A while back, I sent an email to some friends and family: Please send me a picture of your cute dog. I got three responses: My mom, my in-laws, and my friend Aaron, who wrote, “you sound like you’re fun at a party.”
I am fun at a party. I won’t scowl at your sliders or comment on your red Solo cups—and I will loudly proclaim that keg stands are the sustainable choice. But Aaron, who hasn’t been up past 9PM since the year 2000, wasn’t being sincere. He, and everyone else who replied to my message knew what was up. So did the dozen or so whose silence was a totally fair response.
I’ve hinted at this before, and I was going to leave it alone—but I got a lot of messages asking for more info. So here’s the shitty bottom line: Our pets—particularly our dogs—dramatically increase the size of our environmental footprints, both in terms of emissions and pollution.
Calm down. This is not a joykilling newsletter. Nobody’s here to suggest that you spraypaint a Greenpeace logo on your goldie and release them into the wild. But taking responsibility for the impact your dog has on the planet is an achievable environmental win that can move us all towards a lower-emissions place. You’re not going to be able to make a few easy changes and come away with a net-zero labradoodle, but you can make a few easy changes and make a measurable difference.
And because lots of people making small changes can lead to big benefits, it’s especially important to share this with every dog owner you know.
Animals, the bumper sticker says, are people too. That pencils out: A 2018 study from Japan found that a typical Japanese dog’s diet had about the same environmental impact as a typical Japanese human. On this side of the Pacific, UCLA geography professor Gregory Okin calculated that the diets of America’s 163 million (2017) dogs and cats emitted 64 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, which, according to Okin’s math, is the equivalent of 13.6 million cars’ annual emissions.
A dog is not the same as a cat, but, for quick-and-dirty purposes, you can assume that your canine’s food is responsible for 2.5 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. (It’s probably more, because dogs, on average, eat more than cats.)
This is, of course, all about meat, which is what dogs consume. Any food we eat is going to take its toll on the planet: the land required to grow it, the emissions required to cultivate it, process it, ship it, store it, and so on. With meat, however, the tab is twice as steep. Because in addition to growing the animal, you also need to grow its food.
The other end creates a problem as well: poop. Dog shit itself isn’t a huge deal, but when you wrap it in a plastic bag and throw it in a landfill, it becomes one. That polymer sack, whether bioplastic, compostable, or petroleum-based, will degrade into microplastics. These clot our waterways and end up in our food, our rain, our air, and even in our blood. Just think, that sushi might have some poop bag in it. Kanpai!
And as your doggie’s deuce anaerobically decomposes in the dump, it releases methane, which is 25 times more heat-trappin’ than CO2.
So OK, everybody gets it: Dogs make a mess, and we’re not just talking about the thing with the toilet paper. But like the thing with the toilet paper, we get to clean up. Because dogs are worth it. In addition to ensuring you won’t get mail (fuck mail), they have measurable positive effects on their human companions’ physical and psychological health, which is more than we can say about many of the people we know. So what do you do? We’re at that part:
What’s in the bowl
I am not a veterinarian. I am not even a dog owner. My neighbor is both, though, and she feeds her dogs exclusively raw meat. They are the healthiest dogs I’ve ever seen. My friend Wes over at has dogs instead of kids, and puts in the work to make sure his animals are treated better than your offspring. They also eat raw meat.
Instead of screwing with an innocent animal’s dinner, why not go plant-based yourself? It doesn’t matter where the reduction in meat consumption comes from; emissions are emissions, and reducing your own will help preserve the world for your pup and all future pups.
There is, of course, all sorts of shit on the internet about how you can feed your dog a vegan diet. I’m not even going to link to anything, because this is ten states away from out of my lane, and none of the vets I reached out to wanted to talk about it. While a dog’s digestive system is incredibly adaptable, please do not ask your best friend to give up meat without talking to several veterinarians first.
