Is it time for a sustainable pet movement?

The world is rapidly approaching 7 billion people and the challenges of food supply, security, and sustainability will, along with climate change, be the defining issues of the 21st century. While the issues of the wealthiest nations revolve around the quality of our food, the environmental impact or our farming practices, and the value we place on a perceived degree of “naturalness”, the rest of the world is simply concerned with having enough to eat. What we chose to value in our society affects the rest of the world, and perhaps the most visible, and most dramatic difference between the developing and developed world is the ways in which we treat our pets.

The Problem with Pets

Beneath their cute, fluffy fur, pets in the developed world hide some very problematic truths about sustainability and economic growth. There are more than 76 million pet cats in the United States, and an estimated 47 million in Europe. This may not seem like much, but consider this: in a recent talk at the Ecological Society of America, Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund estimated that the average European house cat consumes 16 times more resources – food, water, energy – than the average human being living in poverty in Africa. Estimates like this should be taken with a grain of salt, but if we assume for a moment that they are generally close, then we’re talking about an additional 1.97 billion people. That means if you lose the cats, you could double the amount of resources available to the 2 billion people living on less than $2 a day.

Mind you, I’m not picking on cat people, those were just the most accessible statistics. All domestic pets consume resources, to various degrees, but as the number above should suggest, this is not an insignificant amount of resource consumption. There are several problems with this interpretation, the most prominent being that food availability is not the only problem with feeding the world. Most analyst agree that food distribution is the largest impediment. Food produced in the US does not have a clear route to famished peoples, food does not grow everywhere equitably, and the largest producers of food are rarely the most in need. But food also costs energy to produce, and, overwhelmingly, poor nations will be disproportionately impacted by climate change, which means even if there is no chance that food for your pets could have been food for the famished, the carbon-cost of producing pet food will have negative impacts on the developing world.

If you believe any of those numbers. If you don’t, pets are still a problem.

The most common domestic pets, dogs and cats, are rarely native species. They have traveled the world alongside Homo sapiens for thousands of years, sharing our homes, our food, and our diseases. When domestic animals are introduced into a new ecosystem they also introduce the diseases and parasites they’ve acquired from their long travels and close association with humans. Among the diseases that have been transmitted to wild populations by domestic cats are: feline leukemia virus in cougars and bobcats; feline immunodeficiency virus in lions, leopards, and cheetahs; and feline panleukopenia virus in the highly endangered Florida panther population. Again, I’m not picking on cats for any other reason than that there is data available.

But speaking of cats, domestic cats introduced into non-native habitats have had devastating effects on the local ecosystem. Free-ranging domestic cats prey is comprised of 70% small mammals and 20% birds. This adds up to almost 1000 wild animals per cat per year. After habitat destruction, domestic cats are the second leading cause of extinction among wild birds. In one of the most infamous cases, Tibbles, the pet cat of a lighthouse keeper in New Zealand, was reported to have killed the very last Stephens Island Wren (a few more wrens were found in the following years, but the species was already functionally extinct).

All of this leads up to a bigger theme – pets have a real and lasting impact on both social and natural ecosystems, their position in society is problematic, and when talking about living sustainably, the choices we make with regards to our pets matter.

In the TED talk we posted this morning, Hans Rosling talks about where the onus for environmental change rests. Dramatic changes in our lifestyle need to be made among the wealthiest, not the poorest, and one of the most significant changes you can make in your personal life is committing to be a sustainable pet owner.

What are sustainable pets?

The first step in becoming a  sustainable pet owner is asking yourself, “do I really need a pet?” Remember, the lowest environmental impact you can have regarding your pets is none at all. Take the money you’ll save from not owning a pet and donate to local organizations that help reduce feral animal populations. Beyond that, there are three guidelines that will help you define what is and is not a sustainable pet.

1. A sustainable pet minimizes resource consumption.

This includes food, water, and energy. For some reason, in the United States we’ve grown resistant to feeding dogs from the table. Domestic animals, such as dogs, pigs, chickens, and goats, have lived with humans for thousands of years, evolving to eat the food we eat. Pets that can eat table scraps and other human food waste will require less food manufactured specifically for them. Pets that demand large amounts of water, such as fish in aquaria, also consume more resources than needed. So do pets that require demanding electronic devices.

So a sustainable pet has few specialized food needs, which can be supplied locally, and does not require a huge amount of water or electricity for survival.

