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Several years ago, researchers from the College of Agricultural Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at the University of Illinois asked the simple question, “Is Pet Ownership Sustainable?” Published in ScienceDaily, their study spawned a debate about pet ownership and its ramifications that has since become a call-to-action for sustainability advocates.

The 2013 study defined sustainability as meeting the needs of today without compromising the future. Thankfully, accomplishing that goal is easier than many people realize. From choosing healthy pet food to becoming clever with pet waste disposal, there are many actions pet owners can take to increase the sustainability of pet ownership. Here are some tips that will help you and your pet reduce your impact and put a firm green paw forward.

1. Purchase Smart Pet Products

When browsing the web for pet products such as toys and shampoos, you might feel overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of items available. Interestingly, like human sustainability, pet sustainability begins with smart purchases.

Using a pet shampoo without chemicals is a great place to start. Parabens, dyes, fragrances, stearalkonium chloride, and sodium laureth sulphate are just a few of the ingredients that can be harmful to your pet. Instead, consider making your own pet shampoo from castile soap, vinegar, and olive oil. Add a few drops of essential oils for a simple, earth-based fragrance.

Choosing sustainable pet toys is another excellent step toward decreasing your pet’s impact. Hemp and organic cotton pet products are perfect choices due to their lack of pesticides and insecticides. You can even extend this train of thought to the products you use to clean up after your pet. If your pet has an in-house accident, cleaning it with a natural spot and odor remover will limit everyone’s exposure to the harmful chemicals found in some commonly available cleaners.

2. Farm to Bowl? Choose Healthy Pet Food

If you own a dog or cat, you can attest to the amount of carnivorous food they consume. Additionally, those three-foot-long dog food bags you drag from car to kitchen have traveled quite a distance. Both of these factors mean that commercial dog food has plenty of carbon emissions attached. It also includes potentially harmful ingredients, such as:

  • Ethoxyquin: a preservative currently banned in Australia and Europe.
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA): a preservative known to have produced tumors in lab experiments.
  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT): another preservative and known carcinogen.
  • Propylene Glycol: an ingredient currently banned in cat food due to its effect on red blood cells.
  • Tetrasodium Pyrophosphate (TSPP): an ingredient that can cause moderate diarrhea and nausea.

Other pet foods may contain similarly harmful ingredients. Lawsuits involving pet food brands detail tainted ingredients with many spokespeople lying about the potentially dangerous chemicals lurking in each oversized bag. Talk to your pet’s veterinarian to find out what nutrients your pet needs daily. Then consider purchasing healthier alternatives, adding some home grown barley grass to your pet’s meals, or learning to make pet food at home with ingredients sourced from your community.

3. Dispose of Pet Waste Properly

If you fail to pick up after your pet, you could be harming the earth and its water supply. In one case, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that 90 percent of fecal coliform in storm water was in fact not human, but mainly from dogs.

Picking up after your pet is an important part of pet ownership. Using biodegradable bags for this purpose can be another great way to reduce your pet’s environmental footprint. Depending on where you live, you may even want to go one step further and flush your pet’s waste down the toilet.

4. Buy Sustainable and Safe Pet Medicine

Buying sustainable pet medicine could have an impact on your pet’s health, as well as your entire family’s. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that the pesticides in pet medications and applications could potentially cause serious chronic health problems in humans. For instance, chemicals in pet medicine could increase you and your family’s risk for cancer, neurological issues, and respiratory problems.

Your pet’s health is also at risk if you choose unsustainable pet medicine. The NRDC found that pets can suffer from gastrointestinal problems, neurological issues, skin irritation, and potential organ failure as a result of poisoning. One of the most common medicines associated with these increased health risks are those that ward off ticks and fleas. There are, however, excellent alternatives you can implement for the good of the entire family. The NRDC suggests diatomaceous earth as a safe alternative. This pet and human alternative can be used indoor, outdoor, and even rubbed into your pet’s fur.

5. Spay or Neuter Your Pets

One big aspect of sustainable pet ownership is to think about the delicate balance of animals on this planet. Overpopulation of any pet can have a significant impact on the natural life cycle, causing negative effects to the ecosystem. Having your pet spayed or neutered is an important way to ensure that this balance remains intact.

Did you know that cats have caused the extinction of 33 bird species? Cats are known predators of birds, mice, and other small creatures, and if the cat population increases, other animal populations will subsequently decrease. Your family cat may seem harmless, but the American Bird Society has named outdoor domestic cats as a threat to global diversity. In their 2014 report, The State of the Birds, the Society notes that cats kill 2.4 billion birds annually.

Spaying or neutering your pets has another effect as well. It ensures that no unwanted pets end up in shelters. Remember sustainable food? Well, unwanted pets cost money, and the food shelters purchase is usually of the non-sustainable variety.

6. Change Your Kitty Litter, Literally!

Did you know more than two million tons of clay is mined every year in the U.S. just for cat litter? In most cases the sodium bentonite used in your pet’s litter box is the result of strip mining. To get to this particular kitty litter ingredient, tons of earth needs to be dug up, which in turn creates a giant quarry hole. There are, however, alternatives to keep your cat’s waste disposal green. Consider using eco-friendly kitty litter instead. Many brands are now available whose main ingredients include wood chips, sawdust, or even corn kernels. You can also make your own using recycled materials such as old newspapers, wood shavings, and nutshells.

7. Introduce Sustainable Pet Play

From house cats to energetic dog breeds, introducing sustainable pet playtime can be fun and healthy. You may even find a bit of savings in stuff around the house, rather than buying new, expensive, and unsustainable pet toys.

According to The Humane Society, many pet owners say that their cats love simple toys. A paper towel roll or a cardboard box can keep your beloved house cat entertained for hours. And after those sustainable play items are shredded to pieces, you can use it for litter.

Dogs may prove a bit more challenging. For example, many dog breeds need to get out and burn energy. You can introduce sustainable playtime by taking these pets to a dog park to socialize, or hit the trails. This type of green pet play is far better than tossing your pet a giant unsustainable bone to chew on for a week. However, it is important to take precautions to keep your pup safe, so consider packing a canine first-aid kit when hiking.

Is it Time to Change Your Human Habits?

If flushing your pup’s waste down the toilet or making your own kitty litter simply isn’t in your immediate future, consider offsetting your pet’s carbon footprint by making lifestyle changes. Not sure where to start? There are plenty of books on sustainability to get things moving in the green direction.

For instance, if you can’t locate or afford sustainable kitty litter, bike or take public transportation instead of driving. Or, if making your own pet food is out of your reach, start a compost to cut down on your food waste. You can even purchase carbon credits to offset your pet’s environmental impact.

There are a variety of ways you can lessen your pet’s impact for a better and greener future. Sustainable pet ownership starts with sustainable choices. Making pet sustainability a priority is worth the effort. Who knows? It may also result in a healthier, happier pet.

What actions will you take to ensure your pet’s footprint is greener?


University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES). “Is pet ownership sustainable?” ScienceDaily, 22 April 2013.

Natural Resources Defense Council. “Non-Toxic Ways to Protect Your Pet,” Karen Smith-Janssen, January 2016.

“What Are the Most Eco-Friendly Cat Litter Products on the Market?”, Scientific American, Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. U.S. Department of Interior, Washington, D.C.

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