Paw-sitive climate change actions for pets

Is climate change one of your pet peeves? Do you care about the environment? Are you worried about global warming? Unfortunately, our pets increase the amount of greenhouse gases in the environment, and increased amounts of greenhouse gases lead to climate change.

The production and distribution of pet food are responsible for much of our pets’ contribution to climate change. Other pet supplies, along with the disposal our pets’ wastes, also contribute to climate change. And there are lots of pets around. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are 72 million pet dogs and 82 million pet cats in the United States. This represents a lot of greenhouse gases and increased global climate change. Fortunately, there are paw—sitive actions that you can take to decrease your pet’s carbon paw print.

Let’s start with the food your pet eats. There are various statistics on the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced during the manufacturing and distribution of pet food. For purposes of simplicity, even though there are other greenhouse gases, this article mainly discusses CO2. Specific numbers may vary from source to source because scientists examine different particular measurements. However, after analyzing the statistics, it is reasonable to assert that the way we feed our pets leads to a vast amount of CO2. University of California-Los Angeles geography professor Gregory Okin is the author of a study performed at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Okin’s research and analysis were published in the August 2, 2017, issue of the scientific journal PLUS One. He states that producing the meat used for dog and cat food generates sixty-four million tons of CO2 per year, therefore making a significant contribution to climate change. Hogs and cattle are some of the primary sources of pet food. According to a study found in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the production of one kilo (around 2 pounds) of pork creates 24 kilograms (approximately 52 pounds) of CO2. The same study found that producing one kilo of beef yields 1,000 kilograms (about 2,204 pounds) of CO2. Another University of California study found that on the average, feeding a pet dog results in the production of 597 pounds of CO2 per year, whereas feeding pet cats results in 517 pounds of CO2 per year.

There is debate over whether or not animal byproducts should be used in pet foods. Regular pet products contain meat byproducts whereas premium pet food relies on the type of meat cuts that humans prefer to eat. Using byproducts in pet food is more ecological because meat byproducts are not wasted. Byproducts consist of bones, organs, blood, tendons, skins, intestines, lungs, etc. Many experts find that animal byproducts are safe for our pets to eat. Marion Nestle is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. Nestle maintains that using meat byproducts is a green way of feeding pets. She states that if we did not feed byproducts to domestic animals, and instead fed all of them human-preferred meat we would need to produce the amount of food that it would take to feed an additional thirty-two million Americans. Giving our pets premium meat results in using more cropland, which frequently leads to deforestation, and deforestation also contributes to climate change. Additionally, more water is used, and extra CO2 is produced when raising livestock to feed our pets. Nestle also stated that only fifty percent of each slaughtered animal is consumed by humans, resulting in a large amount of waste if it was not used to feed pets.

Besides the debate over using animal byproducts, another problem with regular pet food is that it contains much more protein than dogs and cats require and frequently doubles or triples the amount they need. Extra land, water, fertilizer, and pesticides are used to grow feed crops for the livestock, in addition to the CO2 produced raising livestock. Besides using meat that could be used for feeding humans, premium pet food contains, even more, protein than regular pet foods.

Some pet foods contain fish, and because of overfishing the marine food chain is disturbed. Overfishing is a major environmental problem and if continued could lead to human malnutrition and starvation. A 2008 study estimates that 2.5 million tons of fish are made into cat food each year which also contributes to climate change. It is estimated that fishing by either trawling or fish farming uses fourteen times more fossil fuel per gram of protein than raising vegetable protein. Most commercially caught fish are predators. New research suggests that removing predators in the marine ecosystem increases the production of CO2 in oceans.

The disposal of our pets’ wastes results in damage to the environment. Dangerous parasites found in pet waste are dispersed into our soil and waterways. And overcrowded landfills are further burdened.

The poop on dog manure is that in addition to increased amounts of greenhouse gases it significantly adds to pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the typical dog excretes 274 pounds of feces per year. This rounds out to around a total of ten million tons of dog feces produced per year in the United States.

