Carbon Paw Prints: Are House Pets Worse for the Environment Than SUVs?

Are dogs and cats really hurting the planet? Linda Sharps wonders whether we're seriously supposed to give up our pets to save the world.

(Photo: Klearchos Kapoutsis/Flickr)

Dec 17, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Linda Sharps is a regular contributor to TakePart. She lives in Eugene, Oregon with her family, where she works as a freelance writer while wrangling two rambunctious boys and ignoring the laundry.

Did you know there is such a thing as a "carbon paw print"? It sounds like something referenced in Terminator 6: Rise of the Canines (signature line: "I'll be Jack … Russell"), but it appears to be a term that's come into vogue lately as the result of a controversial book titled Time to Eat the Dog? The Real Guide to Sustainable Living.

According to the Time to Eat the Dog? authors, Robert and Brenda Vale, dogs are worse for the environment than gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles. That's not hyperbole, that's their actual research: A medium-size dog has twice the impact of driving a luxury SUV 10,000 miles.

Why are dogs so bad for the planet? Well, aside from the depressing fact that it seems that everything is bad for the planet, our tail-wagging, earth-destroying friends tend to consume food that isn't produced in an eco-friendly way, particularly when you consider the environmental cost of packaging, shipping, storing, and distributing sacks and cans of pet food. Plus, un-scooped poop can contaminate waterways, plastic bags used to clean the stuff that's actually scooped usually isn't biodegradable, and flea and tick treatments are made from toxic chemicals.

It's probably better to have a cat, right? I mean, according to the Vales, a cat is only as bad as a Smart Car. So cats are just like those tiny goofy-looking cars whose smug owners are singlehandedly solving the problems of rising gas prices and global warming!

Not so fast, cat people. Your furry little lap warmer is contributing to the 2 million tons of cat litter being sent to landfills each year, and most litters aren't biodegradable or renewable. Even some biodegradable cat litters don't degrade well in landfills, since the waste is packed too tightly for oxygen to circulate optimally. Worse, granulated bentonite clay–based cat litters (which include the popular, grossly named "clumping" variety) are produced by strip mining.

Cats can also contribute to the problem of adding chemicals to the environment, thanks to their medications and flea products, and outdoor cats can have a strong localized impact on wildlife (unless they're the tubby/lazy variety like mine who prefer to chatter at birds rather than actually pursue them).

In conclusion: If you have a pet, you're basically ruining the natural environment, contributing to climate change, and filling the entire planet with poison. I mean, unless your pet is a goldfish. Although it's worth noting that flushed goldfish are resulting in terrifying mutant invasive species lake monsters. Have fun sleeping tonight!

Of course, there are plenty of suggestions out there for living a greener lifestyle as a pet owner. You can make your own pet food using locally grown organic products. You can bury your pet's waste, or make your own litter using, say, discarded wood shavings from a local carpenter or hardware store. You can choose natural pet-care and cleaning products.

But I'd say the vast majority of pet owners don't do these things. I don't, to be honest. My cat poops outside, she turns her nose up at any cat food other than exactly one specific store brand that probably includes ground-up pig intestines and newspaper, and the last time she had fleas I dosed her with a vet-prescribed medication that's essentially insecticide in a pill.

After doing this research and writing this article, I feel like I should resolve to improve my pet's carbon paw print. But I don't think it would be a realistic goal. For one thing, I know my limits, and grinding raw meat into cat food that my cat will refuse to consume is one of them. For another thing, I think this is where if you know you're falling behind on the green-living front in one particular four-legged area, you can try to make up for it in others.

Ultimately, though, here's what I believe: The rewards of pet ownership outweigh the environmental downsides. Right or wrong, some things are just worth it.