2. A sustainable pet minimizes environmental damage.

This means that a sustainable pet does not have a negative impact on the environment either as a pet, while being produced, or if it escapes. A tropical fish in a small tank isn’t going to wipe out all your local birds, but tropical fish are often collected live from reefs, which are damaged in the process and have a low survival rate. This also means that exotic pets which have the potential to be invasive, like lion fish, pythons, snakeheads, and yes, even cats, rats, and dogs, if they were to escape, should also be avoided. Pets that require food and materials which have to shipped long distances or produced in environmentally destructive ways, also need to be avoided.

3. A sustainable pet provides a product or service.

This is probably the guideline that will garner the most criticism, but a sustainable pet that also produces means that not only are you minimizing the resources required for that pet, but you are also gaining a benefit that would have to be acquired through other means. This includes pets that produce meat, milk, or eggs, pets who can create rich and fertile compost for your garden (to grow more food), and pets who provide a service to yourself or the ecosystem. And yes, in some cases, companionship is a service.

An example

Sustainable pets is a floating goalpost, which is why the above are guidelines, not rules. What makes good sustainable sense in one situation may be a terrible idea in another. If you’ve been reading the blog, you know that I’ve recently started a small flock of backyard chickens. Chickens make a good choice where I live because: 1. Chickens can eat table and garden scraps, the food they need is local, cheap, and abundant, they have low water demands (which can be met by rainwater in this area) and low energy demands (a small heat lamp as chicks). 2. Chickens have low impacts on the local environment and raising your on chickens bypasses factory farming. Chickens can spread diseases to local birds, though. 3. Chickens provide several products and services. They produce eggs and meat, eat insect larvae (including the invasive Japanese beetle), and generate compost for the garden.

Warning, a bit o’ British humour (and fowl language) NSFGW*

Does this mean I can’t have a pet cat or dog?

No. The above guidelines do not exclude any specific animal. Remember, sustainability is dependent on where you live and what you need. Cats and dogs can be sustainable in the right context. The challenge is to balance your needs as a pet owner with the environmental demands of the animal. Exotic birds and ornamental fish will rarely be sustainable. In some cases it may be impossible to justify any pet at all.

There are good reasons to own pets, and there are bad reasons to own pets. Deciding that a sustainable life means not getting a pet may not be appealing, but sustainable living means that sometimes we have to make sacrifices. Sustainability isn’t always easy, but it is not only a necessity; it is an inevitability in our changing world.

Trotz-Williams LA, & Trees AJ (2003). Systematic review of the distribution of the major vector-borne parasitic infections in dogs and cats in Europe. The Veterinary record, 152 (4), 97-105 PMID: 12572938

Sleeman JM, Keane JM, Johnson JS, Brown RJ, & Woude SV (2001). Feline leukemia virus in a captive bobcat. Journal of wildlife diseases, 37 (1), 194-200 PMID: 11272497

Steven A. Osofsky, Karen J. Hirsch, Evelyn E. Zuckerman and William D. Hardy Jr. “Feline Lentivirus and Feline Oncovirus Status of Free-Ranging Lions (Panthera leo), Leopards (Panthera pardus), and Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) in Botswana: A Regional Perspective” Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine Vol. 27, No. 4 (Dec., 1996), pp. 453-467

Roelke ME, Forrester DJ, Jacobson ER, Kollias GV, Scott FW, Barr MC, Evermann JF, & Pirtle EC (1993). Seroprevalence of infectious disease agents in free-ranging Florida panthers (Felis concolor coryi). Journal of wildlife diseases, 29 (1), 36-49 PMID: 8445789

*Not Suitable for Government Work (unless there’s a shutdown, in which case, go crazy, you’re not getting paid anyway)


  1. Sam · April 8, 2011

    Interesting post. I hadn’t really thought about this before, beyond avoiding buying from importers.

    The biggest problem here, I think, is the enormous amount of people who don’t even bother to think about what they’re getting for a pet (and how to care for it) before they buy. As someone whose pets of choice are reptiles, I’ve seen abuse and neglect run rampant. There’s absolutely no organized safety net for abused, neglected and/or abandoned reptiles, let alone a major organization advocating responsible pet care.

    When such huge amount of people can’t even make responsible choices getting out of the gate with pet care and there’s so little infrastructure for aiding people in making responsible pet choices, I wonder if it’s too much to ask for people to take sustainability into account as well. I’m not saying we shouldn’t, I’m saying it’s extremely difficult when there’s very little in the way of a baseline of responsibility in animal care.

