The Ecological Impacts of Our Pets

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Tompkins Weekly 10-26-15

By Becca Harber

The book “Time to Eat the Dog? The Real Guide to Sustainable Living” by Brenda and Robert Vale reports on ecological effects of owning pets. Owning an average sized dog uses up the yearly energy equivalent in dog food and other aspects of dog care twice that of an average SUV driving 6,000 miles/year in the U.S. A cat’s carbon footprint is around that of a compact car. Both have carbon footprints higher than the average person in many countries. According to the Pet Food Institute, 8,285,300 metric tons of food went to dogs and cats in the U.S. in 2013.

What most don’t realize is that most people’s energy use isn’t from direct heating, electric, transportation, or food usages. It’s from stuff we buy and maintain, including pets. The book “Climate Change in the Adirondacks” (2010) by Jerry Jenkins reports that “’stuff’ was 45% of the yearly energy budget of an (average) Adirondack household”. This 45% is “embedded energy”, “energy required to produce and transport” the things we obtain. Compare this with only 25% for transportation, 14% for heating/cooking, 3% for electricity and 13% for food. Shopping and cat/dog ownership tend to do much greater ecological damage than owning an old-fashioned gas fueled car, for example.

Other ecological harms from cats and dogs include waste. British dogs are responsible for about ten million tons of waste yearly. Two million tons of cat litter go to U.S. landfills yearly. Most litter is non-biodegradable and non-renewable. Popular clay-based litter, bentonite, is obtained by strip-mining, whereby land is stripped of its entire layer of soil, plants, forest, etc. and laid bare so cats, a non-native species beloved by so many, can poop in it. Pet poop located where it drains into sewers or water eventually gets into lakes, ponds and rivers or oceans where bacteria within cumulatively “starve water habitats of oxygen and kill native aquatic life,” according to Cat poop can carry “the parasite toxoplasma gondii, known to survive sewage treatment and kill sea life.” This parasite also infects people sometimes. Clay litter is dusted with silica, a known carcinogen which causes respiratory disease in people, including silica miners and cats. It gets into cats’ fur, then into their mouths.

Some litter alternatives include ground corn cobs (non-GMO), pellets of compressed recycled newspaper, and sawdust. These can biodegrade if kept out of landfills where waste is usually too compressed for oxygen to circulate for composting to occur.

Another impact is the enormous amount of flea\tick repellents used containing DDVP, carbaryl, permethrin or propoxur, all “nerve toxins that can build up, poisoning pets and wildlife alike” as they gradually move into soil and waters, according to click4carbon.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature state that cats are responsible for the extinction of 33 bird species. Website reports that Great Britain’s eight million cats are conservatively estimated to kill 200 million wild creatures yearly. These numbers can be too abstract, and many cat owners assert that their outdoor roaming cats don’t hunt. So, believing that a picture is worth a thousand words, I strongly recommend viewing the National Geographic documentary “The Secret Life of Cats”. As cat owners in the film monitor the animals their cats kill or maim, the death toll is graphic. You see 25 dead native birds and mammals one beautiful cat killed in just two weeks, which his owner froze to view: cardinals, chickadees, bunnies, etc. besides those he injured. At its conclusion, the film states that “In the 57 minutes you’ve watched the film, cats will have killed 100,000 mammals and 30,000 birds in the U.S.” According to Dr. David Jessup, senior California state wildlife veterinarian, 80% of animals injured by cats die, because cats mouths contain virulently dangerous bacteria that cause deadly blood poisoning in their victims.

Wildlife veterinarians urge cats be kept indoors to protect natives (birds, amphibians, reptiles…). If you value your cat’s freedom more, consider dressing cats in cat bibs or sonic variety of bell, which click4carbon says most effectively alerts birds. Keep dogs leashed to minimize animal and plant damage and so you can pick up poop, which is extremely polluting considering the numbers of dogs currently.

Jim Sterba in his book “Nature Wars” reports that U.S. feral cats are estimated 60-100 million, producing 80% of kittens. The American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians called for eliminating feral cats on public lands and discourages them privately. They consider “Trap-Neuter-Release” programs (TNR) that feral cat protectors assert decrease cat numbers enough as harmful to native wildlife. TNR involves trapping ferals, neutering them and releasing them back. TNR can’t keep up with feral cat reproduction even if every veterinarian neutered a feral every day of the year. Doing so would only neuter one out of four to six cats.

Wildlife vets say that re-releasing non-native predators is just as illegal and harmful as poisoning or poaching wildlife or bulldozing their habitat.” People’s love for cats and dogs and the “no-kill” animal shelter movement to end euthanasia and find a home for every animal is compassionate only to pets while unintentionally supporting destruction of native wildlife and the well-being of the planet.

Becca Harber is a local ecological, communications and herbal educator.



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