Call me a cat lover: I just adopted two adorable kittens, and I couldn’t be happier.
But could my kittens be a drag on my environmental footprint?
Before I adopted, I carefully considered my lifestyle choices. Was I ready for the responsibility? Was I home enough to properly take care of them? Could I afford the adoption fees and veterinary costs? Was I prepared to have cat hair all over my apartment?
Yes, I decided, I could handle all of that. I’m a cat person, after all!
But I didn’t even consider the environmental impacts of my new feline friends. That is, until I had to deal with the litter box.
When I was a kid, our cats always ran around in the backyard and so litter was never a concern. In my current apartment, however, every valuable square foot suddenly was permeated by the smell of cats, so litter became a very personal issue. I started searching online for more odor-absorbent varieties than the bargain brand that I had purchased, and discovered more stinky facts about cat litter than I could possibly have imagined.
Conventional clay “clumping” litter, it turns out, is an offender for a whole host of reasons. Over two million tons of clay are mined in the United States every year, just to be turned into cat litter. The clay—or sodium bentonite, more specifically—is obtained via strip mining, requiring massive amounts of soil and rock to be moved in order to access the mineral seam underneath.
The result is a giant hole in the ground that needs to be filled and then returned to something resembling a natural state.
Sodium bentonite can also be harmful to cats if they ingest it, which can happen accidentally when they clean themselves.
The good news is that there are lots of cat litter alternatives that are eco-friendly. Biodegradable options include litters made from old newspapers, wood shavings, nut shells and wheat.
The bad news is that, among eco-friendly cat litter products, there is no clear winner. Each product varies in terms of odor-eliminating abilities, level of messiness, cost, and other environmental or health side effects. Green24.com does a good job of laying out the pros and cons of traditional versus biodegradable litters, but it’s much harder to choose between the more eco-friendly options.
At the end of the day, I made the switch to a non-clay, good-smelling litter that my cats like. That’s about as close to a slam-dunk cat product as I can hope for.
Having done my due diligence on the issue of cat litter, I looked into what other eco-conscious pet owners were doing. Here are a few more easy steps (not necessarily cat-specific) that you can take to cut down on your pet’s environmental paw print:
1. Adopt from a shelter.
According to the Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA, 6-8 million dogs and cats enter shelters every year. Of those, about 3 million are adopted and a lucky 649,000 are reclaimed by their owners, but roughly 2.7 million are euthanized.
Adopting from a shelter avoids pet overpopulation and the mistreatment of animals by irresponsible breeders. Sites like Petfinder.com can help match you with animals in your area that are in need of a good home.
2. Spay or neuter your pet.
There are already too many homeless pets in the United States: by some estimates, the number of cats alone could reach 70 million.
3. Pick up after your pet.
Not only is it the clean and neighborly thing to do, but pet feces left outside can wash into storm sewers and eventually end up in local water channels, making them unsafe for drinking or swimming.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the best way to dispose of dog waste is to flush it down the toilet.
Never flush cat waste: it can lead to the spread of parasites that could harm unborn babies and sea otters. For now, the best option seems to be using biodegradable litter made of recycled materials, and bagging and trashing cat waste.
Given the packed, airless conditions of most landfills, using biodegradable trash bags isn’t worth the extra cost. However, it is worth reusing plastic bags that you’ve already acquired.
4. Keep your cat indoors and your dog on a leash.
Right now my kittens don’t seem coordinated enough to catch a fly, but reportedly cats in the United States kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds every year. That can be a huge problem for endangered species of birds. Keeping cats indoors is an easy solution, and the ASPCA has lots of suggestions for how to keep them entertained.
Dogs, too, have been linked to a decrease in bird species, so keep your dog leashed except for in designated dog parks.
5. Buy eco-friendly pet food.
Organic is the gold standard here, but when the pet food ingredients sound better (and cost more) than my own dinner, I’d rather opt for the “natural” brands such as Blue Buffalo and Wellness.
There are definitely labeling issues with the term “natural,” but these brands at least guarantee food free from GMOs, meat by-products, grains and artificial flavors.
6. Provide pet toys that are made of biodegradable or recycled materials.
My cats go crazy over this Doggie Bar teaser wand made from natural fibers. Toys like this tend to be more expensive than the plastic varieties and are more easily accessible online than at your nearest commercial pet store. But you can get creative with things you already have: old cardboard boxes provide hours of fun.
Another option is to get crafty and make your own Pinterest-worthy pet toys and accessories, which are bound to be the envy of the neighborhood.
It still sounds a bit crazy that my string-chasing, nap-taking little kittens could be linked to strip mining, brain damage in babies, and sick sea otters, as a result of the products I buy for them or how I choose to care for them.
But I’m not about to return my cats to the shelter and get a goldfish just to soothe my conscience. (Goldfish do have a very light environmental impact, though; rabbits do pretty well too.)
I’m still a cat person, after all, just better informed than I used to be.
Katherine Manchester is an international development professional, with roots in Maine and Tanzania. She has written about issues of environmental sustainability and gender. For fun, she enjoys reading and messing around in sailboats.