I am a cat person. Go ahead and roll your eyes, dog people, but I’m far from alone; an estimated 46 percent of U.S. households included at least one cat in 2012, for a whopping total of 95.6 million pet cats purring on the laps of my fellow American cat people. I am also an environmentally conscious individual, and I think it’s safe to assume that there are many others like me in some of those millions of cat-owning households.
We face a conundrum, my fellow cat-loving, eco-friendly people and I. Pets are serious waste-generators and place a fair amount of stress on the planet, and cats in particular have a reputation for doing damage to native ecosystems. But you can have your cat and your planet, too; here are five ways to make cat ownership a little greener.
1. Keep your cat inside. Cats are skilled hunters, even when they’re well-fed and not looking for a meal. One of the most common complaints about cats is that they have a serious impact on songbird populations, and it’s true. Given the opportunity, cats can and will kill birds, small mammals, lizards, frogs and just about anything else that looks like prey. The solution is to simply not give them the opportunity; keep them inside. Your cat benefits from the indoor life, too. Indoor cats, on average, live well into their teens, while outdoor cats live only an average of three to five years due to a combination of disease, predation, exposure and injury.
2. Spay and neuter. A big part of the reason that cats have such a negative impact on native wildlife is that there are just so many of them; the 95.6 million figure quoted earlier in this column only accounts for the ones kept as pets and does not take into account the untold hundreds of millions of feral, or wild, cats that no one claims. Cats are capable of reproducing extremely quick – think 45 kittens born for every person born in the U.S. – and are wildly overpopulated in terms of what shelters and homes can support. The only effective way to control cat populations is to slow down their rate of reproduction by having as many of them fixed as possible – not just the pets you have at home, but also roaming populations of feral cats. Most animal shelters run very low-cost or free spay-neuter programs for feral cats, commonly referred to as TNR (Trap, Neuter, Return) programs; call your local shelter and ask for more information if there are cats in your home, in your neighborhood or on your property that need to be fixed. Your songbirds will thank you for it.
3. Switch to biodegradable litter. Traditional cat litter – the stuff that looks like little gray rocks – is bad news on a few levels. It’s strip- and pit-mined clay, so its production is extremely destructive. It’s not biodegradable, and millions of pounds of it are bagged up in plastic and tossed into the trash every year. It’s also silica-based, and the dust that billows up when you pour it in the box, or whenever your cat digs in it, is a carcinogen. Luckily there are several healthier, more ecofriendly options on the market, and due to their growing popularity they’re becoming easier and easier to find. One of the most popular options is pine litter made from sawdust reclaimed from lumber production; others are made from secondary wheat, walnut shells and corn cobs, to name just a few. All-natural litters are biodegradable, compostable (for use on nonedible plants), and sewer- and septic-safe; and as an added bonus, they’re much healthier for you and your cat.
4. Ditch the junk food. Like our food, pet foods range from healthy, holistic, organic and nutritious to junk food that causes nothing but trouble. Choosing a high quality food for your cat is a cornerstone of good care, but it’s also good for the planet. When cats are fed a lower-quality diet, they need to eat more of it to get the nutrients they need, and the production of meat and grains has a huge carbon footprint. By buying a high-quality food, you can ensure that your cat gets the most nutrition out of the smallest volume of food. You can even find USDA Certified Organic pet foods to make sure your dollars are supporting farming practices you believe in. Although feeding your cat a vegetarian diet may seem like a potential solution here, please don’t do it; cats are obligate carnivores, meaning that their physiology requires an almost exclusively meat diet. Removing meat from the equation may be a good way for you to reduce your carbon footprint, but it is extremely unhealthy for your cat.
5. Recycle a pet. Want to add a cat (or dog) to your family? Don’t go out and buy one from a pet store; all that does is encourage people to continue breeding pets for profit and adding to the overpopulation epidemic that generates tons of waste, costs millions of pets their lives and negatively impacts native wildlife. Instead, head to your favorite shelter or rescue and take home a preowned, 100 percent recycled cat! You’ll save money, a cat in need will get a home, and your life will be a little greener…and full of a lot more purrs.
Beth Oleson is an outreach specialist for Bluegrass Greensource, working primarily with Lexington businesses to help build a more sustainable community. A Lexington native, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in marine science and environmental studies from the University of South Carolina before returning home to the Bluegrass to pursue non-profit work. When she’s not busy with Greensource, Beth’s other passion is animal rescue and welfare.