A better idea might be to take up hunting and augment your dog’s diet with venison. It’s an environmental win/win. You can get about 50 pounds of human-grade meat from an average deer, and, since dogs consume organs and bone matter, you can get even more dog food from a felled cervid. Again: consult a vet, but this article (warning: pictures of butchering a deer!) is a pretty good place to start learning about how to turn an overpopulated species into a bunch of carbon-negative meals for your very good pup.
If you’re buying pet food (and your vet agrees), lean towards poultry– and fish-based products, which usually exact less of an emissions penalty than red meats like beef, lamb, and goat. And stay away from the human-grade kibble—your dog can happily and healthily eat organs and offcuts that might otherwise go to waste.
Once more with feeling: I am not a vet. So talk to one about how you can find a more climate-friendly diet for your dog without compromising their health.
Be your dog’s carbon offset
Your doggo’s diet is responsible for about 2.5 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. This is an incredibly rough estimate, but it’s good enough for our purposes. Let’s consider those emissions your emissions and try to cut them out of your life somewhere else.
Your car is an easy place to start: a gallon of gas spews 8,887 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere, so you could commit to pumping 281 fewer gallons of gas and make up for it. That’s about 7,000 miles if your ride gets 25 mpg. You could find those miles in any number of ways: ride a bike to the office, start working from home more, walk to the grocery store if there’s one near enough.
You could also turn your heat down. Each degree you lower your thermostat can reduce your energy use by up to 3 percent, and, depending on your heating fuel, can save more than 300kg of CO2 emissions per winter. One degree is only about 10% of the doggie deficit, but it’s something. You could also throw on a sweater, crank it down by 10 degrees, and be good to go. It works the other way in the summertime: Every degree you back the A/C off saves a similar amount of energy.
Of course, this is all stuff you should consider doing anyway; but if your pup is what inspires you to take action, get that animal a vest. It will certainly have earned it as much or more than the fake-ass service dogs you see at the airport.
Every time you pick your dog’s crap up off the ground with a plastic bag and throw it in a trash can, you’re creating two kinds of pollution: the microplastics that come from the bag (even if it’s compostable), and the methane that the turd will emit when it decomposes in a landfill without the aid of oxygen. You cannot tell your dog not to poop, so what’s the move here?
Address one half of the problem—the plastics part—by using paper poop bags (they exist) or scrap paper. Is this a perfect solution? No, but it’s halfway better than using plastic bags, and that counts. Tackling the methane issue is tougher.
The best solution might be to flush the poop down your own toilet. If you live in a city, your local water treatment plant should have no issues with canine feces, though you should check with the local water authority to be sure. If you’re on septic, call the people who pump your tank and ask them. It’s probably fine, but please take a few minutes and make a call.
Of course, getting the poop from the street to your bathroom is a problem that you’ll have to figure out. I did find flushable paper poop bags—made of toilet paper—on Amazon. I can’t vouch for how well they work, but they’re worth looking into. It’s also important to note that potty water and surface runoff usually go to different places, so sweeping shit into a storm drain is not a solution. That water often flows untreated into local waterways, and an excess of fecal matter can cause all sorts of problems.
If you have some outdoor space, you could compost your pup’s waste, though please don’t use that stuff in any gardens that grow food. Dog turds contain pathogens that you don’t want in your tomato plants.
If you have enough land, you could spread the love all over your property, but the non-Duttons among us have options as well. From worm composters to poop fermenters to—not a joke—canine-specific septic systems, there’s a world of contraptions designed to allow you to put that shit in the ground. I haven’t tested and can’t vouch for any of this stuff, so I’m not going to link to it, but I googled “how to compost dog poop,” and spent the next hour in awe of a very robust product category.
And that’s the move here: Try. You can own a dog and be environmentally conscientious. You won’t get it perfect. Your dog will leave a mark on this world, just like we all will. But you can make it a smaller mark, like a little wet noseprint on the window of time.
Take care of yourself—and the rest of us, too.