The Sustainable Cat: Making Better Choices for the Environment
Summary: Plastic toys, strip-mined litter, and greenhouse gas intensive food – our pets are a surprisingly large contributor to the climate crisis. A look at the research can give us the numbers, but how can we make more sustainable choices for us and our pets? This article gives practical suggestions for simple switches you can help your clients make. Finally, there’s a discussion of the ethics around individual environmental responsibility, and whether it’s fair or meaningful to expect us to do our bit when corporations are not being held accountable for doing theirs.
The Climate Crisis
The overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion is that the Earth is in a climate crisis. Unless drastic action is taken now, climate change is going to cause food scarcities, drought, and large numbers of extinctions within most of our lifetimes.1 Two of the most pressing issues are greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide and methane) and the accumulation of plastic waste. Both have already been identified as causing deleterious impacts on ecosystems, and are projected to cause even more profound devastation within the next few decades.2
Everything humans do has some impact on our environment at every scale — positive, negative, or mixed. Even our choices around our companion animals make a difference to the world around us. People who share their lives with cats are probably most cognizant of this when they’re thinking about the “indoor vs outdoor” debate. The cost of potentially decimating the local population of rodents and birds must be weighed against possible benefits to the cat.3 But this isn’t the only environmental calculus cat caregivers need to engage. Keeping an obligate carnivore fed and entertained, and giving them an appropriate place to eliminate all contribute to environmental destruction. So what can we do, if we care about cats and the planet?
In this article, I’ll explore the options for more sustainable living with cats. I’ll look at how to reduce consumption and carbon emissions, as well as offer some tips on what feline behavior consultants can do to help their clients choose environmentally friendly options.
As obligate carnivores, cats must be fed meat. But raising animals for slaughter is among the most environmentally destructive practices humans engage in,4 so what we feed our cats is, in most cases, the number one contributor to their impact on the environment.
Calculating exactly how big of an impact our pet cats have on the global environment is impossible. But it is possible to estimate using the information we have. A 2021 study by Gregory Okin looked at how much meat an average cat consumes, and how much CO2 and methane is produced to make it.5 The total carbon footprint for an average cat was determined to be around 310kg of CO2e. Between all the dogs and cats in the United States, Okin’s estimates amount to an driving extra 12 million cars constantly for a year.6
The majority of commercial pet foods use byproducts from industrial meat production for human consumption. Some authors have claimed that this means that we shouldn’t count the environmental impact of the production of pet foods separately, since the animals used have already been counted in our calculations for human meat eating.7
Okin, however, points out that as the trend towards greater “humanization” of pets continues, pet food companies are sourcing more human-grade meat. This means diverting it from the human food supply, instead of sourcing meat scraps and cuts that are not wanted by humans for cultural or other reasons.8 Furthermore, we must consider the processing, transportation, and storage the meat goes through as it becomes cat food — and even the carbon cost of taking a trip to the specialist pet store. Even if your cat’s food is made entirely of by-products, the supply chain diverges at the slaughterhouse.
Okin suggests reducing overfeeding, and finding alternative sources of protein that don’t produce as much greenhouse gas.
One potential alternative source is insect protein. Raising insects for food produces a fraction of the CO2 and methane produced by traditional meat farming. There are several brands of insect-based dry cat foods available today, containing a mix of proteins including insects. Surveys have suggested that pet owners and veterinarians are curious about this, and so far there have been no reports of toxicity.9
A 2021 review in “Insects as Food and Feed” looked at studies done on the palatability of different insect sources of protein for dogs and cats. All the studies showed that palatability was low for food made with yellow mealworm and black soldier fly larvae. The most palatable was a diet made with 5% black soldier fly larvae. This mirrors diets found in feral cats, where insects have been found to make up between 0.5% and 7% of what they consume.9 Whether a 5% substitution is anything more than environmental virtue-signaling, however, is not clear.
A much simpler, cheaper alternative (and probably an easier sell to most of your clients!) is suggesting they switch from beef, pork, and salmon-based foods to poultry. Chicken and turkey have the lowest carbon output of all the most common animals raised and killed for food. “The average footprint of beef, excluding methane, is 36 kilograms of CO2eq per kilogram. This is still nearly four times the mean footprint of chicken. Or 10 to 100 times the footprint of most plant-based foods.”10
What can behavior consultants do?
As obligate carnivores, cats have dietary needs that are most easily met by a diet of animal protein. Although plant-based cat foods do exist, the majority of veterinary opinion suggests caution. Behavior consultants should be extremely conservative in making food recommendations, and suggest clients speak with their vet or a veterinary nutritionist before making any major changes.