    Societally, we barely know how to walk in terms of pet care, let alone run.

    I will, however, be keeping all this in mind going forward and applying it as I can. Thanks for the post.

  2. Ellen ML · April 8, 2011

    Though I’ve long been committed to indoor-only cats, using pine litter, and patronizing the locally owned pet supply store, it hadn’t yet occurred to me to think about whether owning pets at all can ever be environmentally conscious.

    My five year old goldfish just went to his watery reward, so now I’m thinking I’ll set up a terrarium in its tank rather than bring another fish home.

  3. erica · April 8, 2011

    Interesting discussion, but I think there’s a lot unsaid (to which you say “of COURSE it’s unsaid! it’s a page-long blog!!”). My comments are specifically focused on the dog-and-cat owning universe. There are a lot of questions and curiosities I have, but I’ll focus on your first two points. Oddly, I’m fine with the “pets provide a service” argument. Too often I’ve seen dogs that were destroyed because they NEEDED to perform a job and their owners didn’t give them one. Our effectiveness at breeding excellent working animals works against those same individuals when there are no sheep to herd or ducks to flush.

    Dogs and cats are as exotic to an environment as their owners. We are not an invasive species, but rather an invasive ecosystem. With our species come our domesticated communities, those species not domesticate but opportunistic on use (e.g. Norway rats) and our bacteria and viruses with us. Thus, when considering an environment which we have more or less naturalized, how strong is the “invasive species” argument? If your house cat escapes in New York City, it is far more likely to prey on rats, pigeons and house sparrows (all non-native) than on native species due entirely to opportunity! The invasive species concerns are greater in wildland-urban interfaces for certain.

    The part that resonates with me particularly, though, is this sentence: “For some reason, in the United States we’ve grown resistant to feeding dogs from the table.” Having worked in the veterinary field, I wish this were more true than it is.

    The United States nutritional culture is remarkably unbalanced. We eat crappy, rich foods and are obese. This is not news. What is also not news in the veterinary world is that the epidemic of obesity exists in our pets as well as us. Obesity exists in greater incidence of dog fed table scraps, as you suggest. Further, all of our health problems from our poor diets also occur in our pets. Every single one of the dozens of instances of pancreatitis I’ve seen were in scrap-fed animals. Similarly diabetes, varying cancers, and varying orthopedic disorders are tied to obesity as well. Then you have to consider that some foods regularly in our diet is toxic to our dogs and cats. Most owners have been educated about the dangers of chocolate, but are not aware that raisins, garlic, and onions are among other dangerous foods to our pets. Other food sources may not be toxic, but may be hazardous. Bones can splinter and puncture the GI tract, or may be swallowed as too large a piece and cause an intestinal blockage. Even tortilla chips can lacerate the esophagus.

    When it comes to nutritional sustainability, the solution is earlier in the process that is suggested by the concept of feeding scraps to pets. Instead, be more conscientious of our own food. Prepare appropriate amounts of food so that there aren’t table scraps left over to give to the pets in the first place. Adjust our food to eat more healthfully and avoid the deliciously rich and/or poor quality synthetic foods. those elements that are by-products of our meals (e.g. peels, skins, shells, etc.) can be composted in many instances, rather than given to your house pet.

    Now, I’m not saying that there is no “human” food that shouldn’t be given to your pets. That would be a ridiculous assertion. If an owner changes their own diet to be more sustainable, then the rich foods that cause so many health issues are less of a concern. Thousands of pet owners maintain healthy pets with homemade meals. But these diets must be developed with the pet’s nutritional needs in mind. Then when the owner goes to the local farmer’s market or plans their garden, he can be educated about all the members of his household when making sustainable shopping choices.

    (check out for canine obesity information; I have more to say, but apparently, my boss wants me to do work today.)

    • Southern Fried Scientist · April 8, 2011

      Excellent points and there is certainly much more to be said about how we feed our pets and our responsibly towards keeping them healthy.

  4. Miriam · April 8, 2011

    Great post. I am commenting to BEG my fellow cat owners to keep their animals inside. Outdoor cats wreak havoc on bird and native rodent populations – there is ample proof of this where I live in San Diego, where canyons with cat-killing coyotes have native birds, and canyons with cats do not.

