Pets and the Environment: A Partial Review of and Response to Run, Spot, Run

Run Spot RunIn Run, Spot, Run, author Jessica Pierce devotes a chapter to “Pet and Planet;” the environmental impacts of owning pets. This chapter considers a few areas: the effects of environmental toxins on our pets, the environmental impacts of pet-food production, and the effects our pets themselves have on the environment. In just a few pages, she really had me thinking hard.

The first one’s relatively easy. I filter our tap water, don’t use horrible chemicals to clean my tiny apartment, don’t buy Jana and Cali those vinyl toys that last about 5 minutes and leach terrible phthalates (whatever they are; all I know is that they’re bad) into our pets’ bodies. Basically, I protect Jana and Cali from environmental pollution as well as I can — and at least as well as I protect myself.

The third one is a bit tougher: how pets affect the environment. I often think that future civilizations, having unearthed millions of those knotted plastic poop baggies, will think that dogs were in charge (they’ll be right …). Pierce also mentions all the stuff we buy our pets. Yep, three cushy dog beds in my minuscule two-dog home. Big basket of toys. At least six leashes. Cali’s cowgirl hat. Stuff galore. I can rationalize the environmental impact of my pets: I don’t go overboard; I don’t generally buy a lot of stuff. All of our life choices have some impact on the environment — and they’re not always bad. I walk a lot more because I have dogs, spend more time outside. I pick up trash so my dogs won’t eat it; I pick up other dogs’ poop at the park. People have children despite their impact on the environment (and they require a lot more stuff than dogs). Getting the typical American child from birth through potty training results in a pretty big pile of plastic diapers. While I think that pet owners and petless people alike should do what’s feasible to minimize the damage they cause to the environment, I am not convinced that it’s a convincing argument against having dogs.

It’s that middle one, the pet-food production argument, where I have the most trouble. I don’t eat meat, mostly because I dislike everything about the food-animal industry. I think that being vegan is the best choice, though I am not there yet.

Cali and Jana are not vegetarians.

I buy high-quality dog foods for them and make sure that all their food is sourced and produced in the USA (or, at minimum, from trustworthy sources that are not in China). But … meat and seafood consumption are key contributors to global warming, pollution, and over-fishing. Ironically, those of us who seek top-quality ingredients for our pets exacerbate the problem. Cheap pet foods use a lot of the waste material from the food industry. The standards for what can be used in animal feed are distressingly and disgustingly low. But by insisting on good quality ingredients, I fuel the same factory farming industry that I have opted (mostly) out of for myself. One suggestion Pierce offers is that people buy sustainable meat and fish for their pets and decrease their own consumption proportionally. That argument has some merit, and I’ve made great progress … on the “reducing own consumption” part.

If the goal of an ethics book is to get people thinking about tough questions, Pierce’s book is already a huge success, and I am only halfway through it. I doubt that anything she says will convince me not to have dogs. But I don’t think that’s her goal. Getting readers thinking will lead to changes in their behavior. Cali and Jana are already looking forward to lovingly home-cooked meals of organic, pasture-raised meat, sustainable seafood, and local organic veggies … in their dreams.

It’s a Dog’s Life

A recent op-ed in The New York Times considered the question of whether it is ethical to have pets. For most non-domesticated animals, whose lives as pets means being confined to cages or tanks, the writer was quickly able to establish that, no, it is not: the best we can do is a life of “controlled deprivation.” She — and I — have a harder time answering that question with regard to dogs and cats. I know little about life with cats, so I’m really only considering dogs here.


Dogs have evolved as domesticated companions to humans, so in their case, it’s not at all unnatural to include them in our homes and families as pets and family members — if we do it right.