Overfeeding, however, is an issue consultants can offer some guidance on (although again, not as a substitute for veterinary advice — share veterinarian-created resources like this body condition chart and this National Academies guide with your clients and talk about what they think, rather than making an assessment yourself). In terms of addressing overfeeding with your clients, one study from the Netherlands suggests that framing overfeeding as an environmental one is less likely to result in the desired behavior, compared to framing it as a potential problem for their cat’s health.11
If you are inspired to prepare food at home, it is imperative to do so under the guidance of a veterinarian with specific training in nutrition. According to a 2019 study, the majority of recipes for home preparation are not nutritionally adequate. Even those supplied by veterinarians often failed to meet recommended allowances of key nutrients.12
If you do have access to a veterinary nutritionist, you’ve been supplied with a nutritionally adequate recipe that has been properly evaluated (see Wilson et al for more on what this means) home-preparing food could be a benefit to the environment if you use meat that you otherwise would have wasted. The USDA estimates that around a quarter of meat is wasted by consumers.13 Redirecting this meat, which you would have bought anyway, to feeding your cat means that your pet’s diet is impacting the environment only in terms of the waste they produce.
What goes in…
Cat feces is not recommended for use as compost,14 and contains potentially deadly disease-causing microorganisms like T. gondii. In short, it’s bad for the environment. And, there’s a lot of it! In his study, Okin does not distinguish between dog and cat feces, but his conclusion is startling nevertheless:
“Assuming that Americans throw away about 2 kg d-1 as garbage, if all of the feces from US dogs and cats, not including kitty litter and bags, were disposed as garbage, their feces would be equivalent to the total garbage produced by 6.63 million Americans, or approximately the population of Massachusetts (population 6.64 million in 2015).” (from Okin)
Generally, the more food an animal consumes, the more feces they produce, so avoiding overfeeding is the only thing we can do to minimize this.
Because it’s easy to clean, cheap to use in manufacturing, and brightly colored, plastic is ubiquitous in the pet industry. From toys and bowls to collars and beds, chances are your cats — and your clients’ — are surrounded by plastic that will still be in the environment more than a hundred years after we’re gone. In recent years there has been a greater focus on the dangerous effects of plastics in the environment. From trash islands floating in Pacific gyres and the microplastics choking aquatic life,15 to the cheap throwaway objects filling up landfills, plastics are now seen as an existential threat to ecosystems all over the world.
Plastics may also have an effect directly on animal and ecosystem health. There are significant knowledge gaps around different types of plastics and plastic additives and their effect on human health (see Campanale, 202016 for a recent review of these), but links have been posited between various kinds of plastic additives and endocrine disruption.17 There is even less research into the effects these chemicals effects may have on cats, but one study suggested a positive correlation between levels of organohalogenated chemicals (found in flame retardants often used on plastics) and type 2 diabetes in cats.18
The IUCN has created this simple pyramid graphic of best to worst decisions around our use of plastics.19
The best thing we can do, according to the IUCN, is switch to alternatives to plastic. Thankfully, there are more choices than ever for those of us who want to buy less plastic. New advances in materials and an increasing market for “eco-friendly” products means that pet owners can make some easy switches.
Substitutions to reduce plastic use
Litterboxes – Like bowls, stainless steel and bamboo litterboxes are more sustainable than plastic because they are recyclable. Stainless steel is also very long-lasting. To reduce litter use, some suggest using an automated litterbox like Litter Robot,20 although these automated devices are heavy (so use more CO2 in transportation) and also partly made of plastic, as well as using rare earth minerals in their computer parts.21
Bentonite clay is one of the most popular and affordable choices available to cat caregivers, but the vast majority of it is strip mined.22 There are alternatives based on plants, from wood to coconut — if you can find something locally sourced, this might be the most sustainable option. Compostable litterbox liners are also available, although most do not break down in the environment and need specialist facilities to compost.23
Toys – Home-made toys can be a great way to recycle old clothes, both for stuffing and covers. So long as the pieces are too big to be ingested, and ideally sewn instead of hot glued (hot glue is plastic). Catnip is also an eco-friendly filling. Another common material is needle-felted wool, like these toys. Making your own toys also cuts down on carbon emissions from transportation.
Accessories – Hemp is a better choice than nylon, polyester, or cotton for collars and harnesses.24 If you have the budget, consider a locally-made wicker carrier instead of ripstop nylon. Not only are they visually attractive, a new carrier represents an opportunity to build positive associations for a cat. This is useful if fear of veterinary visits and refusal to enter a carrier is an issue for a client.
