A 2017-18 survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association revealed that about 68 percent of Americans own pets. And an article published by George Mason University reports the economic impact of pet ownership in the United States is over $220 billion dollars annually.
U.S. pet owners support over $60 billion paid annually in salaries, wages and benefits to over 1.3 million employees. Additionally, pet ownership is estimated to save over $11.7 billion in health care costs annually.
Most pet owners will agree that owning and caring for their companions is a great joy and responsibility. With all of the positive benefits of keeping pets, it is essential to consider their environmental impacts.
Considering food, toys, beds, litter, treats and medication, making decisions that lessen the burden on our planet can also result in better health for your pets and savings for you. In the following paragraphs, we will explore some of the major categories of impact.
The biggest question perhaps is, should I get a pet at all? Many pet owners fall in love with a cute puppy or kitten, only to find that the animals are not suited for their lifestyle, dwelling or family situation. Pets that do not fit in are often abandoned or taken to shelters. There, the cost of their care falls on the community.
For owners who can’t afford to properly care for their pets, lack of food and vet care and the failure to spay or neuter family pets can lead to a proliferation of unwanted animals, as well. Shockingly, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reported in 2017 that an estimated 1.5 million companion animals — mostly dogs and cats — are killed in animal shelters in our country each year. Not only unsustainable, these figures are also heart-wrenching.
If you’ve determined pet ownership is for you, what next? If adopting, make sure the breed characteristics, age and size will be a good fit. Many shelters allow a pet to visit your home for a number of days before finalizing an adoption.
If you decide to purchase a pet from a breeder, private party or retailer, it can really be worth the extra time and effort to do some homework on the source to ensure they have good credentials, they can provide good references and the animals are raised in a clean and positive environment.
Once your new pet is home, there are supplies to be purchased. Choose high-quality, washable, durable items that are sourced as locally as possible. Buy only what you need. Most pets don’t care about new clothes or fancy bowls. For edible supplies, ensure the supplier sources its products sustainably. Don’t take for granted that packaging and marketing claims are true, because the use of words like natural, green, eco-friendly and others are not regulated. Reputable brands will have a website you can visit or phone number you can call to find out more about them.
For grooming and cleaning, take care to use nontoxic cleaning supplies that are safe for your companion. For more information on toxins, the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org) has several articles and links on pet safety and care.
When purchasing, finding the right balance between price and quality can be a challenge. If sustainability is your goal, it helps to consider the lifetime cost of products, as well as the social cost.
What about animal waste? At home, composting is a sustainable option. Composting animal waste requires a bit more care and attention than food and yard waste, but can be a win-win practice. Visit this link to see more on this topic.
Purchasing “biodegradable” poop bags is not usually needed, as they don’t biodegrade in the typical modern landfill. For cat owners, avoid clumping litter, as the fine clay dust can compromise pets’ respiratory systems.
It is important to always clean up after your pet. Irrigation and rain will leach bacteria and parasites from pet waste into soil and waterways, with the potential to cause contamination and illness.
Another impact of pet ownership on the natural environment is the predation of birds by domestic cats. This threat is so great, it is considered the “number-one direct, human-caused threat to birds in the U.S. and Canada” by the American Bird Conservancy (abcbirds.org). Incredibly, cats are responsible for approximately 2.4 billion bird deaths every year! Help give the birds a chance by using a collar with a bell for outdoor cats.
Finally, pet food and treats are a huge area of impact in the pet industry. Look at any grocery store and you will find an entire aisle dedicated to this category. In box stores and specialty chains, the variety is even greater and the choices seem endless.
Which foods are nutritionally complete, safe for your pet, have the lowest carbon footprint and least environmental impact? A great resource to explore dog and cat food is the Pet Food Institute at petfoodinstitute.org.
In researching this category, claims regarding sustainability vary considerably. Traditionally, the production of pet food utilized many animal byproducts from the human food-production industry and was thought to be very sustainable.
In recent years, the notion animals should be fed “human-grade” food has gained popularity. Experts also disagree whether grain products should be in included in pet food. The factors that make this category so challenging for consumers also prevent its full exploration in this article. We have added links to our website’s resources tab to explore in detail.
With pets playing such a big role in our lives, it is not surprising they have such an impact on so many aspects of sustainability and the environment. We encourage everyone thinking of incorporating sustainable practices into their lives to extend their practices to include their beloved companions.
Erendira Cruz is the executive director of the Sustainable Living Center. She has a bachelor’s degree in business management from Montana State University.
Link to Union Bulletin Article here.