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The Complete Guide to Zero-Waste Pet Food

Susana Bradford
January 12, 2024
5 minutes read
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Expert Reviewed By:
August 29, 2023
5 minutes read
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When it comes to zero-waste pet care, there's little helpful, non-judgy info out there. Especially when it comes to pet food. But we've got you covered!

Whether you’re a zero-waste newbie or a no-trash pro, when it comes to pet care, there’s very little helpful, non-judgy info out there. Especially when it comes to pet food.

Pet food is a real sticking point with living a low-waste lifestyle.

In my research, I’ve encountered lots of well-meaning folks who suggest the solution is to have a vegetarian pet like a rabbit or guinea pig rather than a meat-eating one like a dog or cat.

In fact, in a scholarly paper published as recently as the summer of 2017, the authors concluded their abstract with (emphasis mine): “Americans are the largest pet owners in the world, but the tradition of pet ownership in the US has considerable costs. As pet ownership increases in some developing countries, especially China, and trends continue in pet food toward higher content and quality of meat, globally, pet ownership will compound the environmental impacts of human dietary choices. Reducing the rate of dog and cat ownership, perhaps in favor of other pets that offer similar health and emotional benefits would considerably reduce these impacts. Simultaneous industry-wide efforts to reduce overfeeding, reduce waste, and find alternative sources of protein will also reduce these impacts.”

While that’s not an incorrect statement, I honestly can’t imagine life without dogs and cats, and millions and millions of other people don’t want to either!

If you’re hoping to have a zero-waste dog or a zero-waste cat, it’ll take a lot of effort to work your way up the food chain. Luckily, there are a lot of easy, inexpensive swaps you can make today to decrease the impact of your pet’s diet, which I share below. 

One quick caveat: I’m not a vet. I’m not a nutritionist. I’m not anything other than a writer who’s researched this topic exhaustively. This post and all others on this site are for informational purposes only. M’kay? 

One longer caveat: I’m not, nor will I ever be, a proponent of vegan or vegetarian diets for pets. While some dogs can thrive on a vegetarian diet, cats absolutely cannot; they’re obligate carnivores. They need to eat meat. They’ve evolved to eat meat, and if it comes down to the whole “animal rights” discussion, I always go back to, OK, well, what about the cat’s right to live and thrive in the way the cat evolved? I know I’m probably losing some people here–never, ever talk politics, religion, or pet food… I know. However, I think it’s really important to be super transparent up front. I can’t support vegetarian or vegan diets for dogs or cats. That said, as mentioned above, if you want a vegetarian pets, guinea pigs are amazing!

The Environmental Impact of Pet Food

As stated in great detail in The Beginner’s Guide to Zero-Waste Pet Care:

“In 2009, a book on sustainable lifestyles came out and claimed that pets’ carbon pawprints are twice the size of gas-guzzling SUVs. In large part, the authors attributed that impact to diet.” – from The Zero-Waste Pet

Dogs and cats eat a lot, and dogs and cats eat a lot of meat.

Producing enough protein to feed the world is nearing the brink of impossibility, and our animals consume vast quantities of that protein. “The average European cat uses as many resources in his lifetime as the average African,” said Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in a presentation to the Pet Sustainability Council.

Not the average African cat. The average African.

With the dramatic, exponential growth in human population, that just isn’t sustainable—or even possible. Or reasonable.

So, yes, pets’ diets impact the environment tremendously.

Cats and dogs consume tons of meat. As we all know, the vast majority of meat production isn’t done in a sustainable or humane manner, compounding the problem even further. 

According to a piece published on The Conversation entitled A big pawprint: The environmental impact of pet food, Assistant Professor of Nutrition, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University, Cailin Heinze wrote, “Current pet food trends encourage owners to feed their pets much the same foods that humans eat: high-quality “human grade” meat and organic produce, maybe even some “superfoods.” While this approach is emotionally appealing, it is not necessary for pets’ health, nor is it environmentally sustainable.”

Byproducts have gotten a bad rap by pet food companies, too, for the same emotional appeal. It’s a marketing ploy rather than one based in science or nutrition. Also, byproducts make up a cornerstone of many human diets around the globe. Embracing byproducts–which I promise your pet will readily–helps use the entirety of the protein sources. In fact, many raw feeders–people who feed their pets a raw food diet–serve byproducts like organ meat as a cornerstone of that diet.

As Dr. Heinze wrote, “By-products are sustainable and healthy for animals to consume. The best way to feed our pets meat-based diets with minimal footprints is to use every part of the animals we slaughter for human food, including organs. These ingredients (which do not include hair, horns, teeth or intestinal contents), often collectively termed “by-products,” can be very good-quality sources of nutrients that pets enjoy. While the pet food industry is well aware of this issue, many companies persist in telling pet owners that by-products should be avoided to make their own diets more appealing.”

OK, so that’s an overview of the problem. Obviously it goes much deeper when you pan out and look at the food production system, but that glimpse serves those of us who are trying to minimize our pets’ impact on the planet. 


Because it gives us a starting point!

Now, let’s take a look at some solutions!

Solutions Start with Real Food for Dogs & Cats

Here are 7 things you can do today, some of which are super simple (see #4) while others take a little more commitment (see #1). 