Furniture – Choose beds that are not stuffed with polyester batting; blankets that are made of cotton, linen, certain kinds of bamboo fabric,25 or hemp; acquire cat trees and other furniture second hand, or if you buy them, make sure you know where the wood is sourced from and ideally choose high-content recycled wood, with natural-fiber rope.26
When it’s time to make the switch to an alternative, many items can be reused, given away, or recycled rather than sent to landfill. For example, donating gently-used toys to a shelter, or making your own toy library for clients, is one thing you can do to prolong the life of your plastic objects. Because alternatives to plastic may create even more CO2 in their manufacturing and transport process,27 the best thing to do is to keep your existing items out of landfill for as long as possible, and to choose items made of locally sourced materials wherever possible.
Making the switch fun for cats, too
Behavior consultants are well-placed to make suggestions because they have been brought into their clients’ home on the understanding that changes will have to be made to how they live with their cat.
If, for example, a client is having litterbox issues with their cat, a behavior consultant will mostly likely first think about what in the environment could be contributing to the undesirable behavior (whatever it is). If their analysis suggests adding more litterboxes, or changing the substrate, then they could take the opportunity to recommend changing to a more environmentally friendly setup.
Bearing in mind the Dutch study on overfeeding(woning), it might be advisable not to frame these substitutions as something you’re doing just for the environment. Instead, mention them because they’re part of the behavior plan; the sustainability is a side-benefit, but the cat’s wellbeing is the top priority.
Active behavior modification and training
Novelty can be a source of anxiety. Sustainable or not, some cats need active help to feel safe and excited to engage with new things. If a new item is correlated with behaviors that suggest avoidance, stress, or anxiety, encourage clients to brainstorm everything new about the thing. Is their new food bowl in a different place, with higher foot traffic? Does it make a different sound when the cat eats from it? Often clients will stack changes without thinking. Encouraging them to keep notes during their work, both on their cat’s behavior and on other changes they make can help disentangle multiple possible causes of concerning behavior, as can including an “any other changes” section on handouts.
Humans can also sometimes struggle with change. Cat behavior consultants can use some of the same techniques for their clients, too —positive reinforcement can go a long way!
Not every client is going to be able to choose the most sustainable options for their cat. In addition to financial constraints, clients may not have the time, the manual dexterity, or the cognitive capacity to implement some of the changes you’d like. Focusing on the environmentally friendly changes they can make that have the greatest impact on their cats’ wellbeing is better than risking your relationship with them by appearing overly critical or condescending.
Conclusion — Why individual consumption does matter
It might seem trivial to put so much effort into making sustainable choices for our pets, when corporations are responsible for so much catastrophic environmental degradation. The narrative that we should all be choosing sustainable options to “save the world” has been used to shift the blame for climate change onto individuals, instead of locating it in the systems that create the problems in the first place.28
We are individuals, though, and our choices have meaning and value for us. One of the systems responsible for our current climate crisis is the mass production of cheap goods that are not designed to last. We can try to move away from the mindsets that drive us to buy more stuff as a critique of that system. We can make sustainable choices because we want to express our care for the planet, even though the ultimate moral responsibility and practical power lies at the hands of corporations, governments, and industry lobbying.
When we look at our impacts in a way that’s relatively alienated from our lives, like carbon emissions or plastic waste in tonnes, it doesn’t tend to provoke much other than vague dread and despair. The numbers we generate, whatever they mean, are always going to be smaller than those of big corporations, even of bigger families than ours. But not having as much power to move the needle as others doesn’t mean we have no power at all and should give up. It means we have to hold those with more power accountable, while using the power we have to try to make the world we want to live in.
Instead of throwing our hands up in despair at our personal insignificance, we can, and should, still take actions that express our values and beliefs. Making the choice to prioritize sustainability in caring for your cat isn’t going to save the rainforest. But giving $10 to charity isn’t going to solve world hunger, either. We do these things because of the people we want to be and the world we want to live in. Making sustainable choices doesn’t take away from other activism we might do. It doesn’t mean we can’t also organize protests, write to our elected representatives, or boycott the most irredeemable polluters.29
The truth is, like many things humans do, keeping a predator in our homes is damaging to the environment, and the only surefire way to negate that is to stop keeping cats as pets. But this isn’t our cats’ fault — if we believe they are individuals with lives we should respect, getting rid of them for the sake of humans’ future can’t be the answer. Instead, we have to learn to live in ways that minimizes their impact on the local and global environment, so we can enjoy all the benefits we bring to each others’ lives.
