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Are our pets gobbling up the planet?

From the meat-based meals to kitty litter to plastic poop bags, pet care is unarguably bad for the environment. What can we do about it?

Part of The Animals Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Like seemingly everyone else in 2020, my partner and I got a pandemic puppy.
We named our 2-year-old pooch Tycho for the 16th-century Danish astronomer known for his study of comets and his infamous death by banquet. Our Tycho also loves food: Salmon, dry dog food, bully sticks, duck meat treats. All that food has to go somewhere.  Tycho poops 3 to 4 times a day. We dutifully wrap it in little green baggies and dump it in sidewalk trash cans
It’s hard to track, but Tycho goes through about 120 poop bags, six bones, and 10 ounces of treats a month, and one 28-pound bag of kibble every 6 weeks.  And he’s just one of an estimated 135 million pets  in the United States today. That’s a lot of meat, plastic, cardboard, litter, and other pet waste. Like so many others, I’m more concerned about climate change than ever.
64 percent of Americans say protecting the environment should be a top priority for the government.
Many Americans are recycling, reducing our meat and dairy consumption, and switching to hybrid/electric cars.  But our pets are gobbling up the planet.
Their environmental impact begins with the billions of pounds of meat they eat every year.
It takes about 8 pounds of grain and 400 gallons of water to create a pound of beef. All that consumption takes energy. The meat industry produces about 14.5% of all human-made greenhouse gases globally.
The first canned pet food hit the market in the 1910s as a cheap and convenient option for consumers. Today, cats’ and dogs’ diets are still pre-packaged. The ingredients just look more like our own.
But their little meals add up.
As much as a quarter of the environmental impacts of US meat production are tied to pet food, according to UCLA geographer Gregory Okin. That includes the use of land, water, phosphates, pesticides, and fossil fuels.
And our four-legged friends’ consumption contributes to an estimated 64 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, according to Okin’s 2017 calculations. That’s equivalent to 13 million cars.
Diet has downstream consequences, too. Pet waste is a major source of bacteria in urban watersheds. It can also lead to algal blooms, which deplete oxygen in the water, killing fish.
Proper poop disposal is important. Okin found that pet poop is equivalent to the annual trash of 6.6 million humans. That’s more trash than Maryland produces!
But our options are imperfect. Plastic doggy bags are derived from fossil fuels, while some cat litter requires strip-mining to extract the highly absorbent clay. This practice can lead to soil erosion, habitat destruction, and groundwater contamination.
“Reducing the rate of dog and cat ownership, perhaps in favor of other pets that offer similar health and emotional benefits, would considerably reduce these impacts,” Okin’s study concluded.
But this is asking a lot of pet owners like me.  Tycho has made my life so much better. I love watching him run around and cuddling up at night.
So what can I do to keep Tycho happy while reducing his environmental impact?
Cats are what’s called “obligate carnivores.” They must eat meat to survive, which makes modifying their diets almost impossible. Dogs, however, are scavengers. After thousands of years begging beneath our tables, they’ve evolved to eat all kinds of things.
Tycho could feast on the less desirable byproducts of human meat production. He could even go … vegan. Eating less meat helps, too!
Plant-based dog food is already available. And industry scientists are refining alternative proteins like koji (a fungus) and insects to make their products even more sustainable.
When it comes to cleanup, wood shavings and sawdust can offer eco-friendly alternatives to kitty litter. For dogs, it’s a little trickier.
If you have a yard, you can create a dedicated compost pile (but please do your research and follow the proper precautions).
Or just flush it down the toilet. The local wastewater processing plant should handle it from there (but check with them before you make this a routine).
I don’t know how I would have made it through this pandemic without my hungry puppy. Tycho forced me out into the world, even when it was scary, and showed me the magic in every season, even this long, cold pandemic winter.
Now we can pay it forward, by making his existence — and mine — a little better for the planet.


Eleanor Cummins is a science writer and frequent contributor to the Highlight. Most recently, she’s written about the new skepticism and the Twitter presidency for Vox.

Maki Naro is an award-winning cartoonist, illustrator, and science communicator and the author of seven self-published comic books. He previously illustrated a comic about why there are so few women Nobel Prize winners for Vox.

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