Each spring, I plant rows of peas and potatoes and place cucumber, cantaloupe and watermelon seeds into tiny mountains of dirt. And then I free ladybugs onto the whole of it as a way to naturally control predators.
With all this work to provide my brood with organic vegetables, it only makes sense that I give the same attention to my house pets, right? Truthfully, it hasn't always been on my mind. I don't read cat food labels or buy frozen, organic meats to cook for my dog. And until recently, I hadn't considered the carbon footprint (or in this case, pawprint) my furry housemates create throughout the course of a typical day. A carbon footprint measures the effects a person's (or pet's) actions have on the environment, including the amount of climate-changing greenhouse gasses produced by their diets or activities.
Two New Zealand researchers claim the average dog creates twice the carbon footprint of a hulking SUV, about 2.1 acres. This figure is based, in part, on the fact that the average dog eats about 361 pounds (163.7 kilograms) of meat per year. And, with 71 percent of American households including at least one pet -- and 45 percent of those households at least one dog -- the environmental impact can add up over time [source: Netter].
Like many people, I'm not ready to give up my pets. So, in addition to considering the ways that greening my household will affect my pets, it may be time to ponder some carbon offsetting. Carbon offsetting could include, for example, planting trees to remove greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It could also mean financially supporting alternative energy research or funding existing energy-saving projects through clearinghouse organizations like Native Energy, Terrapass or Carbon Fund.
If you're not currently a pet owner but are considering becoming one, going green may affect your pet selection. Rabbits, for example, have one of the smallest carbon footprints of all house pets. Thanks to a simple diet of leafy greens, fresh vegetables and hay, they have little environmental impact. Generally, the smaller the animal, the smaller its footprint [source: Thompson].
Running a green household offers some very real benefits, and certain aspects of going green can directly affect your pet's life. "I don't think putting solar panels on your roof will necessarily help your pet, but if the overall steps you take to make your household more green improve the indoor environment, your pet will benefit greatly," says Sean Canning, a licensed architect and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)—accredited professional, whose San Diego-based architecture firm, Ten Seventy Architecture, specializes in green design. So what might some of those benefits be, and where can you look to make improvements?
How a Green Environment Affects Your Pets
Household pets have distinct lifestyle advantages over those that roam the great outdoors; their environment is defined by the home in which they live, and you have the option to make it as green as possible. Some aspects of your pet's environment will affect it more than others, including:
- Painting: Consider low-volatile organic compounds (VOC) paints as opposed to standard materials that emit harmful fumes -- sometimes for years after installation. In some cases, VOCs can cause nausea, headaches or tremors; they also can irritate a pet's airways. "These scents can go undetected by us, but our pets have a much greater sense of smell," Canning says.
- Flooring: Carpet can be a magnet for dust and allergens, which can begin to irritate your pet over time. "Sustainable materials, such as wood or concrete, are great for pets," says Canning. Remember, your pets walk around barefoot indoors, so be sure your floors are treated with pet-friendly sealants that are non-toxic, plant-based and VOC-free.
- Cleaning supplies: Many store-bought household cleaning supplies contain chemicals that can affect your pet: Your pet will pick up the chemicals on its fur and paw pads (and ingest the chemicals when it licks itself) or absorb the chemicals through its skin. "Reducing or eliminating the number of harmful household cleaners makes for a healthier environment. The last thing you want is for a curious pet to ingest something that could be harmful to them," says Andrew Schrage, owner and editor-in-chief of Money Crashers Personal Finance, which provides information about green solutions for pet owners.
- Pet toys: When buying toys for your pets, look for those that are made out of recycled, nontoxic materials, and those that are able to be recycled themselves.
- Pet gear: In addition, consider green pet gear, such as leashes and collars made out of natural fibers like hemp. In the case of pets that require bedding or litter, choose ones made of all-natural plant fiber. "It is biodegradable and compostable, which means that it doesn't have to end up in a landfill," says Schrage. "This type of litter is safer for your cat, and some brands can even be used for gardening or planting purposes when your cat is finished with them." The most eco-friendly bedding for small pets, like hamsters and guinea pigs, is made of recycled paper. Pine and cedar bedding may have started out natural, but by the time it reaches your pets, it will also contain harmful chemicals.
Keep in mind that many pets thrive on routine, and any change in their environment (even if it's for their own good) may result in worrisome behavior. Alleviate pets' stress -- and your own -- by introducing new foods and objects slowly. This won't work for home improvement projects, but you can mix new food, litter or bedding in with the old at increasing percentages to allow your pet to grow accustomed to it. And as with any new toy or accessory, you can leave green gear out for your pets to inspect and become familiar with at their own pace.
Author's Note: Will going green affect your pets?
Going green. It can affect every part of your life and, frankly, be a bit overwhelming sometimes. Just when I thought I had a handle on my children's chemical exposure by greening everything from crib mattresses to carpet cleaners, I realized my pets' supplies weren't up to par. Although they eat high-quality food, it's not organic. Their collars aren't made from natural fibers, and the pet shampoos we use are full of perfumes (but boy do they smell good when they're clean). It's clearly time to make a few changes to the way my pets live, too.
- Canning, Sean. Personal interview. April 10, 2012.
- Netter, Sarah. "Authors Claim Pets are More Damaging to Environment than SUVs." ABC News. Dec. 23, 2009. (April 10, 2012) http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/pet-dogs-damaging-environment-suvs/story?id=9402234
- Schrage, Andrew. Personal interview. April 10, 2012.
- Thompson, Angela. "What House Pet has the Smallest Carbon Footprint?" Yahoo. Nov. 22, 2010. (April 10, 2012) http://voices.yahoo.com/what-house-pet-has-smallest-carbon-7223896.html?cat=53