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Paw Prints: Greening Your Dog's Life
With a Smaller Eco Footprint
by Theresa Shea

dog's eco footprintThroughout my childhood, my family had a constant supply of canines. There were Amigo, Caesar, Bruno, Tyrone, Skippy, Minnie and Calamity. Sadly, many of them were re-homed due to poor or non-existent training. My mother likely felt victorious once she had her four children fed, dressed and out the door for school; the next item on her list of things to do didn’t involve training the dog. Now I’m a mother and understand better the severe time restrictions in a day. But I also knew it was simply a matter of time before one of my kids asked for a dog. How could I possibly say no when I’m convinced that loving my dogs helped to sustain me through the often difficult stages of childhood and adolescence?

My children were nine, seven and five when the request came. By that time I had lived for 15 years without a canine companion and had become used to the freedom of extending my daily outings to whatever length I chose. Despite the many rewards of dog ownership, I knew it also had its challenges. All the dogs in my life had been the responsibility of someone else – namely my mother. Now I was the mother who would be further burdened by having something else to care for.

Nevertheless, with my fond childhood memories of furry beasts still intact, I persuaded my husband to take the leap. A niggling voice in the back of my mind asked me how owning a dog would challenge my environmental principles. I tried to ignore it.

On November 2nd, 2007, our golden retriever puppy Chinook arrived. And while I felt guilty about not rescuing a dog from the pound, I thrilled at the sight of my children with a puppy. “It’s the one dog childhood,” I told my friends, knowing that if we got a good 12 years of furry companionship, then my work would be done. I don’t think I quite understood how dog ownership has changed since I was a child.

There are approximately six million dogs in Canada and 70 million dogs in the United States. These dogs not only eat and excrete, but also require medical services and other supplies. Some dogs now sport booties, designer clothes and sunglasses. Doggie day cares and spas have a steady clientele; some even have waiting lists. Veterinarian visits for the slightest ailment are routine. Not surprisingly, therefore, pet insurance is a thriving business. Grooming boutiques dot the strip-malled landscapes. Bottled water aimed specifically for dogs can be purchased in a variety of flavors like chicken and beef. Needless to say, today’s pampered beasts, with the help of their owners, are leaving large carbon pawprints on the environment.
"Most people I talk to have no idea that dog waste can be composted or that dogs can thrive on a vegetarian or vegan diet."

When our dog arrived, I faced two immediate challenges to my environmental principles, namely: What about our vegetarian lifestyle, and how was I to ethically deal with our dog’s waste disposal?

Vegetarianism

My family is vegetarian; it’s been over two decades since my dollars were spent supporting the meat industry. Did having a dog mean buying meat in the form of dried kibble? If I could find an extra 60 dollars a month to feed my dog, why not give it to a homeless shelter or support a soup kitchen? When I took my children to a “healthy” pet store to check out its supplies in anticipation of our dog’s arrival, I was surprised to find customers buying bison burgers and other forms of meat for their dogs’ “raw food” diet. Didn’t dogs just eat scraps anymore? Outside, a homeless man asked us for some money. The juxtaposition of well-fed dogs and disadvantaged humans was glaring. I silently cursed myself, wishing I could just buy a damned puppy for my kids without analyzing every move. How I envied my parents and their nonchalant dog acquisitions!

But did a dog really need to eat meat? If I fed it vegetarian table scraps all the time, would it wither away? Then again, I have a difficult enough time cooking for my children, so having kibble on hand was a relief – I certainly didn’t need the additional burden of cooking well- balanced meals for my dog and I’m not sure a steady diet of noodles would keep the beast healthy. How much more work would a vegetarian diet involve? I got online and googled “vegetarian dogs.” As it turns out, there are a growing number of folks whose dogs are meat-free. Many are even vegan. In fact, as more people begin to question the best use of our food supplies, the idea of feeding meat (with all its attendant energy drains) to dogs is hard to justify.

