Pets hold an important place in many households. They are cared for and loved and can become like family members. Spending time with animals can also reduce stress and help you be more active. We have two big dogs who have been with us since before my husband and I were married and are very much part of the family. Now they are old men who mostly lie around all day, but when they were younger, they were a full time job and lot of fun.
So, how do pets fit in with a low waste lifestyle? Here are some quick pointers for helping your furry or feathered friend live as sustainably as you do.
When we lived on Pine Ridge Reservation, wild dogs were everywhere. We chose Jake and Frankie as puppies straight out of the pack. Our thirteen years together has been wonderful.
CHOOSING A PET
Obviously the kind of pet you choose is a very personal decision, but there are a few points to make here about sustainability and pet selection. This one probably goes without saying, but please don't buy any endangered or banned animals. My next piece of advice is this: always rescue a pet if you can. Rescue animals exist already and need a home. Breeders will keep creating more and more pets if we keep buying them. Instead, help a homeless animal. You'd be surprised at the selection of rescued pets, if you are willing to put in the effort. Both of our dogs are rescues and I couldn't ask for better canine companions. Also, although I have big dogs, let it be said that the bigger the animal, the more it eats (and most dogs and cats eat meat), and the larger its environmental footprint. Lastly, if you are planning to take in a cat, please strongly consider making it an indoor cat because cats can kill hundreds of song birds, snakes, and other small creatures in their lifetimes.
Just like people, animals need to eat and, just like people, organic food is best for their health and the health of the planet. I know what you're thinking - there's no way I'm going to buy organic food for my pet! And I respect that. In fact, I don't either. But, if you can afford it, that's your best option. You can also look into the source of the food. For example, chicken meat is more sustainable than beef.
Another thing to consider when buying pet food is the packaging it comes in. Try to avoid the tiny cans, if you can. Although they are recyclable, they add up quickly. Single serve pouches aren't recyclable at all. Aim for the biggest container of dry food you can use before it goes bad. Unfortunately, many pet foods come in non-recyclable plastic bags that add up quickly if you have two big dogs like me. There are a few brands of pet food packaged in compostable bags and there is also the option of recycling your bags through Terracycle. Some brands will even pay the Terracycle fee for you! You can learn more about food choices here. Personally, I have struggled quite a bit with our dog food packaging situation. You can read about my trials and tribulations here.
TREATS, TOYS, AND THE LIKE
The best rule of thumb when shopping for your pet is the same I offer when shopping for yourself - don't do it! Pets, like children, need love and attention, not 100 plastic toys. I can personally attest to the fact that dogs can get along just fine with a giant rope and a few balls. No need to tons of toys and gadgets. The same goes for treats in plastic bags. You can use kibbles from your giant bag of food for training purposes, if you need to, and maybe offer special treats only on holidays or after a visit to the vet.
Because I highly advocate for keeping cats indoors (they can kill hundreds of song birds, snakes, and other small creatures in their lifetimes), kitty litter in a box is necessary. There are several eco friendly options out there, but I can't offer any personal opinion on any of them since I don't have a cat (much to the dismay of my children).
I've been on both sides of the picking up your dog poop debate and I have absolutely no desire to get into it with anyone, so I will offer advice for both sides. If you you choose not to pick up your dog's poop, make sure your dogs are eating only natural foods and taking no medications that could harm the local ecosystem (plus, obviously make sure the poop isn't where anyone is going to step in it!). If you pick up your poop, use compostable poop bags. I know it is tempting to use all the old grocery store bags you have ferreted away (and I've been known to do it myself), but imagine poop sitting in a plastic bag for a hundred years and it'll help you see the rationale for buying the compostable bags. To learn how to deal with your old plastic bags, read this.
YOUR PET IN NATURE
Sometimes it is hard to remember that your domesticated-looking animal is very closely related to the wild species you see out in the woods. Dogs and cats share the same instincts as their wild cousins and will chase, hurt, or kill wild animals if given the chance. Because they don't need the meat, killing wild prey species not only ends that life, but also takes away food from wild predator species. If your dog is likely to hurt or kill animals on walks or in the yard, keep it on a leash. If you have a cat, as I've already mentioned, keep it inside. Conversely, remember that your pet looks like prey to some wild animals and take proper precautions.
Hopefully this will help you make informed decisions about your furry friends going forward. I'm always interested in learning more about sustainable pet care, so please let me know if you have any products or practices you would recommend!