How To Make Having A Pet More Eco-Friendly With These 7 Small Changes

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Owning a pet is amazing — love from a fluffy thing that also makes you laugh and mysteriously ruins all your socks — but it is a choice that has environmental consequences. Pet food based on meat is thought to reduce waste by diverting animal by-products from the landfill, but meat production is still enormously bad for the environment; meanwhile, plastic doggie bags and toys raise questions about waste, pollution and your pet's carbon footprint. Yes, even though that footprint is completely adorable. So how can you make your life with your pet as eco-friendly as possible?

The most popular pets in America, according to the American Veterinarian Medical Association, are dogs, cats, birds and horses, with nearly 37% of us owning a dog and over 30% owning a cat. More exotic pets, including fish, are less popular, but all of these choices have environmental impacts. Beyond bringing your delightful companion to eco-friendly protests with you in a cute green outfit (note: maybe don't do this for anxious animals), there are other ways that your pet can help fight for the planet. It just takes a bit of consideration and a willingness to do some research. Here's how to have an eco-friendly life as a pet owner.

1. Look For Sustainable Food

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Pet foods that contain meat can be particularly hard on the planet; meat bred for pet consumption is, like meat for humans, very resource-intensive. A 2013 study of the $55 billion pet food industry found that it desperately needs to incorporate sustainable practices, like incorporating more non-animal proteins, and increasing the use of meats that wouldn't otherwise be eaten.

EcoWatch notes that the Natural Resources Defense Council recommends pet foods that "feature sustainability certifications, ones that are high in vegetable content or have contain secondary products, like animal bone meal or organ meat, instead of human-grade meat." Pets don't actually require the same protein sources as humans, so do some research and find something that suits both your animal and your wallet.

2. Use Eco-Friendly Toys

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Plastic toys, like a lot of other plastics, are resource-intensive to produce, don't biodegrade, and can release harmful pollutants into the environment. Inhabitat recommends that pet owners should use toys that are "made from recyclable materials or natural fibers," like "durable, non-toxic, recyclable plastic" or "earth-friendly fabric like hemp and certified recycled materials," especially considering how quickly it'll be chewed up beyond recognition. Your pet won't care; it just wants something to play with.

3. Consider Waste Disposal

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The waste your pet makes is inevitable, but the way you deal with it can be earth-friendly. "Instead of using plastic bags to pick up after your dog or clean the litter box, use biodegradable bags," recommends Petful. "They typically break down in about 1 month as opposed to an estimated 1,500 years for a plastic bag in a landfill. Cat litter is available in all-natural and biodegradable forms, and you can even consider making your own pet waste compost container." Biodegradable pet refuse bags are now pretty easy and cheap to find.

4. Don't Buy "Exotic" Pets

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The National Resource Defense Council explains that exotic pets an be pretty hard on the planet, cute though they are: "Some animals sold as pets are already on protected lists or are endangered; chances are, they were procured in illegal ways and are crossing international borders to get to you via shady organizations. What’s more, if the animals escape or are released into the wild— as has happened with boa constrictors in Florida— they can become invasive species and a danger to the other animals in the area." Stick to the old favorites unless you're willing to do a lot of research and work to keep your exotic pet in a sustainable way.

5. Always Spay & Neuter

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Tempted to let your dog or cat have a litter because they'd be sooooo cute? Resist. "Spay and neuter your pets so their offspring never put extra burden on the planet in the first place," advises The Guardian. Shelters and rescues deal with the consequences of unintended pregnancies in animals all the time, and more animals that might not find homes is not a good idea for the planet.

6. Check Flea & Tick Products

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If you have an animal that requires flea and tick treatment, research what you give them — some treatments contain chemical pollutants that threaten pet and human health. "NRDC checked the listed ingredients of more than a hundred flea and tick products and found that many contain toxic chemicals that could poison pets and harm people, even when applied as instructed on the box," explains the NRDC. They have a searchable database of treatments so you can figure out what's good for your pet and the environment.

7. Adopt, Don't Shop

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Every new animal takes up resources. When you're looking for a pet, opt for one that's already out in the world needing a home rather than one that's custom-bred from a breeder, if possible. "Choosing to adopt a pet already in need of a good home rather than one from a breeder is not only more economically friendly; it also means that there is one less animal out there trying to make it on the streets," explains Inhabitat. There are at least 6.5 million companion animals entering shelters in the U.S. every year, according to the ASPCA; out of that population there's bound to be an animal that suits you.

Pets can be a big commitment — but their love is worth making a few small changes to make sure they're environmentally friendly. And you can officially tell your Aunt Doris that her dog definitely doesn't need to be fed filet mignon.