My veterinarian, however, was unimpressed with my queries about vegetarian dog foods. When I phoned the homeopathic veterinarian to see if he had another opinion, the receptionist strongly discouraged the idea. Knowledgeable staff at two independent dog food stores also discouraged such a move. (One suggested that I at least wait until the dog turned a year old, saying her growing bones needed the protein.) In short, my initial forays strongly discouraged removing meat from her diet.

I put the idea on the back burner for six months and when I re-visited the issue I was far more persuaded to make the switch. Perhaps my conscience had been working overtime. The web-site for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) presented solid reasons to make the switch from a meat-based diet. It also gave a number of links to other sites, such as the one that promotes the book Vegetarian Dogs: Toward a World Without Exploitation by Verona ReBow and Jonathan Dune. I also stumbled across a recent dog health survey conducted on vegetarian dogs. Evidence from the study suggested that the longer a dog remains on a vegetarian or vegan diet, the less likely the dog is to get infections, cancer and hypothyroidism. The study also found that veganism is more beneficial than vegetarianism.

One year of buying meat kibble had worn me out. Even though it was from a local distributor, I still couldn’t justify that animals were dying so that my dog could be fed. The website Vegetarian Network Victoria (see resources list) offers a useful checklist for pet owners interested in changing their dog’s diet to a vegetarian or vegan one. That’s where I am now – transitioning our dog to a vegetarian diet. Currently she’s eating half meat and half vegetarian and when the meat kibble runs out, well, let’s just say that we’ll be on an interesting, if somewhat chaotic and haphazard, adventure.

Waste Disposal

The second ethical dilemma I wrestled with had to do with waste disposal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the typical dog excretes three-quarters of a pound of waste per day, or 274 pounds of waste per year. Multiply that by the six million dogs in Canada alone, and you can come up with a rough estimate of how much waste is actually being sent to the dumps.

Backyard
Dog Waste Composter

Step 1: Dig a hole deep and wide enough to submerge a rubber garbage bin.

Step 2: Cut the bottom out of the bin, cut some air holes in the sides and submerge the bin so that only the lid remains above ground.

Step 3: Put some gravel at the bottom of the hole.

Step 4: Add a pile of waste, cup of septic starter (available at most hardware stores) and some water.

Step 5: Put the lid on, wait 24 hours for the enzymes to kick-start, then regularly add excrement.

My home city of Edmonton, Alberta has a fabulous waste management program and one of the best recycling programs in the world. When it comes to dog waste disposal, however, their only requirement is that waste be double- bagged. (Garbage collectors tell horror stories of waste bags exploding in the summer heat and excrement raining down around them.) The city of Toronto, Ontario, by contrast, allows for pet waste to be included in the wet materials compost/recycling bins. Every municipality has its own rules, so check with your local government to find out their policy on disposing pet waste.

When Chinook arrived, I found myself picking up what seemed to be a mountainous amount of excrement. Not feeling at all good about sending dog waste to the city dump, I began by picking up the piles, carrying them into the house and flushing them down the toilet. While this sounds manageable, imagine me with a filled wad of toilet paper in hand, weaving through children and their energetic antics and stumbling to the bathroom only to find that the toilet was occupied. Hmmm… I also began to wonder about the effects on plumbing when dirt and twigs and leaves often accompanied the odorous pile. Surely there was a more responsible way to deal with my dog’s waste.

And then I remembered that my older sister, prior to getting her dog, had read somewhere about composting dog waste. A quick search online gave me some useful information. For instance, dog waste composters must be built away from vegetable gardens and their contents can only be used on bedding plants and bushes, not on anything that humans eat. Anyone interested in building their own backyard dog waste composter would benefit by looking at the cityfarmer.org website for a step-by-step guide to getting set up.

It sounded easy enough. From start to finish, including purchasing materials, the process took approximately two hours. My children took turns with the shovel and helped me dig a hole, and my daughter gussied up the black lid by painting some colorful images on it. I can’t tell you how good I felt when, after the 24-hour start-up period had passed, I began to add the many piles of dog waste into the composter instead of the garbage.

