Firstly, let me introduce you to Toggle (a.k.a Buddy) and Honey:
Buddy is a cuddly gentlemen, 13 years young. He loves walks in the park, carrots and telling other dogs off for having fun. Honey is a sweetie, who would love nothing more than a tummy rub and a game of ball. She is a sprightly 10 year old. We adopted both these gems later in their life (Buddy 3 years ago and Honey 6 months ago).
Unfortunately, being a dog owner does nothing but increase our environmental footprint. There are no two ways about it. When I googled “how pets harm the environment” I came across some pretty dismal articles. I consider our dogs to be a part of our family (yep they sleep in our bed), so this post had my feelings very conflicted and confused. How can I be an environmentalist and still have the utter joy and companionship dogs bring to our family? Pet ownership isn’t very conducive to environmentalism here are the reasons why:
1. Cats and Dogs are Meat Eaters
We know meat eaters require more resources and have a larger environmental impact than vegetarians and vegans. I’m just going to regurgitate information from a previous post here…
“A 2009 study by the Loma Linda University found non-vegetarian (human) diets require 2.9 times more water, 2.5 times more energy, 13 times more fertiliser and 1.4 times more pesticides than a vegetarian diet.”
For arguments sake, I’m applying this to a meat based, pet diet too.
University of California Los Angeles professor, Gregory Okin, estimates meat eating cats and dogs consume 25 percent of the total calories derived from animals in the United States. In other words 1 in every 4 animals from the meat industry is consumed by a cat or dog.
An article published in The Guardian claims two large breed dogs (German Shepherd or Labrador for example), require more global hectares of food resources per year (0.38 hectares per large breed dog) than a person living in Bangladesh (0.6 hectares). Meanwhile, a small breed dog requires 0.18 hectares and cats 0.13. When you put that into perspective, there are estimated to be 4.8 million pet dogs and 3.9 million pet cats in Australia, that’s a lot of resources… and a lot of Bangladeshi’s!**
Not only that, many of our beloved pets are overweight. Apparently they are heading in the same direction as the human population, with 60% of cats and 56% of dogs in the United Sates recorded as being either overweight or obese.
So it’s not just about what we’re feeding our pets, it’s about how much we feed them.
** This fact may seem outrageous but the real truth is, Bangladeshis have the second smallest ecological footprint in the world. Australia’s footprint is 6.6 global hectares per person, 11 times that of a Bangladeshi. That’s not to discount the fact cats and dogs have their own ecological footprint, but perhaps we could work on ourselves too.
What about a Vegetarian Diet?
In general, cats are considered carnivores, while dogs are considered omnivores. Either way, they both require protein in their diet to survive. Veterinary nutritionists, Cailin Heinze, recommends dogs consume at least some part animal protein, as a vegetarian diet, although possible, is difficult to master and must be done “very, very carefully”.
An article published by The Daily Telegraph recommends purchasing certified vegetarian dog food that has been stringently tested to ensure they are consuming a complete diet. As for Cats, Heinze states, “(a vegetarian diet is) really inappropriate. It goes against their physiology and isn’t something I would recommend at all.”
That said, it’s quite a controversial topic and there is plenty of information on the net claiming cats and dogs can both not only survive, but thrive on a vegetarian or even vegan diet. But I’ll leave that research up to you…
2. The Plastic Poop Problem
In Australia, dog poo is considered litter. So, as dutiful members of society (particularly those living in cities), we scoop the poop into a plastic doggy bag, pop it in the nearest bin and think no more. For our house, we use on average 2 bags a day – that’s around 730 poo filled bags a year going straight to landfill!
Plastic manufacture counts for 6% of the worlds fossil fuels. Estimates range from 500 to 1000 years for a single plastic bag to decompose. Now imagine (or not) that bag with a stinking, rotting poop inside for the next millennium… not pretty.
Plus, there’s the issue with litter. The number of times I’ve picked up unused bags that have somehow “escaped” from the doggy roll holder is countless. All the ones that aren’t picked up, end up littering the environment and the oceans.
Biodegradable and Compostable Plastics
In the past my solution to the plastic poop problem was to buy compostable, biodegradable and even flushable bags. According to the UN Environment report, Biodegradable Plastics, there can be inconsistencies in the definition of “biodegradable” or “compostable”, allowing for opportunistic manufacturers to completely greenwash us when trying to make the best environmental pet decisions.
Landfills are so tightly packed they lack the microorganisms, dirt and oxygen required to breakdown “biodegradable” and “compostable” bags. So when the packet says: “breaks down in 1 year”, this is bogus because landfill doesn’t provide the right conditions for the bags to decompose properly. It may be quicker than a regular plastic bag, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s the best environmental solution. When things in landfill do breakdown, the anaerobic conditions cause methane gas to be released into the atmosphere, which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
And some types of biodegradable plastics never fully breakdown at all, instead they are reduced to microplastics that contaminate soil and oceans, leaching toxins into the environment.
Many of the “compostable” plastics will only decompose in temperature of 50 degrees Celsius or higher, often only achieved by commercial composting facilities and not in our backyard versions. Even if these bags do compost, dog and cat faeces should not be added to your regular compost bin or your municipal green waste. According to compostinstructions.com, “both dogs and cats have organisms (parasites) in their stomachs and can also have diseases in their poop that are harmful to the composting process, plant life, and ultimately humans”.
