The Eco-Friendly Pet Owner's Guide to Reducing Your Carbon Pawprint

A tabby cat snuggles its head against a fawn-colored puppy on some grass.

Although pet owners may know the responsibilities associated with caring for their pets, some may not be aware of how pet ownership can affect their environmental responsibilities.  Household pets can have significant negative effects on the environment, both directly and indirectly.  For example, predation, waste, and food production can all have negative impacts.  Luckily, options for sustainable pet ownership are constantly expanding.

Shifting Lifestyle Habits for Sustainable Pet Ownership

It doesn’t take any major life changes to make the transition into more eco-friendly pet ownership.  A few minor shifts in your lifestyle and attitude can have a huge impact on the environment. 

Adopt, Don’t Buy

According to the American Humane Society, “56 percent of dogs and 71 percent of cats that enter animal shelters are euthanized.” This alone is a great reason to rescue your pet rather than going to a pet store or breeder, even if the breeder is an ethical breeder.  However, there are also environmental reasons for choosing to rescue your pet rather than buying from pet stores or breeders.

Any kind of over-population is typically bad for the environment, and that is especially the case for domestic animals, as they are essentially invasive species when they are in an outdoor environment.  When domestic animals don’t have a home, they create a lot of outdoor waste and may hunt indigenous species.  Meanwhile, even when animals are in a shelter environment, overpopulation results in the need for massive production in terms of manufacturing food, litter, bedding, toys, leashes, etc. 

Spay and Neuter

In addition to adoption, spaying and neutering is another major way that people can reduce negative environmental impacts resulting from pet overpopulation.  This is a one-time cost and procedure that not only reduces the negative effects of overpopulation, but is also beneficial to your pet’s health.  Spaying and neutering have been found to reduce the prevalence of health issues such as uterine infections, breast tumors, and prostate problems.  It is also important to note that if the cost of spaying or neutering is difficult to shoulder, many communities offer low-cost pet clinics for people who need them.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

A common refrain among eco-activists, this wisdom can also be applied to sustainable pet ownership.  Ways that you can implement this advice as it pertains to pets, include:

  • Recycle pet-related items. Items such as old toys and food packaging may be made of recyclable materials. 
  • Repurpose old pet-related items. Old toys, dishes, bedding, etc. may be able to be donated or used for another purpose in your home.
  • Discard waste properly. Waste such as excrement and old toys should be picked up and disposed of. 
  • Invest in pet-related items that will last longer. If you avoid replacing items for a long period of time, you can reduce pollution from production and from waste.
  • Buy ethically-sourced pet-related items. Research the companies and brands that you buy from to see what sustainability practices they employ, if any.
  • Be minimalistic in your pet-related purchases. Again, buying fewer physical items reduces your impact on the environment, and therefore it is helpful to be discerning with your purchases. 
  • Donate to Local Shelters

    Local shelters and other nonprofits promote eco-friendly pet ownership by providing an option for the reuse of unwanted pet items, sheltering animals that would otherwise have nowhere to go, and educating the community about responsible pet ownership.  Therefore, donations to these entities can go a long way towards improving sustainability initiatives related to pet ownership in a community.

    Shopping Responsibly for Your Pet

    It is, of course, impossible to completely avoid buying products for your pet; even toys serve a very important purpose in terms of promoting your pet’s mental and physical wellness.  However, when it is necessary to buy items for your pet, you can be environmentally-responsible by being mindful of where and how you shop.  To the best of your ability, always do research about how those products are sourced.

    Luckily, as sustainability has become a greater concern for consumers, many companies and brands have responded accordingly.  This has not only led to improved sourcing and manufacturing practices, but also increased transparency.  However, it is important to note that transparency isn’t always genuine, and therefore it is still important to double-check any claims of sustainability from a brand. 

    General Checklist for Buying Pet Products

    Although there are more eco-friendly pet product options available to the public, it is still advisable to be a mindful consumer when shopping for your pet.  A few ways you can do this include:

    • Researching pet stores and companies that sell pet products and learning about their sustainability commitments/efforts;
    • Looking for environmentally-friendly products (including recyclable, biodegradable, and reusable products);
    • Avoiding plastic, especially single-use plastics;
    • Purchasing reusable, rather than single-use products;
    • Looking for recyclable/minimal packaging.

    Buying Eco-Friendly Pet Food and Treats

    Like we humans, our pets’ diets are the largest source of their overall environmental pawprints.  Most pets must have meat-heavy diets because they are carnivores, and large-scale red meat production in the U.S. is damaging to the environment due to the overall resource intensity of animal protein production.  The greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and fresh water use, and animal waste associated with protein production has become catastrophic to our environment.  Many agricultural companies are working to employ more ethical, sustainable practices, and you can have a huge positive impact just by being mindful of where your pets’ food comes from.  Whenever possible, research sustainable pet foods and meat products.  Making responsible choices about the foods your pets consume are the most impactful decisions you can make, as a pet owner, to reduce your pets’ negative impact on the environment. 

    Examine the Ingredients

    Pet owners interested in contributing to sustainability efforts should carefully look at the ingredients in their pets’ food and treats.  Many common pet food ingredients, such as beef and corn, are taxing on the environment due to problems such as water and land use.  In fact, many of the proteins and fillers in conventional pet foods are also unhealthy for your pets themselves, and therefore it is important to look for high-quality ingredients, just like humans should for our own diets.  Some protein sources have a large negative impact on the environment regardless of where or how it is farmed.  However, many companies are implementing more sustainable practices, or even farming a range of alternative protein options, such as the most environmentally responsible of red meats, ostrich.  For the consumer, the best choices can only be made after researching the sustainability practices of individual brands. 