    Are outdoor cats happier? Probably – cats are designed to stalk and kill. Do they know the difference if they’ve never been allowed outside? NO. Their brains are smaller than a walnut, people. Also your cat sleeps for 18 hours a day – all you have to do to keep it happy is to play with it when you get home.

    I love my kitties, and I have no doubt one of them would have had a more fulfilled kitty life if he’d been allowed to kill something every day. But my cat’s theoretical Platonic ideal of cat happiness pales underneath the weight of wild populations’ right to exist at all. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep your cats inside.

    • erica · April 8, 2011

      I’d add that your cat’s claws and teeth aren’t much use against a car bumper, which kill a fair share of outdoor cats everywhere.

      As for the happier or not? Cats do not NEED to be outside. Indoor cats are generally healthier and less stressed than outdoor or indoor/outdoor cats. Indoor cats live years longer (some source say 2 to 3 years longer, others say 5+ years) than outdoor cats. They have less stress, less exposure to disease (especially FIV, FELV, and FIP) and less risk of accidents. Keeping your cat inside is the best option for all involved.

      As an aside, my boyfriend is using that information as an argument that I need to let my cat outside. 😉

  5. WhySharksMatter · April 8, 2011

    “A sustainable pet provides a product or service.”

    Do you consider a guard dog to be providing a service?

    • Southern Fried Scientist · April 8, 2011

      In what context?

    • Alan Dove · April 8, 2011

      “Guard dogs” probably don’t provide the service their owners think they do. I asked an insurance adjuster about this once, and in a voice that told me he’d answered this question way too many times, he patiently explained that domestic dogs are essentially worthless for home security. Every dog owner thinks otherwise of course, but it seems the data don’t back them up. That’s why owning a “guard dog” will more likely increase your homeowners’ premiums than decrease them – you have the liability risk from bites and attacks, but no offsetting security benefit.

      This was in a conversation about personal pets, though. A dog trained professionally for police or military service might be a different story.

    • Alarm · April 8, 2011

      What about “seeing-eye” dogs? 🙂 I would think those count very much as domestic service animals.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · April 8, 2011

      In what context would a service animal not be providing a service?

    • Alarm · April 8, 2011

      I definitely said they would be providing a service. I’m not sure why you thought I meant otherwise.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · April 8, 2011

      I didn’t. Service animals by definition provide a service. You asked about seeing eye dogs as if there was some reason they’d be excluded.

  6. Alarm · April 8, 2011

    Great post that brings to attention good points concerning pet ownership and its problematic sustainability. I liked your quote “What we chose to value in our society affects the rest of the world” because it really makes me think reflect on the rather “odd” things our society values as is reflected mostly in mainstream media (‘Jersey Shore’ and ‘Teen Mom’ comes to mind). But in any case, pets are a huge investment and many pet owners sadly are unable to fulfill the obligations to morally take care of their animals. I remember reading in a book called ‘Monique and the Mango Rains’ about one Peace Corps volunteer’s time spent in a village in Mali an interesting comment on domestic dogs. A native to the West African village noted that the rural dogs were seen as pests, since they were mangy, mistrustful, and sneaky. However when she visits the USA with her Peace Corps friend, and meets their family dog, she is awed by it, saying “It is like another human!” I thought it was interesting because it shows how domestic animals are viewed differently, and primarily due to the care they receive. Here there is enough “luxury” money to sustain a pet and give it the care required to make it more “human” in a sense. I find this applies directly to the first paragraph of your blog post; they ARE like sustaining a double amount of people in the world!

    However, since it’s unrealistic people aren’t going to give up their pets since there’s such an unfounded feeling of possessiveness and connection to domestic animals, it’s wise to look at ways on how to individually do the best one can to be as “green” with their pet as possible, and also to educate the masses about NEUTERING AND SPAYING! (I think this is CRUCIAL in cat and dog populations; to prevent homeless animals that will in effect reduce the strain and impact on shelters and the animals themselves!)

    Another effective measure (that probably isn’t very realistic…) is restricting and prohibiting certain exotic animals! For one, only exotic animals (like fish and other marine “novelties pets”) can only be purchased at shops (that are notorious for abuse, mishandling, and getting their animals from sketchy, harmful sources). Exotic pets are expensive to maintain and owners tend to get lazy and not care for them in the long run; dumping them into the toilet or outside, or letting them die. Why ANYONE feels the need to buy and own exotic, troublesome pets is purely for vanity I feel. That’s why it should probably have limitations placed on it, just like the bans placed on owning exotic felines and other animals. Just a hopeful speculation at least.

