How to Be an Eco-Friendly Pet Owner

Caring for your pet while caring for the planet is about more than buying recycled toys and organic dog food.

You love your pet. You care about the environment. But what do the two have to do with each other? More than you may realize, it turns out. How you treat your pets, how you feed them, and how you clean up after them have a sizable impact on the environment and the wildlife we share it with.

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Buy pet food with a smaller paw print.

We care about the environmental impact of what we’re eating, so it only makes sense to be just as mindful about what we’re feeding Fido or Fluffy. However, ecological-impact calculations for food are based on the processing of human-grade meat—which has a much greater footprint than by-products of the human food industry. And much commercial pet food is based largely on these by-products—things like animal and soybean meals or dried egg. Using these leftovers keeps them from simply being thrown away as waste. “It is a method of recycling nutrient- and energy-rich products,” says Kelly Scott Swanson, a professor of animal and nutritional sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. So when choosing pet food to put in your cart, look for ingredients that include these secondary products, like animal bone meal or organ meat.

Also look for high quantities of plant-based ingredients. “Many pet foods are animal-based, and in general, animal products have a larger footprint than plant products,” Swanson says. Pet foods that tout sustainably certified fish are also planet-friendly.

Take better care of . . . business.

You already know that not picking up your dog’s poop will annoy your neighbors. But there’s another downside: Rain can carry pathogens in dog waste into streams where people swim, making them sick, says Jon Devine, senior attorney for NRDC’s Water program. “It also contains nitrogen and phosphorus, which contribute to slimy and sometimes toxic algae outbreaks,” he says. Marine life might also be harmed, says Andrew Wetzler, NRDC’s deputy chief program officer.

As for cat poop, never flush the stuff down the toilet, unless you have an indoor-only cat that has tested negative for toxoplasmosis. This disease, caused by a parasite that lives in cat feces, can end up in waterways and affect marine life, says Wetzler. “While some cities have water treatment plants that cleanse the water, not all programs are designed to screen out some of the things that are contained in dog or cat poop,” he says.

Believe it or not, the best solution is simply to throw pet waste in the trash, unless you live in a city that is developing a municipal dog-poop compost program. And remember: It’s unsafe to compost pet feces at home.

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Use safer flea and tick products.

Some flea and tick collars leave harmful chemical residue on our pets’ fur and in our homes, says NRDC senior scientist Miriam Rotkin-Ellman. These chemicals are highly hazardous to animals and humans, can damage the brain and nervous system, and can even cause cancer. NRDC research has shown that high levels of pesticide residue can remain on dog or cat fur for weeks after a flea collar is put on. This is especially dangerous in homes with children, since their neurological and metabolic systems are still developing. They are also more likely than adults to put their hands in their mouths after petting an animal, and so are more likely to ingest the hazardous residues.

Two major flea collar pesticides to avoid: tetrachlorvinphos and propoxur; also steer clear of products with permethrin and amitraz. For fleas, the best thing is to start with nontoxic control measures including giving your pet regular baths, vacuuming, and washing pet beds in hot water. If you need to use a pesticide, products with lufenuron, spinosad, methoprene, or pyriproxyfen are better choices. Some products are available as a pill, which protects kids by eliminating toxic residues. Finally, don’t assume that something marketed as “natural” is necessarily safer or more effective. (For more information, check out this product guide.)

Don’t buy exotic pets.

With a very few exceptions, buying animals that go much beyond the usual suspects—cats, dogs, rabbits, parakeets—is a bad idea, Wetzler says. Some animals sold as pets are already on protected lists or are endangered; chances are, they were procured in illegal ways and are crossing international borders to get to you via shady organizations. What’s more, if the animals escape or are released into the wild—as has happened with boa constrictors in Florida—they can become invasive species and a danger to the other animals in the area. “Go through reputable breeders who have received a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Wetzler says. To find out if an animal you’re interested in is on an endangered list, visit the organization’s permits page.

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Keep cats indoors.

Your soft, sleepy housecat can be a cold-blooded killer—at least when it comes to the many birds that our feline friends encounter on their jaunts outside. Cats are wired to hunt and kill, and research has shown that cats are a massive source of bird mortality in America, Wetzler says. A study from 2013 found that domestic cats kill from 1.3 to 4 billion birds a year. (Yes, that’s billions.) Keeping your cat inside (and still true to its nature) is a surefire way to keep the birds in the air. If that’s not an option, consider placing a small bell on your cat’s collar to give the birds a fighting chance.

Another reason to keep your cat inside is that it makes flea control easier—and you don’t need to protect them against ticks.

Consider a new cat litter.

Many of the major cat litter varieties on the market are made from a substance called sodium bentonite, a kind of clay. Trouble is, much of it is obtained via strip-mining, which is a highly destructive and enormously inefficient way to access minerals in the earth. Some cats might be happy using only a box filled with this pebbly litter, but it’s worth trying alternatives made from wood, corn, wheat, or even pressed newspaper.

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