Moreover, the EPA estimates that forty percent or four million tons of dog waste is never picked up by owners. These dog feces eventually enter our waterways leading to both ground and surface water polluted with disease producing pathogens. In 1971, the EPA stated that dog feces are water pollutants and placed them in the same category of as oil, insecticides, herbicides, and oil spills. It is estimated that there are twenty-three million fecal coliform bacteria in a pea-sized amount of dog feces. Dog feces also contain giardia, parvovirus, hookworms, roundworms, and whipworms. Moreover, when dog feces end up in waterways, the high nitrogen content of the waste depletes oxygen in the water which leads to harmful effects on fish and other marine wildlife.

When dog manure is picked up and eventually arrives at landfills, it adds to the already heavy burden of our landfills. It is estimated that as much as four percent of garbage sent to landfills are dog feces. The transport of dog waste to the landfill also increases CO2 because garbage trucks run on fossil fuels. W. Rathje performed studies at the University of Arizona where he found that most modern landfills are packed very tightly, contain very little soil and a minimal amount of oxygen. These environmental conditions inhibit the breakdown of garbage that would be able to degrade in more hospitable environments. If dog feces do decompose in landfills, methane is produced which also adds to climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, methane warms the planet by 86 times as much as CO2.

Petroleum is one of the substances used to manufacture the plastic bags used to carry dog feces, and energy is also used when they are manufactured. Biodegradable bags are better for the environment in that they are not made from plastic and break down quicker. However, fossil fuel energy is used to raise the crops used to produce biodegradable bags. Besides, energy is used to manufacture the bags. If your dog defecates twice a day, you will use 730 bags per year. That is a lot of energy used to manufacture, transport, and send to the landfill every year. Adding colors and scent to poop bags are even worse as more CO2 is added to the environment during the manufacturing and transportation processes of these additions. The decomposing bags emit methane, which will also contribute to climate change.

The scoop on cat litter is just as bad as the news about dog feces and results in an environmental cat—astrophe. It is estimated that two million pounds of cat litter are sent to U.S. landfills every year. Strip mining for clay that goes into cat litter is very damaging to the land. Petroleum is used for fuel to strip mine the land and to transport the clay to the drying facility, where it is processed into a powder or flakes and eventually transported to the store. Finally, the customer drives it home. When the cat litter is discarded, the used litter is sent to the landfill using fossil fuels and contributing to climate change. If the conditions are right for feces and urine to decompose in the landfill, methane is produced.

Just as pets significantly contribute to climate change, they will also be immensely harmed by climate change. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, warmer temperatures lead to increased numbers of the parasites that afflict our pets. John Trumble, professor of entomology at the University of California-Riverside, warns that higher temperatures are creating larger populations of smaller fleas and ticks that will eat more frequently, develop more rapidly and spread more pathogens. In fact, the health of our dogs has already been damaged by rising temperatures. Vectors are the organisms that serve as carriers of disease, and mosquitoes are the vector for heartworms. Ticks are the vector for Lyme disease. Heartworm, a potentially fatal disease, was formerly found only in the southern part of the U.S. However, because of rising temperatures, it is now found in all fifty states. Besides increasing the numbers and range of vectors, climate change might also decrease the number of their predators, leading to even greater numbers of parasites.

Are you ticked off because of Lyme disease? Climate change is increasing the numbers and range of ticks which carry it. Chuck Lubelczk, a vector ecologist at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute’s Vector-Borne Disease Laboratory, states “We have a longer tick season with milder temperatures and warmer winters.”

Ticks carrying Lyme disease are currently found in forty-one states and one-third of all U.S. counties. Nearly 700,000 cases of Lyme disease in dogs have been reported over a recent five period in the US and Canada.

Unfortunately, climate change increases extreme weather events such as floods and hurricanes which will also harm our pets. When people must evacuate to get away from hazardous situations, they are not always able to bring their pets with them. It is estimated that 250,000 pets were homeless because of Hurricane Katrina. After Hurricane Sandy, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, took care of more than 30.000 homeless pets. After natural disasters, many pets and owners are never reunited.