    In any case, pets are here to stay for a while! They have been our domestic companions for ages, and we need to do our best to help them adapt with us as well, as humans attempt to tackle the problems we’ve all created on Earth.

    • Mike Lisieski · April 11, 2011

      I’m with you on the neutering and spaying. Shelter pets are always a good alternative, and you can get almost any pet animal “secondhand” at a shelter or rescue if you’re willing to wait long enough, which certainly causes less environmental damage than fueling the industries that produce more animals for the pet trade.

    • erica · April 11, 2011

      The key point of every thing you write, in my opinion is the statement about luxury.

      All pets are a luxury.

      And before people get uppity about service dogs and police dogs and what not, notice the difference in linguistics. A guide dog or a seizure rat is rarely if ever referred to as a “pet” by owners, by veterinarians, by trainers, or even by law. Police dogs even have to go through modification training before retirement to transition from a working animal to being a “pet.” Working animals are not pets during their career. They can go in and out of the “pet” category (as with retirement of working animals).

      I know it’s not a popular opinion, nut I’m actually not a fan of low cost spay/neuter/vaccination clinics. The reason is simple: if you cannot afford basic care for your pet at local market costs (i.e. not “discount clinics”) then you cannot afford a pet. I saw this after a decade of putting animals down because of life threatening, but easily resolved situations. The owners could afford the treatment or surgery, so the pet was put down. People put more thought into other luxury items they buy but feel almost as if they have a right to pet ownership without the responsibility.

      I know this is a controversial opinion, and it’s just mine, but it’s one I can back up with life experience. It does bring to mind another question, perhaps for a different blog. I know that Andrew has been gathering definitions of sustainability, and I wonder: is it possibly to have sustainable luxury? It ultimately depends on your definition of sustainability, but it’s an interesting philosophical question nonetheless.

  7. Southern Fried Scientist · April 8, 2011

    For the record, any question of “what about X specific animal?” Is always going to be answered with “In what context?” I am not the arbiter of sustainability, it’s up to each pet owner to decide if their specific choices are consistent with sustainable pet ownership, based on your own values, where you live, and what you need. There is no magic list of what’s approved and what is not.

    That’s why these are guidelines, not rules.

  8. Jason R · April 9, 2011

    Cats kill sea otters, or so I’ve read.

    And this post doesn’t even address all the waste and destruction that the reef-keeping hobby wreaks across the world.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · April 9, 2011

      I could do dozens of posts on the horrors that the tropical fish trade rains down upon reefs.

    • WhySharksMatter · April 10, 2011

      I’d like to read those posts, or at least one big summary post. I’m not familiar with all the specifics (though I know it’s really bad), and a lot of people have no idea.

    • Jason Goldman · April 17, 2011

      i’d be into reading one or more such posts as well.

  9. Caitlin Burke · April 9, 2011

    I’ve read that a common variety of toxo in sea otters near here (I’m in SF, CA) isn’t found in domestic cats (type X versus type II), but is found in the wild cats that live near the habitats, so I don’t know if “kill sea otters” is a slam-dunk re domestic cats. [Miller et all. International Journal for Parasitology. 2004;34:275–284 and 2008;38:1319–1328.] Also the sexual stage happens in cats, but I don’t think it’s obligatory for these bugs.

    Hey, guess what kind of pet I have!

    Anyway, I want to hear more about how expensive cats are in terms of resource use, because my cat’s energy (via products) and water use is negligible next to mine, he eats less than 250 calories a day, and supposedly I – as a small-apartment dweller in a city that needs little residential heating/cooling, eating a largely veg diet, mostly walking for transportation – use much less than the average American. Yes, he’s not a vegetarian, but his intake is small, too.

    It sounded like the original argument was mainly about food, which makes me even more curious about the “16x” argument. I am open to being told, yeah, well, people like me use 160x (or more), so there, but I thought the utilization ratio was closer to 1:16 for *people* for Africa or India compared to the US. Indeed in the video you posted from Hans Rosling he estimates a consumption multiple of 40 for $/day ($2/day for the poorest and $80/day for the richest) and, in terms of energy use, ~0.5 for the poorest compared to around 6 for the richest. So the idea that my cat alone is using 16x would surprise me very much. I love him, but I DEFINITELY don’t spend $30/day on him!

