How Eco-Friendly is Your Pet?

By DONNA DeFORBES/ecoRI News contributor

Pets are beneficial to our health and make wonderful family companions, but have you ever considered how they add to your carbon footprint? Can a pet be eco-friendly?

Dogs
A controversial 2009 book claimed that owning a dog is twice as ecologically harmful as driving an SUV — the main reason being the large amount of land and energy given over to producing their meat-based food.

Research estimates that 1.7 miles of land is needed to cultivate 2.2 pounds of chicken — beef is higher, of course. That doesn’t sound too bad until you know that the average dog consumes about 360 pounds of meat annually, and that there are upwards of 83 million owned dogs in the United States.

Eco option: Feed your dog food comprised of chicken or rabbit, instead of beef or lamb, to reduce his dietary footprint. Or try a vegetarian dog food.

Then there’s the disposal of all that poop — about 274 pounds per dog per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Unscooped poop contains nutrients that contaminate local waters and deplete the oxygen supply, which is vital to seagrass, fish and other marine creatures. There are up to 65 diseases including e. coli, roundworms, giardia and salmonella that can be transmitted through dog feces to other dogs, cats or people.

Dog poop, even when scooped and tossed in the trash, produces methane, a greenhouse gas stronger than carbon dioxide.

Eco option: The Natural Resources Conservation Service offers ideas on how to properly compost dog waste so that it can be used later as a quality soil additive.

Cats
The nation’s 95 million cats annually generate 2 million tons of litter. That litter is usually the non-biodegradable, clay-based kind that can only be produced by strip mining the earth.

Cat poop can be equally destructive, since cats are often the carrier of the parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, an organism that kills sea otters and other creatures when people wrongly flush cat poop down the toilet. T. gondii also affects humans, especially pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems.

Eco option: Choose an eco-friendly litter made from recycled newspaper, wood shavings, sawdust or corn cobs. Toss into the trash, not the toilet.

Cats also get a bad rap for their penchant for killing wildlife. According to one scientific report, U.S. domestic cats kill an average of 12.3 billion mammals and 2.4 billion birds annually. Feral and outdoor cats also urinate and poop in other people’s yards and gardens, potentially infecting the soil and children’s play areas.

Eco option: Protect your local ecosystem by keeping your cat indoors.

What you can do
All is not lost for dog and cat lovers. You can reduce your pet’s footprint by buying eco-friendly pet supplies when possible. You can find beds, collars, leashes and toys made from organic fabrics or recycled materials. Choose biodegradable poop bags and eco-friendly litter, and opt for pet shampoos free of sodium lauryl sulfate, and flea and tick solutions that use essential oils.

Consider the rabbit
If you’d love a pet, but are concerned about their eco footprint, there is one house pet that ranks pretty high on the scale of greenness: the bunny rabbit. Here’s why:

Since bunnies are vegetarians, eating a variety of greens and herbs, you can grow their food alongside yours in a lovely garden. They can also weed your lawn, as rabbits love dandelions.

Rather then contaminate the waterways, rabbit poop acts as the perfect garden fertilizer. You can dump it directly onto your flowers or mix it into your compost pile.

Shredded newspaper, hay or straw makes the perfect litter box filler, and you can toss all of it into the compost right along with the bunny poop.

A rabbit’s favorite toys are things you’d often toss or recycle — cardboard toilet paper tubes, boxes, wood scraps. Rabbits actually need to chew on such things to manage their continuously growing teeth.

If this information inspires you to adopt a house rabbit, get informed first. Bunnies tend to have a disposable reputation, and, while their 8-10 year lifespan is not as long as cats or dogs, it does require a long-term commitment.

Rhode Island resident Donna DeForbes is the founder of Eco-Mothering.com, a blog that explores ways to make going green fun and easy for the whole family. She is a contributor to Earth911, MammaBaby and author of the e-book “The Guilt-Free Guide to Greening Your Holidays.”