Behavior consultants can enrich the feline-human bond while also guiding their clients towards sustainability, without sacrificing their professional integrity. Learning more about how to make sustainable cat care choices may be one small action compared to an impending global meltdown, but in the lives of cats, clients, and consultants, it matters.
- IPCC (2021) Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Last accessed 1/26/2022.
- World Wildlife Fund (2021) Plastic waste and climate change – what’s the connection? Last accessed 1/26/2022
- Foreman-Worsley, R. et al (2021) Indoors or outdoors? An international exploration of owner demographics and decision making associated with lifestyle of pet cats. Animals 11:2, 253
- Poore, J. and Nemecek, T. (2019) Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 360, 987-992.
- Okin G.S. (2017) Environmental impacts of food consumption by dogs and cats. PLoS ONE 12(8): e0181301.
- Bruillard, K. (2017) The hidden environmental costs of dog and cat food. The Washington Post, last accessed 2/3/2022
- Bosch, G. and Swanson, K.S. (2021) Effect of using insects as feed on animals: pet dogs and cats. Journal of Insects as Food and Feed 7:5, 795-805.
- American College of Veterinary Nutritionists. Frequently Asked Questions. Last accessed 1/28/2022.
- Beynen, A. (2018) Insect-based pet foods. Creature Companion. Last accessed 1/28/2022
- Ritchie, H. (2021) The carbon footprint of foods: are differences explained by the impacts of methane? Our World in Data.
- Woning, R. (2021) The environmental impact of overfed cats in the Netherlands. Bachelor’s thesis, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.
- Wilson, S.A et al (2019) Evaluation of the nutritional adequacy of recipes for home-prepared maintenance diets for cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 254:10.
- Counting Animals (2013) Animals we use and abuse for food we do not eat. Available online, last accessed 28/1/2022
- Lallanilla, M. (2021) A guide on what to compost vs. what not to compost. The Spruce, last accessed 1/26/2022
- Centers for Disease Control (2018) Toxoplasmosis: Epidemiology and Risk Factors. Last accessed 1/28/2022.
- Li, W.C., Tse, H.F., Fok, I. (2016) Plastic waste in the marine environment: A review of sources, occurrence and effects. Science of The Total Environment 566–567, p.333-349
- Campanale, C. et al (2020) A detailed review study on potential effects of microplastics and additives of concern on human health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17:4, 1212.
- Dirtu, A. et al (2013) Organohalogenated contaminants in domestic cats’ plasma in relation to spontaneous acromegaly and type 2 diabetes mellitus: a clue for endocrine disruption in humans?
- IUCN (2021) Issues Brief: Marine Plastic Pollution. Online, last accessed 2/20/2022
- Zero Waste Memoirs (2021) Minimizing Your Cat’s Carbon Pawprint: A Guide to Zero Waste Cat Litter. Last accessed 1/28/2022
- Nayar, J. (2021) Not so “green” technology: The complicated legacy of rare earth mining. Harvard International Review. Last accessed 1/28/2022
- Scheer, R. & Moss, D. (2012) What are the most ecofriendly cat litter products on the market? Scientific American, last accessed 1/21/2022
- Napper, I. & R. Thompson (2019) Environmental deterioration of biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable, compostable, and conventional plastic carrier bags in the sea, soil, and open-air over a 3-year period. Environmental Science and Technology 53:9, 4775-4783.
- Stockholm Environment Institute (2005) Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester. Available online, last accessed 2/3/2022
- Sewport (2022) What is bamboo fabric? Properties, how it’s made, and where. Available online, last accessed 2/3/2022
- Rastogi, N.S. (2009) The eco-perils of cheap décor: Is fake wood furniture bad for the environment? Slate, last accessed 1/21/2022
- American Chemistry Council (2021) Chemistry in America: Plastics. Last accessed 1/26/2022
- Hyman, E. (2020) Who’s Really Responsible for Climate Change? Harvard Political Review. Last accessed 1/28/2022
- Bryan, A. (2021) Pedagogy of the implicated: advancing a social ecology of responsibility framework to promote deeper understanding of the climate crisis. Pedagogy, Culture, and Society.
Tiro Miller, PhD SBA is the managing editor of The IAABC Foundation Journal. He is passionate about animal rights and climate justice, and hopes to bring the academic theories from critical animal studies into conversation with the real world of animal care, especially sheltering and rescue.