ShapeShapeauthorShapecrossShapeShapeShapeGrouphamburgerhomeGroupmagnifyShapeShapeShapeShape

How can we encourage owners to start considering their pet’s environmental pawprint?

When aiming to reduce our impact on the environment, we should also be thinking about sustainable pet care

01 May 2020, at 7:10am

Pets are increasingly considered by owners as additional family members (Pet Age, 2014). Like every additional human on the planet, each pet also carries a significant environmental footprint through their lifetime through food and living requirements, health conditions and waste production. Pets also have a huge role in bringing companionship, happiness and health to so many people, as well as of course providing us our career as veterinarians. So how can we be encouraging owners to make pet ownership as sustainable as possible?

The pet population

Pet ownership is on the increase with approximately 50 percent of UK households owning a pet in 2019, including 9.9 million dogs and 10.9 million cats (PDSA, 2019). Dogs Trust estimates that 24 percent of households own more than two dogs, and that 130,000 dogs come into UK rehoming charities each year (Casey, 2020). With each pet carrying its own ecological footprint, do we need to persuade the nation to have fewer pets? Areas to consider include:

  • Discourage keeping of an excessive number of pets
  • Encourage rescued pets (ideally from the UK)
  • Encourage early neutering wherever appropriate
  • Investigate puppy farms and unscrupulous breeders
  • Consider pets with lower dietary carbon footprints such as a small herbivore

Nutrition

As carnivores, dogs and cats also carry a significant dietary footprint due to high meat consumption, with one study in America suggesting that their diets may constitute 25 percent of the environmental impacts from meat production (Okin, 2017). Raw and “human-grade” pet foods are on the rise – with a move away from feeding only what isn’t suitable for human consumption as pets become increasingly anthropomorphised. Many pets are also overweight with owners feeding more than daily recommendations. With roughly one third of all food being wasted (FAO, 2011) this is also an important area to target. Areas to consider include:

  • Support food manufacturers that use by-products from the human industry
  • Support further research into low meat/vegetarian pet foods or other sustainable sources such as insects
  • Dissuade feeding of raw diets due to the higher meat content, especially if the meat would otherwise be for human consumption
  • Tackle obesity cases and advise against over- or wasteful feeding

Reducing plastic waste

With pets being treated as family members, this inevitably means they come with their own belongings, which has the potential to lead to plastic pollution. There are also huge issues with excessive plastic packaging on human food and the same is true for pet foods. Some traditional packaging like tins are already easy to recycle and there have been some great initiatives set up which recycle previously non-recyclable items like sachets. Areas to consider include:

  • Support bulk buying and food manufacturers with compostable/recyclable packaging
  • Support pet food packaging recycling schemes which could be set up in practice
  • Support and sell more environmentally friendly toys and accessories such as those made from sustainable or recycled materials
  • Support second-hand purchase of pet products
  • Don’t encourage the transfer of the human taste for materialism into the pet world

Protecting wildlife

The 2019 State of Nature report confirms our UK wildlife is in crisis with 15 percent of species now threatened with extinction (State of Nature Partnership, 2019). As veterinarians, we should prioritise protection of wildlife along with caring for companion and livestock animals. Although the RSPB states that there is no evidence predation from cats is causing UK bird declines (RSPB, 2020), they are still thought to catch many prey animals yearly in the UK. Dogs can also displace and distress wildlife. There is also evidence of significant neonicotinoid contamination in UK rivers which has been linked to ectoparasite treatment of companion animals (Shardlow, 2017). Areas to consider include:

  • Discourage wildlife hunting by putting a bell on cats and considering keeping them indoors at night
  • Prevent dogs from harassing wildlife
  • Treating and rehabilitating wildlife in practice or via charities
  • Support research into harm that endo- and ectoparasite treatment is causing wildlife
  • Move away from blanket parasite prevention and products and move towards parasite testing and risk assessment (Prentis, 2020)

Problems with faeces

Whilst the faeces of herbivores is generally safe to compost and go to landfill, faeces from our carnivore pets comes with a whole range of problems. Firstly, these faeces may pose a public health risk due to the presence of pathogenic microorganisms (Cinquepalmi et al., 2012).

Secondly, if carnivore faeces finds its way to water sources it can lead to eutrophication and damage to aquatic ecosystems. Compostable/biodegradable bags are popular but will generally not break down in landfill due to anaerobic conditions, and if they do will produce significant amounts of methane. Areas to consider include:

  • Picking up and responsible disposal of faeces is essential
  • Composting where possible – herbivore and bird faeces is generally safe to be composted. Composting dog and cat faeces is generally not advised due to the risk of pathogen contamination, especially toxoplasmosis from cats. However, there are some online guides for composting systems for dog/cat waste, that need to be carefully managed and not used on edible crops.
  • Avoid clay-based cat litter which is extracted via environmentally damaging mining processes; consider natural sources or products made from recycled materials
  • Support systems that use animal waste in biodigesters to produce energy

In summary

When we consider reducing our personal environmental footprint, our pets probably aren’t the first thing that springs to mind. However, in the climate crisis we are enduring, every piece of our lifestyle is worth taking into account. If we are to make the veterinary world more sustainable, knowledge of some of the areas above in which we can advise our clients on more sustainable pet care is one important piece of the puzzle.

References
Author Year Title
Casey, R. 2020 Facts and figures. DogsTrust.
Cinquepalmi, V., Monno, R., Fumarola, L., Ventrella, G., Calia, C., Greco, M., de Vito, D. and Soleo, L. 2012 Environmental contamination by dog’s faeces: a public health problem? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 10, 72-84
FAO 2011 Global food losses and food waste – Extent, causes and prevention. Rome
Mantle, S. 2014 Pets become more popular. Pet Age.
Okin, G. 2017 Environmental impacts of food consumption by dogs and cats. PLOS ONE, 12, e0181301
PDSA 2020 Paw PDSA Animal Wellbeing Report 2019.
Prentis, A. 2020 Parasite control in pets. Veterinary Practice, 52, 14-15
RSPB 2020 Are cats causing bird declines?
Shardlow, M. 2017 Neonicotinoid insecticides in British freshwaters: 2016 Water Framework Directive Watch List Monitoring Results and Recommendations. Buglife, Peterborough, UK
State of Nature Partnership 2019 State of Nature 2019 Report.

Frances Haddock, BVSc, MRCVS, is a veterinary surgeon and is currently studying for a certificate in small animal medicine. She is also an environmental activist, runs the blog “envirobite” on sustainability issues, writes for the weekly environmental newsletter "Curious Earth" and is a member of the Vet Sustain community

More from this author