Composting dog poo is possible though, with a designated dog poo composter. This has to be separate from your household compost and it is recommended the end result be mixed with regular humus and only used around ornamental plants. According to Biome, cat poo can also be composted in a specific pet composter. Again, you need to ensure it doesn’t contaminate your regular compost and that it stays well away from any edible plants and ensure your kitty litter is plant-based (recycled newspaper or plant pulp) so it breaks down in the composter.
As for the flushable option, many items touted as “flushable” including wipes, liners and bags are actually blocking our pipes and waterways, wreaking havoc on our sewer systems and costing a fortune in plumbing repairs. The Water Services Association of Australia advocate only the three P’s should be flushed down the loo – pee, poo and toilet paper – which means a no-no for flushable dog poo bags.
A note on kitty litter – as kitty litter doesn’t fall into the three P’s it cannot be flushed, so even if you pop the poop down the loo – as many do, you still have to dispose of the kitty litter. The most common place for this is bagged up and sent to landfill.
3. Humanising Pets
In 2013, Americans spent a whopping $55.7 billion on their pets. In Australia we spend around $12 billion a year on our pets. These expenses include food, grooming, insurance, care, vet visits and accessories.
The main environmental issue here is the accessories, much like the fast fashion industry for humans. Most pet accessories, including clothes and toys are cheaply made and derived from petroleum-based synthetic materials, likely shipped here from China. Not built to last, the only place for them after their very short life is landfill.
4. A Feral Dilemma
The Australian government divides cats into 3 categories:
- Domestic – those living with and cared for by humans
- Stray – those found roaming cities, towns and rural holdings
- Feral – those that survive without any human contact or assistance
Being carnivores, cats are by nature, instinctive killers. It’s estimated feral cat communities have been established in Australia since the 1850’s, contributing to the extinction and decline of many of Australia’s ground dwelling birds and small mammals. On mainland Australia, feral cats occupy 99% of the land and are identified as a threat to 35 species of birds, 36 mammals, 7 reptiles and 3 amphibians.
The threat to wildlife is not just a feral cat problem, our fur babies at home are also contributing to the decline of native birds and mammals. Owners who let their cats roam free range pose a risk to vulnerable species. Even though they are fed regularly, the hunting behaviours are instinctive and don’t cease, even with a full belly.
And it’s not just cats, dogs are also known to harass and kill native australian animals and birds. But the topic of feral dogs is contentious, as the term encompasses Australia’s iconic apex predators, dingoes, into the mix. There are arguments for and against feral dogs in Australia. In one instance, they have a negative impact on native animals and livestock, however, being an apex predator they keep the ecosystem in check.
There is no way I can underestimate the love, affection and companionship our dogs provide us. I know for me, having a dog makes a lonely night at home seem not so lonely, they motivate me to exercise and they make me laugh. So how can we 0have environmentally friendly pets?
- Before choosing a pet, look into a pet that has a smaller environmental footprint (vegetarians) and may also prove to be productive such as chickens, fish, rabbits, goats and guinea pigs etc.
- If, like me, you love dogs (or cats) and can’t imagine your life without them, then choose to adopt rather than buy from a breeder. It’s kinda like second-hand clothes – the energy is already embedded in pre-existing pets and you’re helping to curb over population.
- Look for smaller breeds – less food consumption, less poop, less waste.
- Have your pet spaded to avoid accidental pregnancies.
- Ensure you’re not overfeeding.
- Speak to your vet and do your own research about a vegetarian diet – while we’re at it, I should probably look into my own eating habits before turning the finger on pooch!
- Compost the poop. This is one I will definitely be attempting when we move to our new house with a backyard! Not so easy for apartment dwellers though…
- When out and about, use bags derived from plant materials, even if they’re not going into your pet composter. At least this way they will be coming from a renewable source instead of fossil fuels. Two bags I’m going to try are Compost-a-pak – made from cornstarch** and Ecocern dog litter bags – made from recycled paper.
- Invest in good quality toys, jackets, leads and collars – ones that will last a lifetime or hours upon hours of play. This is one point I need to pay attention to – Buddy loves cheap squeaky toys and stuffed teddies but is prone to destroying them so they go into the bin after very little use.
- Don’t let your cat or dog roam free where they will be a threat to wildlife. Cats are great at being sneaky, silent predators so if outside is their playground make sure you pop a bell on their collar.
“Guinea pigs are AWESOME!”
** When I contacted Compost-a-pak about the “compostability” of their bags in non-commercial composter I recieved this reply:
“Our bags are made of corn starch so placing the bag into your dog poo home compost is very similar to placing cut up pieces of corn into it.
They will certainly take longer to breakdown than items full of moisture such as strawberries, but they will certainly breakdown.
Similar to the corn cob however, it is difficult to provide a specific timeframe as it does depend on your individual composting unit and the heat/moisture, so it will vary with seasons. In my home it takes a few months for the bags to completely breakdown in winter and then it’s quicker in summer.”