    My cat is 100% indoors (I dig birds, too), and I only feed him enough to keep him in good shape (his weight’s varied by only a few ounces for his entire adult life) – I just think that’s a better way to manage my pet. But I also think the accuracy of the multipliers is reasonable thing to take care over, not least so people don’t just throw up their hands and say “I could NEVER make that big a change!”

    • Southern Fried Scientist · April 10, 2011

      It’s important to keep in mind that resource consumption is not just about food, but also water and energy. Even if your cat isn’t eating tons of food, the food it does eat has to be produced, packaged, and shipped, sometimes from the other side of the world. And remember, it’s not just your cat that’s consuming resources, but an entire infrastructure that has developed around a societal belief that people should have pets for the sake of having pets.

      I’m assuming the change you mean when you say:

      “I could NEVER make that big a change!”

      refers to choosing to simply not have pets. As someone who has lived with pets and without pets at various points in my life, the only difference in the quality of my life is in the thickness of my wallet.

    • Miriam · April 11, 2011

      You know, your comment on the thickness of your wallet makes me think of another change in pet ownership…vets treating pets like people. We find it extremely difficult to find a vet who will treat our cats like animals, not like children. Considering how many resources go into human health care, and how extreme the vet guilt-trip is, I suspect the medical footprint of pets must be going up exponentially.

    • Caitlin Burke · April 12, 2011

      Actually I am not talking about simply choosing not to have pets. I’m talking about all the meaningful changes people can make to reduce their footprints. People argue with a straight face that it doesn’t make sense to buy a hybrid because “it won’t pay for itself.” I find this position absurd on many levels, but as far as I can tell, it’s a mainstream, readily respected rationale.

      Anyway, I am concerned about what the real numbers are because I am motivated to reduce my footprint to offset my cat’s. I happen to have a hard time believing my cat’s footprint is 16x, not because I don’t “get” that my few dollars have infrastructural implications, but because the number is such a huge proportion of what I understand my own multiple to be (using Rosling’s “consumption” and “energy use” units as a general frame).

      My cat’s water use is a rounding error compared to mine. My cat eats more meat products than I do – the only high-infrastructure goods he consumes – but he still eats less than 30% of average US per capita consumption (ie, taking Rosling’s “air people” as baseline for unsustainability). And my consumption also includes stuff like computers, which have much greater associated costs than the fabric remnants and old cardboard boxes that I made his beds from.

      So I’m sincerely curious about what the real numbers here are.

      One note about rhetoric:
      I do think “the only difference in the quality of my life is in the thickness of my wallet” kinda sorta disqualifies you from advocating strongly one way or another on this issue. At least, in terms of making an impact on people who aren’t already leaning your way.

      As a personal example: I just plain am not interested in having children, myself, but I realize that people who DO want kids will happily discount everything I say about the ecological impact and expense of above-replacement-level family sizes. Our positions are perfectly valid, but when we advocate rejection of stuff we don’t particularly want, we aren’t likely to reach the people who are deeply invested.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · April 12, 2011

      The numbers are wibbly, which is why I’m not taking a hard line stance on them, but I imagine it wouldn’t be too hard to do an energy audit to determine how much your cat is consuming if you really want to offset it.

      There’s a handy reference here: (you’ll have to get the paper cited at the bottom for actual values) which should help you calculate the co2 per gram for various forms of shipping (you have to find out where your cat food comes from, where the distribution warehouse is, and calculate the shortest route to you store). Then factor in whatever other consumables you use for you pet. The paper is about wine, but everything is just cargo once it’s loaded.

      I gather from you descriptions that you’re probably more conscientious than most pet owners, so it’s likely that you won’t hit near the 16X estimate (which is calculated for European housecats, so may not necessarily be parallel).

      As for the quality of life, remember, companionship is a service. Some people genuinely need pets in their lives, at which point, the sustainability minded wouldn’t be asking whether of not to have a pet, but how to reduce it’s impact. And if you already have one, then obviously getting rid of it won’t help, since it’ll just become somebody else’s resource sink. But when it comes time to send Flufmodious Rex to the big farm in the sky, I think it’s imperative for the sustainability minded to honestly question whether or not they need a new pet.

