Feature

How to make your pet eco-friendly

G Magazine

Pets are great for your wellbeing, but what about their impact on the planet? Are some domestic animals greener than others?

dog and cat

Credit: iStockphoto

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Left to their own devices, our pets are fairly green. Pets don't drive, overheat the house, or hose the footpath.

Yes, they eat, drink and create waste, but for the most part if they have a thumping great paw print it's due to silly things humans do.

We've all heard stories of cat owners leaving the TV on all day to entertain Moggy, and of dog owners taking Fido for a 'walk' by dangling the leash out of the car window and driving slowly.

But increasingly, pet owners are becoming savvier about how we care for our animal friends.

If you're a prospective pet-owner looking for an animal companion with a minimal impact on the environment, a basic rule of thumb is that the smaller the pet, the fewer resources it will consume and the less waste it will create.

So a chihuahua will compare favourably to a cocker spaniel, which in turn outclasses a great dane. Fish, birds, guinea pigs, rabbits, mice and hermit crabs are just some of the smaller pets - with smaller eco paw-prints - on offer.

When thinking about the impact of our pet-related choices, consider this: almost two-thirds of Australian homes contain a pet, about half of those have dogs or cats.

That adds up to about 38 million pets - 20 million fish, 9 million birds, 3.75 million dogs, 2.43 million cats and 3 million other pets.

Last year the RSPCA euthanised 64,400 pets that had been mistreated or abandoned. So the obvious green (and humane) step is to desex our pets to prevent unwanted offspring.

According to Tim Adams, a vet from the Petcare Information and Advisory Service, the next important step is "keeping cats in at night and cleaning up after dogs".

Poo dos (and don'ts)

If left on the street, Fido's droppings can wash into the sewer and ultimately pollute rivers and beaches.

When you clean up, use biodegradable plastic bags so the poo is not sealed for years in landfill. An alternative is a biodegradable cardboard scooper, such as Skooperbox.

Cat owners might consider using shredded newspaper or a wheat-based litter mixes, both of which are biodegradable.

Is there a better way to dispose of animal waste than adding it to landfill? Most health professionals advise against putting untreated animal waste in compost bins since it contains pathogens and parasites.

However, a dedicated worm farm for pet poo can do the job. Alternatively, a specially formulated mixture of grain and non-pathogenic microbes called Shift! can be used on animal waste to make it a safe additive to garden soil. It can also be sprinkled onto the floor of birdcages.

Diet

Just as your choice of food affects your health and that of the planet, so does the diet you feed your animals.

"More people are buying organic," says Ann Nevill, a veterinarian from East-West Vet Clinic in Bentleigh, Melbourne. She believes an animal's diet and health are inextricably linked.

"When we feed animals at our clinic on raw organic meat and vegetables we see regression of some diseases," she says.

Most conventional pet foods, wet and dry, are a mix of reconstituted low-grade animal meat and by-products mixed with salt and preservatives.

Organic meat, however, is free from chemicals, including antibiotics and hormones - and you can be safe in the knowledge that the meat has come from animals raised in humane and sustainable ways.

There are companies that supply organic pet food if you prefer not to make your own. In Sydney, Sassy Treats home-delivers frozen organic meals fortified with cold-pressed oils and vitamin supplements for dogs, cats and horses.

Cat owner Jenny Koadlow points out another problem: pet food manufacturers are lagging behind with their packaging. "I worry that the conventional dry food bags are not environmentally friendly. Often the bags aren't recyclable."

Thomas Cunliffe, chief executive of hemp company Happy Planet, advocates the inclusion of hemp in animals' diets, which he says uses a less energy to grow and process than conventional pet-food additives.

Accessories

As is often the case, the most environmentally responsible thing you can do is to buy fewer unnecessary items, and spend mindfully on your pet's needs.

Hemp and other natural fibres are great materials for bedding and accessories, says Hemp Planet's Cunliffe. "Hemp is good for collars, leads and beds since the fibres are anti-bacterial and anti-fungal."

Grooming and flea treatments

Washing your animal can send buckets of non-biodegradable, harmful chemicals down the drain, and cause dry, irritated skin.

There are many organic shampoos and conditioners that do not contain potentially harmful chemicals such as sulphates, parabens or artificial preservatives and fragrances.

Two reputable, affordable Australian brands are PAW (Pure Animal Wellbeing), which also make the Alchemy brand of shampoo for people) and Organipet (which claim its products are vegan-friendly and contain no genetically modified organisms).

If you're looking for alternatives to conventional, pesticide-based topical flea treatments, Ann Nevill recommends a broad approach: planting tansy, lavender and mint in your garden and placing the leaves under your pet's bed is an effective deterrent, she says, and regularly vacuuming carpet and your pet's bed is a must.

There are many flea collars, washes and sprays on the market containing essential oils such as lavender, eucalyptus and neem.

Don't apply essential oils directly to your pet's skin before consulting your vet, as these are highly concentrated and can cause burns and poisoning in high concentrations. Cats are particularly susceptible because of the way their metabolism works, and their grooming habits.