) produced per year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), on average, each American home creates approximately 9,000 pounds (4 tons) of CO2-eq annually.
But it’s not just people who make an impact on the environment — pets do too. In fact, some experts argue that a domestic animal’s carbon paw print, which may include everything from the food they eat to the toys they play with, can be quite significant. For example, according to a Mother Jones magazine report, just driving 10 miles (16 kilometers) a week to an off-leash dog park can produce up to 400 pounds (0.2 tons) of carbon a year. When you add up all the factors, it’s clear that pets can leave a lasting mark on the world around them. So the question for owners is this: How big is your pet’s carbon paw print? Grill yourself on the following topics to get an idea.
Where did my pet come from?
You may have already taken strides toward shrinking your pet’s carbon paw print if you got your furry friend from an animal shelter. Perhaps without knowing it, you helped address the issue of pet overpopulation. Shelters take in anywhere from 6 to 8 million dogs and cats every year, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and about 4 million of those animals end up being put down. There simply aren’t enough homes out there to accommodate all these would-be pets — especially because many potential owners buy animals from pet stores and breeders, which only adds to the pet population by creating a demand for more of them.
Pet population overload can cause problems in the ecosystem mainly because it multiplies the detrimental effects of certain aspects of pet life and pet care, such as waste creation and food production, both of which you’ll learn more about later on. In general, the more you’ve done to help curb this population growth — including spaying or neutering your pet — the smaller your pet’s carbon paw print will be.
Where does my pet hang out?
Outdoor kitties may seem like great, low-maintenance pets, but cats can wreak havoc on local wildlife when they’re out and about, and this may spell big trouble for the environment. The HSUS estimates that free-roaming cats kill hundreds of millions of outdoor creatures every year — mostly small mammals such as mice and chipmunks, but birds account for 25 percent of the death toll as well. Since domestic cats aren’t really part of the natural ecosystem — and are driven by instinct, rather than a need for food, to kill — their hunting can upset the population of other creatures unnecessarily. For example, the American Bird Conservancy reports that these pets have had a major hand in the elimination of 41 different species of birds from the New Zealand islands. The greener choice is to keep cats indoors.
What kinds of pet supplies do I use?
All pets require food and water, and many also need other accessories, such as bedding, collars, leashes and toys — but how much attention are you paying to the items you’re purchasing and what they’re made from? The choices you make before you reach the checkout line can all affect the size of your pet’s carbon paw print.
When it comes to pet food, there are a number of brands on the market in which the primary ingredients are by-products and chemical preservatives, both of which can have a negative impact on the environment (and your pet’s health) because of the way they’re manufactured. Foods made from organic vegetable and protein sources are much more eco-friendly, because organic agriculture centers on materials and procedures that enhance the ecological balance, as opposed to polluting, disturbing or destroying it. In addition to the food itself, pay attention to how much and what kind of packaging a pet food company uses — buying brands that incorporate non-recyclable packaging can add to a carbon paw print as well.
As for other supplies — many pet toys are made from plastic, and because they’re not regulated very strictly, some may also contain potentially harmful toxins, such as lead. If you seek out playthings made from recycled goods, and also apply this approach to other accessories such as bedding, chances are you’re helping to shrink your pet’s carbon paw print to some degree. Today, there are a number of options on the market made from things such as recycled bottles or sustainable fabrics. Eco-friendly collars and leashes made from bamboo are now becoming more readily available as well.
How do I handle pet waste?
Most people take their dogs outdoors to do their business, and the green rule of thumb when doing so is to always pick up after them. Feces left out and about can not only serve as a source for transmitting disease to other animals that come into contact with it, it can also get washed away into nearby water sources and lead to further pollution. People who always pick up after their pooches — and use eco-friendly tools, such as biodegradable bags, to do so — are doing their part to shrink pets’ carbon paw prints.
With kitty litter, on the other hand, there’s no perfect option, since all litter gets dumped into the garbage at one point or another. But some types of litter are greener than others. Clay-based litters take up more space when discarded and are often dusted with silica, a carcinogen that can trigger respiratory issues. Using litter made from recycled materials such as sawmill scrap or newspaper clippings is much easier on the environment.
As for other disposal methods — it’s safe to flush dog waste down the toilet, but cat feces is a different story: It contains parasites such as toxoplasma gondii, which can withstand the sewage treatment process, slip into streams and water sources, and ultimately kill sea life.