  10. Karen · April 10, 2011

    Another voice for keeping kitties indoors! My own cats are indoor-only, though in the past I’ve tried walking them on leashes. (I stopped because every UNLEASHED cat in the neighborhood wanted to check them out, and that caused considerable stress in the leashed kitties.)

    My father, who lived with us for the last year and a half of his life liked to feed the outdoor cats, and I’ve continued it because I can’t stand to see a hungry cat standing outside my back door. But they don’t strike me as happy cats. The most dominant(and very friendly)tabby comes to the door and begs for the petting that his owners should be giving him. The others slink up to the food warily, looking around for Dominant Kitty to chase them off. I don’t believe that any of these are feral cats, just neglected ones.

    Then there’s the wildlife; the outdoor kitties are quite rightly wary of the skunks and raccoons. Fortunately for them, we live in a suburban area without coyotes or foxes, and local traffic is light.

    Meanwhile, my own cats are inside enjoying food and scritches and games with toys. Who’s happier?

  11. Sara B. · April 11, 2011

    Interesting, I have only thought about my footprint rather than my pets. However, I think we are definitely not ready for a sustainable pet movement. I mean every year the United States has excess food and products that are never used. Our excess usually just goes to landfills just to rot further harming our environment. I read a statistic that Americans waste about 100 million dollars worth of food alone each year. I think we need to figure out what to do with that excess; such as feeding developing countries and those less fortunate rather than trying to make our pets more sustainable.

  12. Tom · April 15, 2011

    Brave….and a point of conservation science that is “avoided” due to unpopular demand (cats). Having been a converted exotic pet owner (past) of hundreds of species of animals, and plants one other part of this issue is the fundamental agreement we all make in buying/selling an exotic organism, where we converted them (a living thing) into “a commodity”. Such lives to fulfill our desires (on our timetable) hence seeing little ones with very unhappy sleepy bushbabies at lunchtime (crepuscular animal). The pet industry has changed from a supply driven industry “go see what they have , maybe make a request for something to order” and pay cash, to now see it on “River Monsters”(cable TV) , get on and find someone who can get it (paid by credit card with expedited shipping) and you often get it in less than 48 hours – from anywhere in the world! Even though we have problems with things like pythons, and lionfish, we continue to sell them (and now import 2 other species of lionfish (P mombassa, and P. russeli) that we didn’t import prior to 2006 in any numbers).
    >>>THE UNSEEN INVASION: In you – by count (not size) for every 1 cell of “you” there are 9 “them” cells (parasites, bacteria etc). This is true for all living things- their microbes outnumber them significantly and one species can house a thousand other species – moving in unison unnoticed. The microbiological implications of enhanced availability to transfer (plasmidds) by bacterial species is staggering in increase in (non evolutionary scale) rates. EX> bacteria while riding in fish from all corners of the globe, housed collectively with a cross contaminating collective filtration system, bought , bored with and then released into a native watershed. Such hyper exposure which never could have occurred in the wild, happens in one’s fish tank,and especially at a wholesaler. We have ignored the microbes because we couldn’t see them – and disregarded them as consequential. Then some people get bored, and release their fish. We do not have 1) the basic understanding of the host organisms basic biology (for most organisms) let alone 2) the identities of their parasite loads (species) and their respective life cycles. By selling things in large numbers that grow too large for containment almost guarantees probable releases (can you say Pacu?). Even in recent past- 2 octopus have been released in FRESHWATER lakes (the owners must know- but are trying to kill “compassionately” (I assume). I am sure glad they sell blue ringed octopus in the states, it will kill you in less than an hour, and they are only $40 bucks (!?). However- you cannot buy a stonefish because ” it can kill you” – schitzophrenic state codes with no real coherent equal handed regulation of similar. The State codes are trumped by outdated and lax federal laws – in which no change has occurred in 2 years of discussion with USFWS this is possibly due to stymie by PIJAC and other industry reps arguing best interest scenarios. Historically the trade has pushed for “hands off” regulating of what comes in, meaning that if I wanted a hyena (until recently in Florida) I could buy one! (let alone a blue ringed octopus).
    So if you buying especially imported wild pets understand that you are 1) taking them out of their environment and putting them in a glass prison, 2) they will not be allowed to develop and produce offspring (with mates of their choice), and that in effect you have decided to agree to make them, not a living thing, but a plaything for your fickle (selfish) interests. And please. DO NOT RELEASE YOUR PETS! You could end up killing native fauna (from the microbes in your pet). Planet wide, our species should start to think about what make good (culturable)pets, and stop thinking about the worlds biodiversity discoveries as the next “money making pet” to enslave.
    And oh yeah – if you are one of those outdoor cat people saying ” my cat doesn’t do that…” The evidence is out there, and has been for some time – SHAME ON YOU- you have no concern for your local native wildlife which lived here before us humans, and our pets (cats).

