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Let's Be Honest, Episode 38: Sustainable Pet Ownership

Let’s be honest is a Food Circle project to open up the conversation about the challenges when being or becoming a member of the SC (Sustainability Club). This series will shine a light on the different approaches to making life more sustainable and the step-backs and difficulties that arise. Being more kind and understanding, instead of critical, will hopefully help to encourage us to try instead of giving up when facing a step-back or failure. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment!

Let’s celebrate the achievements and give room for honesty and struggles!

Too Many Puppies in the World?

With all the different cat and dog breeds under the sun, prospective pet owners can choose their fur friend based on their own preference, lifestyle and expectations. Yet to supply this demand, the dog breeding industry has not ceased to grow, playing the lead role in animal overpopulation crisis. It is estimated that 27 million puppies and kittens are born each year in the United States alone. Tragically, due to overpopulation, millions of them are put down or euthanised [1].

The reasons for this are countless. A great share of pet owners fail to understand just how extensive the responsibility of owning a pet is. People give their pets up in cases of allergies, unsuitability of their home, lack of time to care for the pet, family circumstances, moving and inability to tame their behaviour and cater to their needs. Worldwide, millions of pets are bred for commercial and private purposes and then abandoned every year, harming biodiversity and ecosystems, posing risks to public health and safety, as well as making the animals become victims of hardship, abuse, and illegal trafficking, particularly when it comes to exotic species [2].

Animal abandonment has severe effects on animal welfare (such as starvation, untreated disease, climatic extremes, uncertainty of rescue and adoption), ecological (such as invasive species and introduction of novel pathogens), public health and safety (such as risks to from bites, zoonoses, or road hazards), and economic (financial burdens for governmental and nongovernmental organisations).

Besides being responsible and considering all aspects prior to making a possibly life-long commitment of pet ownership, people ought to also give thought to adopting rather than shopping. Shelters are filled to the brim with animals longing for a permanent home. Adopting a pet from animal shelter can also be a good alternative for buying from breeders that repeat inbreeding in an effort to keep up demand for purebred animals, leaving a negative impact on the animals’ health. Hip dysplasia, hearing issues, and epilepsy are a few of these. Another thing to look out for is puppy mills, which is a way of mass breeding dogs, reportedly resulting in ill-treatment towards the puppies. But of course, for individual action the most effective way to reduce animal overpopulation is by spaying and neutering your pets - this directly affects the number of unwanted and neglected animals that typically wind up on the streets or in shelters.

The Hungry Pet Food Industry

Another stumbling block for many pet owners is having to contribute to pet food industry, which is responsible for almost 3 percent of global farming carbon dioxide emissions, according to 2020 University of Edinburgh research [3]. In fact, it has been discovered that feeding dogs and cats in America alone has the same negative environmental impact as emitting the exhaust from approximately 14 million cars in a span of a year. But that is not all. The environmental effects of the additional land, water, fossil fuels, phosphates, and biocides required to maintain and feed the animals that are later used for producing pet food must also be taken into account.

The massive consumption of meat on the part of our furry companions ties in with the issue of animal overpopulation. Picture the hundreds of millions of cats and dogs and the two meals at a minimum that they eat every single day: this mounts up to nearly a quarter of calories from all animal meat being consumed in the United States by pets alone. These numbers would be of no concern if our pets’ diets consisted of meat by-products and leftovers, if anything, this would positively affect the meat consumption systems and environmental impacts. But that is just not the case anymore. A great share of pets are now being served good quality human-grade meat or raw meat. This way, cows, chickens and pigs are being bred specifically for the production of pet food.

This shift in pet feeding habits is gradually being acknowledged. As a compromise, greener solutions have emerged, namely, sustainable pet food brands that offer more eco-friendly nutrition for pets, whether is is meat-free, but still packed with protein, or processing meat leftovers to keep feline and canine family members happy and satisfied.

Pet Toys

Welcoming a pet home is step one. Step two is making sure your pet has all the necessities at home - for many people this means a whole lot of new purchases: bed, toys and other supplies. More high-maintenance pets tend to need a lot, and in order for the pet to have its place in the home, pet owners are urged to provide their pets with the necessary equipment. A lot of these items are made from plastic, yet they can be easily swapped for a more eco-friendly choice, for example, toys made from sustainable or recycled materials. Better yet, we must remember that a good deal of population have adopted a furry friend or two, therefore, a lot of pet-related stuff can be easily found in second-hand stores and yard sales.

Picking Up After Your Pets Responsibly

As a pet owner, the responsibilities don’t end here. Dog owners are already used to being attentive on their walks, picking up their pet’s waste in the park is both a common courtesy and a law in many places. But it is not just to ensure clean surroundings for all visitors of the park, but also to stop animal waste from being carried into waterways. Transported into creeks, rivers and lakes, the waste causes pollution and hazard [4]. Dog feces consist of nitrogen and phosphorus, which can reduce the amount of oxygen needed by fish and other aquatic life and anchor the growth of toxic algae [5]. It is also thought to be a significant source of infections like the bacterium fecal coliform, which is prone to cause illness.

Feline owners are not exempt from their pets’ proper waste management either. In truth, the widely used clay cat litter is no less of a foe to the environment either. The traditional way in which cat litter is made includes the impact-heavy process of excavation [6]. To put it simply, for the raw bentonite clay (the substance that hardens when in contact with moisture) to be pulled from the ground, it requires removal of existing topsoil, vegetation and wildlife. What is more, cat litter in not biodegradable, so it ends up in landfills.

While this information may seem discouraging, just like with almost any polluting product, researchers are coming up with environmentally friendly alternatives. Same goes for cat litter. The types of non-toxic cat litter are made of various natural ingredients and by-products, whose sourcing does not lie so heavily on the environment’s shoulders.

It seems that enough awareness is going around about careful decision-making when it comes to the commitment of pet ownership. That is probably due to the ever-growing issue of animal abandonment and the concerns for animal welfare. But even the most loving, responsible and committed pet owners must keep an eye on the bulging carbon footprint of having a pet. By trying to become a more sustainable pet owner, we would do a favour for our surroundings, whilst still keeping our greatest companions in good care.

Author: Liva Puka

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  1. Animal Overpopulation | World Animal Foundation

  2. Amelioration of Pet Overpopulation and Abandonment Using Control of Breeding and Sale, and Compulsory Owner Liability Insurance | National Library of Medicine

  3. How The Pet Food Industry is Fueling The Climate Crisis | Plant Based News

  4. 6 Ways to be a More Sustainable Pet Owner | My Green Closet

  5. Pet Disposal Systems Help Protect Water Quality | USDA

  6. Cat Litter and the Environment | Natusan