10 ways to reduce your dog's "pawprint" | A New Shade of Green | Sherry Listgarten | Almanac Online |

Local Blogs

A New Shade of Green

By Sherry Listgarten

E-mail Sherry Listgarten

About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

View all posts from Sherry Listgarten

10 ways to reduce your dog's "pawprint"

Uploaded: Sep 13, 2020
Dogs are the best. They provide comfort, entertainment, exercise, and pure unadulterated love. Half of all U.S. households had a dog in 2019, and that is before dogs came to the rescue of so many of us stuck in a pandemic malaise. With 90 million dogs, or more than one dog for every four people, it is abundantly clear that we love our dogs.

My sister’s two dogs, Indy (left) and Levi (right)

The sheer number of dogs we have in the U.S. has led a few researchers to look at the impact they have on our environment. That means considering their food, their waste, and the many things we buy for them. (1) Once we understand their impact, we can identify ways we can be more environmentally-friendly dog owners. Here is a summary — ten ways to reduce a dog’s “pawprint” — for those that want to skip to the chase. Many of these seem obvious, but our household does few of them right now, and some would be a big change.

Let’s start with diet. Dogs eat a lot of food. More than that, they eat a lot of protein, which often has a particularly high environmental impact. Gregory Olin of UCLA reports (2) that while 20% of Americans’ calories are from meat, dogs get about one-third of their calories from animal sources. Since they eat an estimated 1300 calories per day on average, it adds up. Olin writes “If just one-quarter of the … animal-derived energy in pet food was consumable by humans, it alone would support ... the entire energy requirement of almost 5 million Americans, or approximately the population of Colorado.” While his estimate incorporates both dog and cat food, dogs account for about 80% of that.

Bags of dog food line the shelves of a local pet store

How can dogs create such a big demand on our food supply? Part of the problem is that we overfeed our dogs. According to a recent survey of about 1500 dogs, 37% were overweight and 19% were obese. In other words, well over half our dogs are overweight or obese. But it’s not just that we feed them too much. Many households (38%, per Olin) feed their dogs “premium” food, which has more protein and more protein from animal sources. A rule of thumb for dogs is that they should have 1 gram of protein for each pound of weight. A diet of 18% – 25% protein is plenty for adult dogs. But many dog foods contain more than that. A quick check of Wellness dog foods shows protein content ranges from 22% for their “Complete Health” food to 34% for “CORE Six” and even more (36%) for “CORE RawRev”. In addition to having more protein, the higher-end dog foods rely more on meat for their proteins. When you put it all together, Olin calculates that premium dog foods get 47% of their calories from animal sources, compared to 25% for “market-leading” dog foods. (3)

A selection of Wellness dog foods

The Pet Sustainability Coalition (PSC) hosted a webinar late last year on sustainable proteins for pet food. You can read a summary here. PSC worked with Iowa State University to evaluate the environmental impact of different types of proteins in pet food. Cattle and sheep (lamb) have the largest emissions, though fish does poorly in other areas, particularly impact on water quality. Poultry and pork are the best options, which is not too surprising. But PSC makes some additional points. One is that proteins that come from meat byproducts (e.g., kidney, heart, lung, and similar) have lower impact than those that come from meat that people (Americans) typically eat. The chart below shows the greenhouse gas emissions of different types of proteins, with the darker tones showing byproducts and the lighter tones showing human-grade meat. Meat byproducts have much lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions of different protein sources, with darker shades showing meat byproducts and lighter shades showing human-grade meat. (Source: Pet Sustainability Coalition webinar)

Although they are nutritious for dogs, there are some marketing and educational challenges with these ingredients along with some emotional resistance from consumers. (4)

A common marketing message on dog food.

PSC also reviews some new protein sources that can be good options, though they are not yet widely available and so are likely to be pretty expensive.

Alternative pet food proteins with lower impact. (Source: Pet Sustainability Coalition webinar)

I thought I’d try out the cricket-based treats and dog food. I wasn’t able to find any at local stores, though the worker at Petco seemed intrigued when I asked, and jotted down some notes. (Don’t be afraid to ask for climate-friendly products!) Chewy stocks items from Jiminy’s. (5) I ordered three flavors of treats and one small bag of dog food.

Jiminy products that my dog tried: one bag of food and three types of treats

Our dog (a lab and pit mix) eats bugs and most everything else, so I was optimistic she would like these. Indeed, she snarfed them down. I tried to figure out which she liked best, but after a number of experiments, she seemed to just prefer whichever was closest to her, and then would quickly snarf up the others.

