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Sustainable Pets: Three Ways To Reduce Your Carbon Pawprint

Does your furry friend have an outsized carbon pawprint?

Written by Caroline Selle, the Zero Waste Girl

Each morning, as the cats wind around my legs and meow for their breakfast, I wonder exactly how much damage their canned cat food is doing to the earth. I make every effort to keep my own life sustainable, my carbon footprint low, but I adopted two carnivores.

Dogs can be vegetarian, but cats can’t. They need taurine in their diets, an amino acid that only comes from animals. Forget species: most pet food is problematic anyways. In fact, according to Robert and Brenda Vale, authors of Time to Eat the Dog? The Real Guide to Sustainable Living, a medium-size dog is worse for the environment than an SUV. The worst part of the impact comes from diet. Cats, in comparison, are kind of like a Smart Car. They’re not guzzling gas, but they’re still emitting CO2.

So how can we make our pets more sustainable?

Let’s start with food.

No matter how I budget, there’s only so much of my salary I can afford to spend on sustainably sourced pet food. Plus, my cats like the cheap stuff. Friskies generates more meows than Dave’s, so we’ve settled on Iams, an in-between brand I can still pick up at the local grocery store. None are particularly great options. Purina touts its sustainable practices, but it’s owned by Nestle. I feed the cats a fixed quantity of wet food along with an open supply of higher quality and more eco-friendly dry food.

Vets generally agree that wet food is healthier for pets. If your budget stretches a little farther than mine, you might consider buying dehydrated food, which has a lower carbon footprint when shipped. It’s rehydrated by adding water at home. And if you’re really into getting high quality and eco-friendly food for your pet, you can make your own.  Unfortunately, it’s time consuming and expensive.

My favorite place to find a balanced blend of sustainable and healthy food is the Big Bad Woof, a local pet store chain with locations in Maryland and DC. The employees are always helpful, and there’s a good selection of brands at a variety of price points. The store carries supplies for all common household pets, including birds and small rodents.


If you’ve ever cared for a kitten, you know a balled up piece of newspaper can be just as engrossing as a fancy, ten dollar toy. Cats love boxes. Anything lying around the house. My kitten chases bouncy balls and a laser pointer, and anything tied to a swinging string.

Your cat might chatter at the birds and squirrels outside, but keep them indoors. Not only will the pet avoid being hit by cars, getting into fights with other cats, and a variety of nasty diseases, you’ll keep the predatory instincts in check. Cats are reportedly responsible for billions of small mammal and bird deaths each year.

Dogs, similarly, can be entertained without spending much money. Plenty of parks allow canine companions, and there are several hiking trails in the area that do as well. There are also quite a few companies making more sustainable versions of dog toys, in case you want to pick up something more durable for your pet to chew.

Some smaller pets, like hamsters, enjoy playing in old paper towel or toilet paper tubes.


The stinky part, and the least exciting part of owning a pet. For cleaning up after a dog, some stores and online outlets sell biodegradable doggy bags. In theory, the whole thing degrades in the landfill. Since most landfills are too tightly packed to allow for much biodegradation, I’m a fan of using plastic newspaper bags, tortilla packaging, or anything else that might end up in the trash.

Cat waste is a more serious problem. About 2 million pounds of litter head to landfills each year. Clay litter (the most popular kind) is strip mined, but it lasts longer and contains smells better than many other options. One alternative is pine pellets, but many cats don’t appreciate the change in texture. Some people toilet train their cats, but my supposedly fastidiously clean animals prefer to use the toilet to drink. The lid stays closed now.

Any animal could, in theory, have its waste composted – but not for any compost you’ll put on edible plants. Plus, there’s the smell to contend with. Small animals that live in wood shavings, like hamsters, produce less waste and therefore less smell. If you’re comfortable composting, go for it! (But keep it very, very separate from anything going near your food).

Can we really shrink the pawprint?

In the end, pets don’t create as much of an environmental challenge as humans. It makes more sense to address our own shortcomings first. However, if you really want to make your pet’s life more sustainable, start with food. Go to your local pet store and talk to some experts. When it comes to toys, reuse, reuse, reuse. And, well, waste is difficult. Composting is probably the best option, but it comes with many challenges.

Finally, this wouldn’t be a piece about responsible pet ownership without a disclaimer at the end. Spay and neuter your animals. Puppies, kittens, and other baby pets are cute, but there are already too many animals without homes.

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