Luckily, positive alternatives exist for current practices of pet care. We can change the way we feed our pets to help stop global warming. If chickens or rabbits were raised for pet food in place of beef, pork, or lamb, less CO2 would be produced. It is important to not overfeed pets. It is estimated that 34% of dogs and 35% of cats in the United States are considered overweight or obese, which can lead to diabetes, orthopedic diseases, and respiratory problems.

Obesity can shorten life expectancy by as much as two years. In addition to the health benefits, cutting down the excess amount of food will, in turn, release fewer greenhouse gases. Make it a habit to feed pets only as much protein as they need. There are protein sources that use fewer fossil fuels that could be included in healthy pet food along with the animal protein needed for survival. Soy protein, for instance, is estimated to be six to twenty times more efficient in terms of fossil fuel requirements. The hemp crop uses much less fossil fuel than livestock and is also a good source of protein. Substituting vegetarian source of Omega-3 to replace krill oil will help prevent overfishing. A vegetarian source of glucosamine can also be utilized.

It would be good for our pets’ health to include plant matter in their food. Even though dogs descended from wolves, there are a few genetic differences which result in dogs not requiring a 100% carnivorous diet. A study published in Nature found that dogs possess genes for digesting starches from grains and other plants that wolves do not have. Dr. Erik Axelsson, a genomics expert from Sweden’s Uppsala University, told the BBC that “the dog evolved on the waste dump.” In other words, as long as dogs receive adequate animal protein, their diet can be supplemented with plant nutrients.

Make your pet treats. This will avoid fossil fuel use for manufacturing treats, packaging for treats, and transporting them to retail stores. This will also eliminate unneeded ingredients, such as preservatives and artificial colors, thus saving fossil fuels to produce and transport them. Bite-size carrot pieces will prevent choking and will serve as healthy low-calorie treats. According to petMD, you can give apples without seeds or cores, watermelon without seeds, cantaloupe, frozen bananas, cooked sweet potato, zucchini, lettuce and spinach to your dogs and cats. Some cats love tomato and vegetable juice.

Another way to lower greenhouse gas emissions is to change the way that you dispose of your pet’s wastes. Cat litter can be made from ground corn cobs, wheat, sawdust, kenaf plant pellets, compressed straw pellets, small animal-bedding pellets, and recycled newspapers. Baking soda is great for odor control.

Dog feces contain many harmful pathogens, and cat’s wastes are also dangerous. It is imperative to not flush cat litter down the toilet because one-half of all cats are infected with Toxoplasma gondii, and water sewage treatment plants do not remove this pathogen. Clay litter can also plug up pipes. Dog and cat waste can be composted if you follow the proper instructions. Always keep dog and cat compost away from food crops. Use a compost bin rather than composting on the ground to help to keep pathogens from seeping into the ground. The National Resources Conservation Service offers advice on how to properly compost dog waste. Go on the web to find a safe method of composting. Please be careful with dog and pet waste. It is worth repeating that composted dog and cat waste material should never be placed near plants grown for food. Acquire your pets in an ecological manner. Obtain recycled pets through rescue organizations or shelters. Find a pet through rescue organizations if you want a specific breed. You can even get a particular breed at some shelters. The Humane Society states that twenty-five percent of animals in shelters are purebreds. Spay or neuter pets to cut reduce their population.

Sharing pets could also cut down the number of pets, thus cutting down on total pet carbon paw prints. Could you get together with a lonely neighbor to share a pet? Perhaps an older neighbor would love the companionship of a pet while your family members are at work or school.

Get the smallest size animal that you prefer. Chickens have a much smaller carbon footprint than dogs and cats, and if chickens are allowed where you live, they can make wonderful pets. Instead of worrying about ticks on your dog, chickens will eat ticks. Besides helping to get rid of ticks, they consume other insects, produce eggs and good compost for your garden. Give them rainwater to drink. They can be trained to come when called and some of them even enjoy petting and lap-holding.