    Conserve Water

    Caring for a pet, of course, takes a lot of water.  While many of these water needs — such as those related to hydration, hygiene, and dish cleaning — are necessary, there are still ways that you can reduce water consumption related to pet ownership.  Many of these methods involve reuse and limitation of waste.  Ways that you can reduce water waste in this arena include:

    • Use automatic water dispensers. This can prevent over-pouring that could cause excess water to go down the drain unused. 
    • Reuse old water to water your plants. It is important for your pet’s health to ensure their water is fresh and clean.  Therefore, it may sometimes be necessary to throw out the old water, and it’s a good idea to reuse this water. 
    • Be mindful of how you wash your dishes. To the best of your ability, use eco-friendly methods of handwashing dishes, or else use environmentally-friendly dishwashers and settings

    Make Your Own Food & Treats

    As previously stated, food production is the single largest source of negative environmental impact related to pet ownership.  One way that you can avoid this problem as a pet owner is to make food and treats for your pet yourself.  However, it is incredibly important to be very cautious when doing so. Whenever making your own pet food and treats you should:

    • Use high-quality ingredients.
    • Use species-appropriate ingredients (such as meat for carnivores). 
    • Consult a veterinarian. The advice of friends and/or the internet alone is not sufficient when it comes to such an important health matter. 

    That being said, there are a few options that many pet owners find helpful when preparing meals and treats for their pets, such as finding a few healthy, sustainable recipes.  Start by choosing high-quality ingredients, such as sustainable, species-appropriate meats, healthy fiber options such as sweet potato, and even collagen-rich bonesSoup bones can be a helpful ingredient in order to make bone broth as a base ingredient for a wide range of other recipes. 

    Playing with Environmentally-Friendly Toys

    Toys can cause environmental problems through waste and production-related pollution.  These issues can be ameliorated by researching companies, making your own toys, choosing environmentally-friendly toys, and/or repurposing old toys.  Some examples of how you can do these things effectively, include:

    • Recycle old toys.
    • Donate old toys.
    • Buy toys made out of recyclable materials.
    • Make toys out of recyclable and/or biodegradable materials. 
    • Make toys out of old items, upcycling things such as worn-out socks and tennis balls.

    Resting on Sustainable Pet Bedding

    Textiles are an enormous source of pollution, due to issues such as the water usage needed to produce crops like cotton, production methods at factories, and the poor biodegradability of synthetic fabrics.  For this reason, it is extremely important to choose or make bedding for your pets that is made out of environmentally-friendly materials, and to recycle or repurpose bedding whenever possible. 

    If you choose to buy an eco-friendly bed, it will be a matter of brand research.  However, if you choose to make your pet’s bed, you will want to look for sustainable materials and/or upcycle unused household items, such as old clothing or blankets. 

    Enjoying Greener Pet Accessories & Supplies

    Other pet accessories such as collars, leashes, and clothing pose a similar problem as bedding.  And in many ways, solutions for improved sustainability in this arena are also similar: recycling, reusing, better sourcing, and homemade alternatives.  However, it is also easier to reduce or even eliminate consumption when it comes to such accessories. 

    Some accessories, such as leashes or collars, may be necessary, and in that case, it is advisable to only buy or make one of each.  However, shirts, costumes, and similar accessories are often not necessary, and it is certainly advisable to either avoid purchasing them or only utilize reused items and materials. 

    Food & Water Bowls

    Food and water containers are another necessity that can be sourced and maintained responsibly. First of all, it’s best to find a good set of dishes that will last for a long time and work well for your pet, because ideally, you should use the same set for as long as possible to avoid waste.  Additionally, some materials used in pet food containers (such as ceramic) are more sustainable than others, while some (such as plastic) often produce significant pollution during production, and may even continue to contain harmful chemicals

    Using Eco-Friendly Grooming Products

    Grooming products can also contain chemicals that are harmful to the environment.  Therefore, it is a good idea to search for environmentally-friendly products such as dry shampoo or natural cleaners whenever possible.  If you use a groomer, try searching for a groomer who also values sustainability and/or ask potential groomers what products they use. 

    Disposing of Pet Waste Correctly

    Pet waste can cause pollution through runoff.  When animal excrement is left on the ground, rain or other water sources can cause it to enter drains and local bodies of water.  Over time, the pathogens found in the excrement can then cause serious pollution to these local bodies of water. 

    Therefore, cleaning up after your pets isn’t just a matter of tidiness and consideration for your community, but also a matter of environmental awareness.  Conscientious pet owners must pick up after their pets and dispose of the waste in appropriate areas.  If you want to be especially environmentally-conscious, you may even want to use biodegradable waste bags or try composting. 

    Cat Litter

    Cat litter is often made from materials like clay or silica dust, which are bad for the environment due to production and disposal concerns.  In fact, some types of litter may even be harmful to your cat’s health.  However, there are many options available for litter made of safe, sustainable materials, such as wheat or hardwood chips.  In fact, some types of biodegradable litter may be able to function as fertilizer.  Barring that, the best option available to you is to use biodegradable waste bags and throw the litter in the garbage. 

    Cleaning Up After Your Pet

    Dealing with messes and stains is a necessary part of pet ownership, but there are a few things you can do to make cleaning up after your pet easier on the environment, such as:

    Additional Information on Sustainable Pet Ownership

  • Zero Waste Pet: This is a thorough resource of information related to sustainable pet ownership. 
  • Avocado Green Mattress: This resource lists eco-friendly pet companies.
  • Dog Product Picker: This resource lists eco-friendly pet companies. 
  • Recycle Nation: This list covers common household and pet-related items that you can donate to your local shelter or pet-related nonprofit.
  • The World Bank: The World Bank is a financial institution that provides loans and grants for sustainable agricultural initiatives, as well as many other projects worldwide.

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