Nutritional and environmental information about crickets (Source: Jiminy dog treats)

Dog food, whether cricket-based or cow-based, ends up as poop. Dogs eat a lot of food, so they make a lot of poop. Olin estimates the “wet weight” (ugh) at around one-third pound per dog, or about a burger’s worth (double-ugh). (6) He summarizes the total output, so to speak, as follows: “Assuming that Americans throw away about 2kg garbage each day, if all of the feces from dogs and cats … were disposed as garbage, (it) would be equivalent to all the garbage produced by 6.63M Americans, or about the population of Massachusetts.” Palo Alto reports that animal waste is one of the top landfilled items from single-family homes, though the relevant category includes more than dog poop. (7)

Animal waste is the second largest component of Palo Alto’s single-family-home waste that cannot be composted or recycled. (Source: Palo Alto Waste Characterization Study, 2017)

All righty, so what are our options for dog waste? It doesn’t recycle (no surprise), but it also doesn’t compost. When I visited a local composting facility a year ago, the Director of Sustainability, Michael Gross, mentioned to me that pet waste is not allowed because of odor and flies. Julia Au of RethinkWaste in San Carlos said that the primary issue in their service area is actually customer discomfort. “There is a current stigma within the community about waste turning into compost, which could be used to grow food.” Eric Vidal of Palo Alto’s Zero Waste confirms the same problem of marketing the resulting compost. No facility in the area accepts dog waste in compost.

So if we can’t compost it or recycle it, is landfill the best option? We really don’t want organics in the landfill, and SB 1383 requires that we reduce landfilled organics by 75% in the next few years. That means, for one thing, that those compostable poop bags are a bad idea if you are throwing waste in the garbage. Plastic (especially reused plastic) is better. But there are a few ways to bypass the landfill entirely.

One option is to put the dog waste in the toilet. Joanna Tran, who works in Palo Alto’s water quality control, says it’s fine to put poop in the toilet as long as there is not a bag or other items with it. (Socks, anyone?) Lori Topley, Program Manager for Mountain View’s Solid Waste program, pointed me to a sewer line attachment that allows you to deposit waste in the sewer without taking it indoors. You just need a hose close enough to your cleanout so you can “flush” each deposit.

The Doggie Doo Drain, for sale on both Amazon and Chewy

Topley also pointed me to another option, a pet waste digester. If your yard has soil with adequate drainage, you dig a deep hole, fit the digester in, and then add waste, tablets, and water as needed, much like a septic tank. (Some reviewers say a plain plastic bucket, or even just a covered hole, would do the job equally well.)

The Doggie Dooley in-ground pet waste digester, for sale on both Amazon and Chewy

I’m going to try the “put it in the toilet” routine, using compostable bags that then go (emptied) in the compost. It’s going to be hard to get in the habit, though. We’ll see...

Finally, I want to mention all the things we buy for the pets we love. Our dog turned five recently, and I bought her way too many stuffed animals. She would have been just as happy with a few good sticks. Our last dog loved pine cones. Both of them seem to like older toys better than newer ones. Long-lasting Kongs and Nylabones have been a hit with our dogs. So there are lots of ways to reduce “stuff”. It’s hard for me to evaluate the “eco-friendly” claims in toy descriptions, so I would suggest the following rules of thumb. I’d love your ideas as well:
- Fewer toys is better. Just like we overfeed our dogs, we also overtoy them.
- Toys that you don’t need to buy are great (e.g., sticks, old soccer balls, or simple DIY toys).
- Long-lasting toys are better.
- Items made from recycled materials are preferable, but they are not easy to find. I did see this display of Spunky Pup’s Clean Earth line at our local PetSmart, but nothing at other local stores.

These Spunky Pup Clean Earth items at PetSmart are made from 100% recycled plastic water bottles.

Beco Pets has some good products. Chuck-It makes recycled balls. A number of beds use stuffings like PlanetFill and IntelliLoft that are made from recycled plastic. But reduce and reuse are preferable.

My sister’s dogs, Levi and Indy, when Indy was young

When I wrote about emissions from flying a while ago, some people were upset. Long-distance travel means a lot to them and they didn’t want to contemplate cutting back. I expect even more people are attached to their dogs. I sure am. As with everything, different adjustments make sense for different people. For all of you who can’t imagine living without a dog, there are plenty of ways to make a big dent in your pet’s impact. I hope this post gives you some ideas. For our dog, I am going to try to adopt new food and toy habits, which I expect to be easy, and also give sewer disposal a shot, which I’m less optimistic about. I’d love to hear your thoughts or experiences.

Notes and References
1. The services we use for our dogs, like health care and grooming, also have an environmental impact but are not discussed here.

2. Gregory Olin’s report, “Environmental impacts of food consumption by dogs and cats,” was released in 2017 and widely reviewed by the popular press. The calculations have a number of assumptions, as he points out, but even with haircuts the impacts are large.

3. I asked the makers of Wellness and Orijen dog foods what steps they are taking (or have taken) to reduce the environmental impact of their foods, but I did not hear back.