  1. Get your pet to a healthy weight. Obesity is a massive problem for pets in the United States. Feeding your pet less to get them to a healthy weight–and then maintain that weight–uses fewer resources. Plus, your pet will live a longer, happier, healthier life. Win-win! 
  2. Ditch kibble. Not everyone can (or should) do this depending on your time, your budget, and your pet’s health. However, if you’re able to swap out kibble for a home-cooked diet or a commercially-prepared whole foods diet, then great! If not, no worries. We are ALL about small steps that make an impact. Instead, swap out a portion  of your dog’s kibble for fresh ingredients. Chat with your vet about this, but you could diminish your kibble serving by a bit and substitute in fresh fruits and veggies and protein that you and your family cook. For instance, if you grill a chicken breast and a side of roasted green beans, as long as you don’t cook with garlic and onions, you can lessen the serving size of your dog’s dinner and top it with the fresh food. The myth that pets can’t eat “human food” is just that: a myth. Food is food. Just make sure you run it by your vet while keeping an eye on your pet’s weight (see point #1). 
  3. Buy bulk dog food. Cutting down on packaging is a big step, too. Co-op grocery stores, health food stores, and even farm and feed stores often sell bulk dog food. Take your own container and be proud of that big step! 
  4. Buy food with grains. Seriously. The grain-free fad is just that: a fad. According to Dr. Heinze in the article cited above, “Cats and dogs can eat diets containing properly cooked grain and other plant ingredients. Contrary to many reports, there are no documented health benefits to feeding pets a grain-free diet or one that avoids other plant ingredients. According to a recent study, one of the main genetic differences between dogs and wolves is that dogs have an increased ability to obtain nutrients from grains and other plants. Current grain-free diet trends are about selling pet food, not about pet health, and can lead to less sustainable diets.”
  5. Offset your pet’s consumption. Consider making vegetarian or vegan swaps for you and your family to counter what your pets need. Plant-based proteins take far less to produce. If this is new to you, start small. #MeatlessMonday is a great starting line, then build from there. We make lots of small swaps around here–like vegan mayo for regular and so on. None require any extra expense or effort, but it helps us counter what our two cats consume! We also share fresh fruits and plant-based proteins with our pets where it makes sense–all while watching their waistlines, of course!
  6. Make your own treats. You can control the ingredients, and you can be entirely package free. Look for a few DIYs coming soon. And, psst, I share a ton of recipes in the full guide to raising The Zero-Waste Pet. 
  7. Find alternative protein sources. I saved this for last because it’s my current obsession. Two things to consider here: First, protein sources that require few resources to produce. An example is crickets. With less water and less land consumption, crickets provide a sustainable protein option and, tbh, we’re slow on the uptake with this. Lots of other countries already consume insect protein! Second, invasive species that need to be managed already. An example is Asian carp. It’s a rich protein source that thrives in places like Lake Michigan, where it doesn’t belong and where it degrades the natural environment. Since it has to be removed anyway, why not use it for pet food?

Pet Food and Recycling

It’s not only about the meat.

Many pet food containers aren’t recyclable. Many have special coatings that prevent recycling. At the end of the day, sending trash to the landfill is what we want to avoid, so making pet food choices around recyclables is a big deal! A few tips:

  1. Buy in bulk. If you can find it, and if the food you find works for your pet, score! 
  2. Buy the largest package possible. Instead of one-a-day tins of cat food, buy the full-size cans and portion it out.
  3. Choose food that participates in Terracycle’s recycling program. As of this writing, there are six choices, all of which appear to be high-quality pet foods (though I don’t have personal experience with any other than Wellness). 
  4. Use steel dishes. Or, at the least, dishes made from recycled materials. 
  5. Get a metal scoop. Since you’re watching your pet’s weight (right??) measuring food is incredibly important. Skip the plastic scoops they hand out as freebies in pet stores and purchase a metal one.
  6. Filter your water. There’s no reason to buy water. In fact, in most cities, at least for now, your tap water is perfectly safe, but to be cautious, consider getting a filter that attaches to your faucet. Clean water for you and your pets without the plastic waste! 
  7. Buy treats in cardboard. If you don’t DIY your pet’s treats, consider treats that come in cardboard packaging. 
  8. Avoid individually-wrapped treats. Those impulse-buy biscuits at the checkout counter seem so enticing (and cheap!) but that plastic film that wraps around them isn't recyclable. Skip ’em in favor of bulk treats or homemade treats. 
  9. What comes out the other end… Food goes in. Waste goes out. Pick up your pet’s waste with biodegradable pickup bags. For cats, use an earth-friendly litter. 

Ultimately, your pet does have an impact on the planet. Understand that impact is the first step. Hopefully, you now feel armed and ready to tackle the rest! I can’t wait to hear how it goes!

Otherwise, thanks for being a part of this community that cares so deeply about the environment and about the pets we love so much.

Meet the author:
Susana Bradford

Susana is an avid animal lover and has been around animals her entire life, and has volunteered at several different animal shelters in Southern California. She has a loving family at home that consists of her husband, son, two dogs, and one cat. She enjoys trying new Italian recipes, playing piano, making pottery, and outdoor hiking with her family and dogs in her spare time.

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