Rabbits are another pet worth considering. They also leave smaller carbon foot prints than dogs or cats. They can eat food waste such as carrot, beet and celery tops, cores of pineapple, bases of head lettuce, and cauliflower. You can ask your local co-op or grocery store for their wilted produce. They can also eat hay, which does not have to be manufactured or packaged. Their bedding can be shredded newspapers or hay which can be composted along with their feces and urine. They need to chew, so their toys can consist of cardboard paper towel tubes and toilet paper tubes. They make excellent paper shredders. They can make excellent pets and can be sweet, affectionate, and are naturally quiet. Get the smallest size dog that you like. They will eat less food and produce less waste. Great things come in small packages.

In addition to food and disposal of wastes, pet supplies add to your pet’s carbon footprint. In 2015, pet owners spent almost $50 billion on pet products. According to the American Pet Products Association, pet food comprises only one-third of these purchases. Thus, two-thirds of expenditures are for pet equipment and toys. Do your best to curtail your pet’s carbon paw print. Do not use plastic containers for food and water.

Plastic is made from petroleum and does not degrade for a long time. Plastic dishes can get nicks and breaks in them and thus become a breeding ground for germs.

Gum disease can be caused by bacteria. Plastic bowls may contain bisphenol-A or include other hazardous chemicals such as phthalates, which is a plastic softener that the Canadian Cancer Agency has found to cause tumors in mice and lab animals.

Also, some pets are allergic to plastic. Use stainless steel bowls because they last longer, are not made from petroleum, and are unbreakable. Do not buy a new ceramic bowl because they can break and then need replacing. However, a used ceramic bowl would be more ecological than purchasing a new stainless steel bowl.

Do not buy other plastic pet products, including toys and beds. They can contain polyvinyl chloride, which is classified as a carcinogen and a danger to animal health by the EPA. Try making your pet supplies, such as shampoos and insect repellents. According to veterinarian Patrick Mahaney, “There are natural oils, topical products, collars, and shampoos that can have an anti-tick effect.” Doing so would not only be more environmentally safe, but it would also reduce exposure to toxic chemicals.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, some flea and tick control products pose a cancer risk to children. These pesticides can exceed the safe levels established by the EPA 500 times. Always vaccinate for canine Lyme disease.

Purchase as many supplies that you can from a second-hand store. For bedding, stuff old clothing, blankets and towels into a duvet. This would be an excellent alternative to foam filled pet beds which can be contaminated with flame retardants which are endocrine-disputers. With directions from the Internet, you can recycle many used items into toys.

The Humane Society points out that many pet owners report their cats love simple toys. Give them cardboard boxes, paper towel rolls, or toilet paper rolls to play with. You can also buy earth-friendly pet care products, such as hemp leashes, collars, pet carriers, beds, and toys. If you buy something that your pet hates, donate the item to an animal shelter.

There are many things that pet owners can do as individuals. Purchase pet products that do not involve as much CO2 production as other products.

Remember that manufacturing and transporting every item found in a product adds to its carbon footprint. Do not buy plastic pet supplies. Social and political activism could lead to innovations to alleviate excessive production of CO2.

Pet products could be sold in bins to eliminate packaging. Research could be performed to determine the most non-toxic and energy efficient method to eliminate pathogens found in cat and dog wastes so that they could be returned to the ground as compost for fertilizer.

Thus, our pets contribute to climate change and, in turn, will be harmed by it. Fur—tunately, there are things that we can do to lessen their carbon paw prints. Make the world a better place while your pets are making your life better!

Lenore M. Hitchler

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    By: ONE Team

    ONE is a nonprofit magazine founded in 2014, dedicated to providing unbiased and independent commentary and reporting on energy and environment issues. ONE policy pursues the following principles: accuracy, integrity and transparency.
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