4. Animal components other than muscle meat are referred to as meat “byproducts” or (when fat and water are removed) “meal” on pet food labels. The Association of American Feed Control Officials explains in some detail what is included and what is not in these items. The veterinary school at Tufts has a brief overview of their nutritious value. UC Davis writes something on that as well.

5. You can also find cricket-based dog food at Chippin. Rover has an overview of cricket-based foods for dogs (and for people). Some of you may be interested in putting cricket flour onto homemade vegetarian dog food.

6. Surprisingly (to me), some researchers have developed power laws for poop production in dogs. (I am not kidding.) Aren’t you glad you read the footnotes?

7. Palo Alto includes a number of things in the category of “animal feces and litter,” namely “any non-human animal feces and litter such as cat feces and kitty litter, dog poop, bird droppings, and horse manure and soiled bedding. Includes soiled paper and other litter materials. Also includes animal carcasses not resulting from food storage or preparation.”

Current Climate Data (July/August 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

No pictures this week, you can just look out the window...

A Public Service Announcement...
Where do Palo Alto City Council candidates stand on climate? Listen in on October 6.

Comment Guidelines
I hope that your contributions will be an important part of this blog. To keep the discussion productive, please adhere to these guidelines or your comment may be moderated:
- Avoid disrespectful, disparaging, snide, angry, or ad hominem comments.
- Stay fact-based and refer to reputable sources.
- Stay on topic.
- In general, maintain this as a welcoming space for all readers.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Amy, a resident of University South,
on Sep 13, 2020 at 6:43 am

Amy is a registered user.

Thanks for this, Sherry.

Dogs are not obligate carnivores and do very well on plant-based diets. There are several vegan dog foods available commercially, including Wild Earth, Halo, and V-Dog, which I've been feeding my dog for six years. V-Dog is a small, CA-based, women-owned company. A vegan dog, like a vegan human, takes a much smaller toll on the environment.

Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of another community,
on Sep 13, 2020 at 9:18 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

> "...well over half our dogs are overweight or obese."

^ Not surprising...according to the CDC, 39.8% of Americans over 20 are obese & 71.6% over 20 are overweight.

Poor eating habits begin at home and many dog owners pass these adverse practices on to their pooches (as well as their children).

An observation...active singles often have slimmer, more athletic dogs (with the possible exception of pugs).

As far as feeding dogs 'cricket meal', shouldn't humans consider consuming insects as well?

It's a more direct protein path & requires far less energy than raising livestock.

I haven't tried them yet but in some primitive cultures roasted grubs, ants & grasshoppers are widely consumed.

Posted by Tom, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Sep 13, 2020 at 11:26 am

Tom is a registered user.

I like dogs and other "family members". Full disclosure: We have a cat with a medium carbon footprint.
Additional carbon footprint issues to look at in pet selection are:
1) will this size of pet prompt me pick a bigger car (station wagon or SUV or truck, etc.)?
2) will this type of pet require me to drive home at lunch time to take it for a walk and drive back to work again, doubling my commute miles?
3) EV's are headed toward lasting 1 million miles. Will this type and size of pet cause wear (and whatever) on my car's interior so I would want to continue to use disposable 150,000 mile gasoline cars?
4) Does this type of pet require specially heated conditions (e.g. tropical fish and birds vs. non-tropical, or reptiles requiring radiant heat etc.)

Posted by Resident, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 14, 2020 at 4:31 am

Resident is a registered user.

@Lee Forrest

...right. If people like you had their way they would outlaw beef and we'd be forced to eat cockroaches...


I do agree that people overfeed their dogs. Most are clueless about it (they don't understand what dog is supposed to look like) and good luck trying to tell a dog owner that their dog is FAT without them taking offense.
Tying it to climate change is a bit of stretch. Preaching that dogs should be vegetarian and start eating crickets is ludicrous. Want your dog to be happy? Feed them MEAT. It's what dogs are evolutionarily designed to eat. Many dogs would rather starve themselves than eat crickets FFS. Good luck trying to train a dog using crickets as positive reinforcement. Won't work!

Sewer disposal would be great. Let's have one at each dog park. Not because it would have any impact on the environment, but because carrying plastic poop bags is honestly stupid and it would make more sense to scoop up a dog poop bad flush it down.

The attempts to "fight climate change" by focusing on these infinitesimal things is in vain and I'm sorry but I find this blog rather silly.

-Dog Enthusiast

Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of another community,
on Sep 14, 2020 at 8:47 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

> "...right. If people like you had their way they would outlaw beef and we'd be forced to eat cockroaches..."

^ FYI...I wasn't advocating that humans eat crickets (or cockroaches), just mentioning something that was brought up during a biology class in college. It had something to do with thermodynamics...the conversion of certain forms of energy & matter into other forms of energy. The professor said that if humans consumed insects as a primary protein source it would be less impactful on the environment as a whole.