  13. James · April 19, 2011

    Save the planets recourses, eat your pets!

    • Southern Fried Scientist · July 1, 2011

      Chickens make excellent pets and excellent quesadillas.

    • Minz · July 3, 2011

      Agreed. I won’t be getting another cat after this one (inherited) dies, and she doesn’t go outside.

      Regarding exotic pets, IMO there needs to be more controls over the import of exotic animals to the USA. US citizens are the largest consumers of exotic pets in the world (and I use “consumer” deliberately!). Apparently this has a significant impact on animal populations worldwide.

      Tropical fish are a case in point – I had an American employee who received a monthly aquarium catalogue by which he could buy, through the mail, wild-caught fish which I’d only ever seen once or twice in the wild, despite having dived all over the world and extensively in places where these fish are native. I was aghast (and saddened) when I saw it.

  14. Dave · July 12, 2011

    While I find the post interesting and informative, I do see the light of some directly opposite viewpoints. One in particular is the pressure endemic pet collection has had on native populations such as the box turtle in the US and tropical birds in Central and South America. While an escaped native box turtle would do little harm to the environment here in Pennsylvania compared to a released red-eared slider, the removal of the species by human collectors has certainly done serious harm (illustrated by recent examples of introduced tortoises in tortoise-extirpated Pacific islands and the native flora that has returned/reinvigorated). As these species start to disappear from the wild, we must put more and more resources toward their conservation.

    While I completely understand the points to be made about importing exotic animals for pets and the regular accidental (and intended) releases of these animals into the wild, the opposite has certainly had a noticeable effect that should not be ignored.

    Let’s not forget either that accepted and beloved cats, dogs, goats, and pigs have all become some of the worst introduced carnivores worldwide despite their domestication and obvious pet appeal. While I own dogs and have owned cats, I certainly know that even on a leash these animals look to satisfy their carnivory desires on the native rabbits and birds that visit my lawn.

    The simple truth is that pet owners do not own pets for green reasons and it will be very hard to find an acceptable pet that meets an environmentally sustainable model. There will always be “better thans” and “not as bad as” species, but in the end owning a pet has serious realized and potential consequences for us all.

  15. Jeff · July 12, 2011

    I imagine that someday we will take a lesson from the Japanese children who keep rhinoceros beetles as pets. Guess that type of pet should be taken from local fauna. Cockroaches come to mind.

    An old bit on Saturday Night Live some years ago–that was apparently ahead of its time–featured Dana Carvey exclaiming that “Chicken make good house pet!” There may need to be some changes in zoning or other restrictions to accommodate sustainable pets.

  16. Caitlin Burke · July 12, 2011

    Came back to this post after today’s Twitter posts about the cat-astrophe of outdoor cats and ferals, and saw:

    “But when it comes time to send Flufmodious Rex to the big farm in the sky, I think it’s imperative for the sustainability minded to honestly question whether or not they need a new pet.”

    This is part of all my cats have been rescues – indeed 2 started their lives as ferals. It really matters to me where the cat comes from, and I would recommend that approach to anyone. And of course I always keep em indoors.

    My heart always seizes up a little when I see someone show off their purebred purchase. For some reason I end up giving some dogs a pass, although again rescues abound, but cats? It seems nuts to me not to take a shelter or feral cat.

    As the chickens-as-pets (and more) – works for rabbits, too 🙂

    • Southern Fried Scientist · July 13, 2011

      Rescuing ferals (and keeping them inside) is one great way to help reduce the environmental impact of cats.

  17. JonKrow · September 6, 2011

    It would be interesting to look at at what point in history domsticated animals became commodified as ‘pets’, spawning a whole industry. The pet industry shapes certain consumer desires which increase the ecological harm of pet ownership – thinking of things like non-biodegradable litters, pet foods which are not only unsustainable but harmful, and harmful medical treatments for fleas and so on.

    Thanks for this post, it’s inspired me to make some changes to how I look after my cat, and I’ll blog on this subject on my catblog, and have made a start with the current post, which links to this post.

Comments are closed.