Sometimes, my “Easy Being Green” topics are driven by something that I want to learn more about. Last month, my husband and I finally gave in to my kids’ constant requests to get a dog. There were a number of reasons that we chose not to in the past — travel, energy, cost and most importantly, the environment. 

That might not be the first thing you consider when deciding to get a pet, but if you want to live sustainably, this extends to all parts of your life. Humans already consume resources faster than they can be replenished and this problem is exasperated by having pets. 

For example, a dog consumes the equivalent to driving an SUV over 4000 km every year, given that the pet population is about 14 million in Canada, it really adds up. Particularly, most pet foods are meat-based, which is a water and land hog, causing soil degradation, deforestation and are inefficient energy sources. 

So is it possible to be a sustainable dog owner?

Ultimately, the answer may be no, but we can tip the scale in our favour. To start, even though we think of dogs as being carnivores, they have evolved among humans, and can also digest plant products. Therefore, vegan food is an option — as long as they are nutritionally balanced. 

Sadly, the carnivorous leanings of our dog (who, as a rescue, had already experienced meat-based kibble) turned up his nose at the offering (don’t assume this will happen with your dog. I suspect ours is just a picky eater). He is happy with vegan treats, but it’s hard to convince him to eat enough food to stay healthy. So we are searching for another option.

  Unfortunately, new trends, such as the removal of by-products, work against a sustainable dog food industry. While dog food traditionally contained edible by-products that humans chose not to consume, they now compound food waste by farming more animals and discarding more edible food. 

There are some less-than-ideal by-products that are heavily processed resulting in low nutritive value, but often, using by-products helps build efficiency into an otherwise environmentally intensive process. 

As people continue to eat meat, things like crushed egg and lobster shells, animal organs, skin and bones can all be healthy and sustainable components of dog foods. Thankfully, a couple of companies make dog treats from healthy by-products including Dockside, here in Canada. But alas, none make daily food for dogs this way. 

By far, the most sustainable food for dogs is insects, followed by rabbit. A number of dog foods already contain rabbit and there are a couple of new manufacturers that will soon offer insect-based dog foods. These are far better than the traditional beef, lamb or chicken muscle that comprises most dog foods. This category may be the best option currently available unless you choose to make your own. Insect flour and powder are locally available, and the internet is scattered with recipes. 

Thinking sustainably can begin before you even bring a dog home. Besides not getting a dog at all, the next best option is to find a reputable rescue, such as from Petfinder.com, which won’t add to the population any further. You can also look for used sources of accessories through Kijiji or second-hand shops. If that isn’t possible, buy durable items, made with natural fabrics and look for companies that are working toward sustainability. 

Finally, there are a number of ways to dispose of your doggie’s “business” more sustainably. The best disposal is the very same receptacle that we use; our sanitary system is built to manage all feces safely and effectively. The next best option is either the city’s composting system or one of your own. If you do choose the former, use bags that are explicitly labeled “compostable.”  For the latter, there are a number of backyard systems called digesters,  an anaerobic (without air) process of decomposing waste. 

Unfortunately, having pets does use significant resources, but with a little effort, they can be reduced. As with anything, there is no perfect or easy answer, but hopefully this at least begins the conversation.

Stacey Danckert is the co-director of Waterloo Region Environment Network (WREN).