I too will pass on eating bugs & leave that particular gastronomical endeavor to the more primitive cultures.

> "Good luck trying to train a dog using crickets as positive reinforcement."

^ As far as canines eating crickets...I suppose it might work IF the cricket meal was designed to be appetizing to a dog's taste buds. After all, those bone meal treats don't look all that appetizing to humans but dog's seem to enjoy them.

But all things considered, most dogs seem to prefer MEAT over leafy greens & veggie matter...as do humans.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Sep 14, 2020 at 4:48 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Interesting comments, thanks!

@Amy, thanks for the post, and I should have mentioned the option. The one thing I would add is that you may want to talk with a veterinarian before switching your dog to a vegetarian diet.

@Resident, I agree that dog parks as well as dog day cares would be great places to focus on waste disposal.

As to the value of "infinitesimal actions" like changing your dog's food, these individual actions all add up and can be very significant. That said, the same "it makes no difference" reasoning is also why some people don't vote. I hope that changes too.

@Lee, here you go, let us know how they are. Chocolate Chip Cricket Cookie Mix. I'll pass, though :)

Posted by Staying Young Through Kids, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Sep 15, 2020 at 12:44 pm

Staying Young Through Kids is a registered user.

For the last several years we have been putting our compostable bags of dog waste in with our kitchen waste (biobagged) and then putting it all into our compost bin a few times a week. Sometimes our green bin might only go out once every 5 weeks. Amazingly, unless we break a bag open, there's almost no odor and no flies.

I've said this before (on one of your threads). It's ridiculous to think that our anaerobic digestion can handle the rest of our compostables (often far more offensive and more pathogenic than dog poop) but it can't handle this.

The excuse of flies and odor just don't hold up. A chicken carcass left rotting in our bin for 5 days certainly has the potential to develop pathogens, stink to high heaven, and attract flies! Come on! There are plenty of ways to mitigate flies and odor. And, I don't see much concern for these issues at the Zanker transfer facility which is operated by the same exact corporation. Our friendly local waste empire Zanker, Greenwaste, ZeroWaste should add seagulls to that list along with flies and odor. Good luck mitigating them!

Interesting also that properly treated and dewatered sludge from our sewage plant (human waste) is often sold as what? Biosolid Compost Fertilizer! Dewatered sludge that meets EPA standards becomes a marketable soil remediation and a source of income for many wastewater centers. Even incineration, when done correctly, can be better than landfill or ocean dumping.

Poultry processing plants, hog operations, produce processing facilities, and feedlots are now seeing the potential in the raw materials within their waste and sewage. With proper funding & incentives we would even more of these operators divert polluting materials from our waterways and different solids from municipal landfills. And, trust me, the stuff they're digesting and composting is a lot worse than dog poop!

We need to get past our concerns over waste, be it human or animal. Composting, digesting, biogas, syngas...all of these are green ways of dealing with the inevitable waste of eating and pooping for all animals on the planet.

If we're going to live and eat in more densely populated communities, we need to get ahead of this need. Trucking our waste to bury in remote landfills is no solution.

Smart governments are creating incentives to divert food, human, and animal waste from landfills, to cleanly turn our waste into energy whenever possible, and to safely return what's left to the earth. In the long run it makes economic and ecological sense.

Posted by Onrosewood, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Sep 15, 2020 at 12:50 pm

Onrosewood is a registered user.

Excellent reporting. Thank you for exploring an important and little-known topic.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Sep 16, 2020 at 9:45 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@SYTK: Great comment. I can understand why you compost your dog's waste, but just know that (a) the compost people don't want you to do that and (b) they will remove it to landfill if they see it. (My guess is they do see it because they sort out things like bags.) I agree that they don't want it because of the marketing problem rather than odors and flies. Two people I spoke with, from different districts, made a point of saying that. I also agree with you that it needs to change. (I have *bought* chicken/cow manure for fertilizer!) Maybe we need a better name than "biosolid", ew. "Nitrogen-rich organics-sourced compost fertilizer"?

Follow this blogger.
Sign up to be notified of new posts by this blogger.



Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Almanac Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.

Backhaus in Burlingame finally opens for the holiday rush
By The Peninsula Foodist | 0 comments | 2,650 views

Burning just one "old style" light bulb can cost $150 or more per year
By Sherry Listgarten | 10 comments | 2,355 views

Fun Things to Do Around the Bay This Holiday – Peninsula Edition
By Laura Stec | 8 comments | 2,288 views

Banning the public from PA City Hall
By Diana Diamond | 23 comments | 1,729 views

My Holiday Wish List for Menlo Park
By Dana Hendrickson | 0 comments | 1,533 views


Support local families in need

Your contribution to the Holiday Fund will go directly to nonprofits supporting local families and children in need. Last year, Almanac readers and foundations contributed over $300,000.