Most pet dogs live a pampered, but far less than ideal, life. I honestly don’t think that most dogs enjoy long days spent home alone, even if they get to spend that time on a $100 memory foam bed (or on your $1,000 plush, memory foam dial-a-number luxury bed). Even dogs who have canine company spend much of their “home alone” time sleeping, staring out the window … or worse. Many dogs experience severe anxiety when left home. At best, their lives are boring, revolving around a few minutes of dining once or twice a day and, if they are lucky, one short walk. Many pet dogs don’t even get that. The really lucky ones get a daily walk with a person who is focused on them, not simultaneously on the phone and/or dealing with a child or two.

Jana enjoys springSome dogs — most of the dogs I know well — are luckier than that. My friends with dogs tend to be more engaged than the average dog-owned person. These dogs get regular walks, usually more than one a day. On these walks, they actually get to stop and sniff things. Some of them get to go to parks and play with their friends (yes, dogs have friends!), they go to the beach sometimes, on car trips, to dog-friendly cafes, to laser therapy appointments (hi, Jana!), acupuncture, agility or Rally classes … any number of enriching, fun activities. They get excellent health care, they eat carefully selected, healthful diets and treats, and they own baskets full of toys. For these dogs, life is pretty good.

Considering the broad range of doggie experience, it is hard to answer the question of whether sharing life with dogs is ethical. The dogs I described in the previous paragraph are a minority of American dogs, though, and only a tiny, tiny minority of the world’s dogs live like that. Put that reality together with my absolute inability to imagine a life without dogs and, well, it’s a dilemma.

As a person who loves dogs and has the means to offer my own dogs a good life, and who teaches future dog professionals, I’ve pretty much dispensed with the question of whether to have dogs. Instead, I think about this question: How is it possible to ensure that our lives with dogs are ethical? By ethical, here, I mean that in deciding to bring dogs into our homes, we commit to making the dogs’ lives interesting and fulfilling, to allowing the dog(s) to develop their full range of doggy abilities and enjoy a high quality of life.

This would include, of course, providing everything on ALDF’s Animal Bill of Rights — for pets, that is shelter, food, and medical care. But I think our obligation goes beyond that. The Bill of Rights also mentions “an environment that satisfies their basic physical and psychological needs” — and what that means is different for every dog.

As I consider returning to a more structured work life — you know, the kind of job where you actually have to show up at an office several days a week, rather than working at home, wearing yoga pants and taking frequent toss-the-ball breaks — I think about how Jana’s and Cali’s lives will change, and how so many dogs’ lives consist of long, lonely, boring hours punctuated by brief interactions with their tired, busy humans.

This question became urgent for Deni as she agonized over how and where Alberta should spend her retirement. No ordinary dog, Alberta has a college education; she’s been a local celebrity, a model, a career dog. Her retirement, forced by health issues, leaves her young, energetic, educated, and accustomed to days filled with new experiences, travel, encounters with dozens of people a day, and constant stimulation. On my best days, I can’t provide all of that for my dogs — most people cannot, even though we all do the best we can.

Would Alberta be best off with her family, even if that meant watching Deni head off to a work day with a different dog? Or would she be better off with a different family, most likely consisting of people and dogs she knows and loves, living as a more ordinary pet? Was retirement to Montana, as part of Deni’s extended family, the best choice? Alberta is fortunate in that all of her options were good ones, with people who love her and who understand that a dog needs more than a comfy sofa and a basket of toys to lead a fulfilling life.

Improving can be simple. Make a commitment to your dogs to take them for more walks, or to go to the dog beach once in a while. Spend a few minutes a couple times a week interacting with a puzzle toy or even just throwing the ball more often. (Cali suggests at least 10 minutes every hour as a starting point.) Leave the phone at home next time you go for a walk, and let the dog stop and sniff whatever she wants (that one’s from Jana). The funny thing is, once you build this new interaction into your relationship with your dog, you’ll feel better, too!

Kudos to Jessica Pierce, who wrote the NYT op-ed and is the author of a new book on the ethics of keeping pets, for raising these questions. Thanks to her, maybe more of us will think about — and improve — our pets’ quality of life.