Having a dog waste composter in my back yard has enabled me to reduce my shipment of excrement to the dump by approximately 90 percent. Occasionally there are times when, due to circumstances, I throw a bag in the garbage, but those times are rare. Before taking Chinook for a walk in the morning, I ask her to do her business in the yard. When she’s through, we walk. Sounds nice and tidy, doesn’t it? Well, my dog happens to have two morning constitutionals, so I usually end up using a bag to pick up a pile at some point. Instead of carrying an odorous bag about for the duration of my walk, I leave it at a designated spot (usually beside someone’s garbage bin in an alley) and then I pick it up on the way home and empty it into the composter. Another method might be to carry a plastic bag inside a backpack and put the doggie bag inside that to transport it home. Now that I have the backyard composter, I take it as a personal challenge to keep as much waste from the garbage as possible. I need to stress that this is not a hardship. On the contrary, I feel incredibly good about “greening” my pet ownership.

The summer was a great time to start composting, but in the back of my mind I knew that winter was ahead. What would happen to my composter once the ground froze? Would I still be able to use it? I got online again and added “winter” to my search on dog waste composters. Hmmm. Possibly digging below the frost-line would help keep the compost active during the winter but, with the amount of excrement a large dog produces, I would definitely need at least two composters.

Even then, because the cold snaps in Edmonton can last for some time, I’m doubtful that I’d have enough space to safely store the waste. On one site a man asked if anyone had successfully vermi-composted waste throughout the winter by keeping worms in bins stored in the basement. That produced an interesting debate and I wondered how far my principles would lead me. (In the end, the man decided against giving it a try because he feared the abundance of fly larvae that might be produced.)

Despite all my searches, I didn’t get a definitive answer on composting in winter. There were many naysayers but no one bold enough to say, “It can’t be done.” So I turned once again to the cityfarmer.org website for information. I emailed Michael Levenston, the executive director for City Farm, who in turn gave me Sharon Slack’s phone number. She runs City Farm’s compost demonstration garden in Vancouver, British Columbia; she is a master composter and she has had an active dog waste composter in her backyard for years. Unfortunately (for me, at least), she has never had to contend with composting in a winter climate. And while she gave me some great information about keeping my composter healthy in mild weather (like regularly adding grass clippings, leaves, dirt, water and weekly additions of septic starter), she didn’t have high hopes for the coming deep freeze.

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So here’s what I’m left with: I can dig another composter that goes well below the three to four foot frost line and hope I can keep it active. (This is doubtful, I think, as the volume of excrement from a large dog will fill the bin to the frost line in no time.) One person online suggested piling the frozen waste next to the filled composter and waiting until the thaw when there’d be more space in the composter (as its contents would have settled) and I could then gradually add from the frozen pile.

I’m hesitant to follow this path as I fear the waste pile would be far too large. I don’t live on an acreage. Also, I’d worry about the smell. Spring thaw already has an odorous quality that’s largely dog-related, to put it kindly, so I’m not sure a four-month pile up of excrement in the corner of my yard would please my neighbors. The better plan might be to just dig the second composter before the frost and have an empty space to fill for at least part of the winter.

What I do know, however, is that I’ll miss my composters like crazy when they’re both full and out of action. Maybe I’ll return to flushing the waste down the toilet for a few months. Greening your life has its addictive qualities!

Yes, I find dog ownership to be ethically challenging on a number of levels, but I’m not convinced that the solution is to avoid canine companionship. So if you want to green your pet ownership, now’s a great time to do so. Any online search that links “eco” and “dogs” will bring up a host of eco-friendly pet products to choose from. Obviously, you need to be wary of products that have been greenwashed, so make sure to do your research. And be prepared to change course if one path doesn’t seem to be working.

Finally, spread the word. Most people I talk to have no idea that dog waste can be composted or that dogs can thrive on a vegetarian or vegan diet. At least one other family in my neighborhood has built a backyard composter in the months since we did. Two other families are about to. The benefits of doing so simply speak for themselves.

Theresa Shea is a writer and homeschooling mother of three children who are enjoying their “one dog childhood” in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

 

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