Can cat ownership be bad for the environment?


30 March 2021
We take a look at the impact our feline friends have on the planet, and how pet ownership is moving towards being more eco-friendly.

Increasing numbers of environmentally-conscious cat owners are beginning to worry about their pets’ ecological paw print (EPP) — and with good reason.

According to the PDSA’s annual Paw Report, 24 per cent of UK adults now own a cat, which means that we’re sharing our homes and gardens with an estimated 10.9 million felines. And that number looks set to rise, as new data from Bought by Many pet insurance indicates that thousands of homes welcomed a new cat during 2020, when insurance registrations increased by 205 per cent compared to the previous year.

At a time when so many of us are doing our best to reduce, reuse, and recycle, it makes sense to think more carefully about responsible cat ownership and consider the eco-credentials of the pet products we buy.

“Consumers have understandably become more environmentally aware in recent years and this extends to cat owners too,” says Alice Potter, the RSPCA’s cat welfare expert. “There are now lots of steps we can take to help reduce our cat’s carbon paw print.”

Can we make cat ownership better for the planet?

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If you’re planning to welcome a new cat, or kitten, into your home, there are a couple of key ways to help minimize their ecological paw print.

According to the PDSA, almost a third of cat owners (32 per cent) get their pet from a UK rescue or rehoming centre. This is a great option as adopting helps to reduce the numbers of cats looking for a forever home.

Around 25 per cent of new cat owners get a kitten from friends or family, but many more are willing to travel far and wide to locate a specific breed.

“There is a desire to have specific breeds of cats and some people will travel the earth to get the cat that they want,” explains Dr Sarah Ellis, head of cat advocacy at International Cat Care. “It’s worth considering that most of us have the ability to find a cat in our local area, so it’s a good idea to keep mileage down if you can — and this is better for the cat, as most dislike car journeys.” Soon after you bring your cat home, experts also recommend neutering.

“Sadly, the UK is facing a cat overpopulation crisis, with so many cats being born and not enough homes for them,” says Alice Potter. “This is why the RSPCA, along with other cat charities, advise owners to get their cats neutered from four months old to avoid unplanned litters.”

Cat ownership is on the rise so there is an increasing need to be more eco-friendly.


Although the majority of the UK’s cats spend time both indoors and outdoors, the PDSA’s research suggests that the number of indoor cats has risen by 11 per cent in the last decade. In 2021, just over a quarter of cats (26 per cent) live indoors only, with most owners saying that they do this because they believe it’s safer for their pet, and gives them a better chance of living a long and healthy life.

Some cat owners choose to keep their cats indoors because they’re concerned about the impact that cats can have on wildlife. Past studies indicate that each cat kills up to 18 birds and 21 small mammals each year, and research from the PDSA reveals that 14 per cent of UK cat owners would like to find a way to stop their cat killing wildlife, and a further 14 per cent would like to stop their cat bringing wildlife into the house.

However, Dr Sarah Ellis believes that keeping cats inside is easier said than done. She says: “We believe every cat is an individual so we wouldn’t support blanket policies about keeping cats indoors. I don’t think we can put the welfare of one species above the welfare of another and while some cats will be able to cope with living indoors, there are many more that won’t.”

For this reason, the RSPCA advocates a cat curfew. “The impact of cats on wildlife populations is subject to intense debate,” admits Alice Potter. “This is something that many cat owners are concerned about, so we recommend that cat owners reduce the opportunities for predating on wild birds and other animals by restricting outdoor access at dawn and dusk when wildlife is most active, and by attaching a bell to a quick-release safety collar.”


Caring for cats involves a lot of different products.


If you decide to keep your cat indoors, even just some of the time, then cat litter is going to be a regular purchase. But many cat owners aren’t aware of the environmental impact of the most popular types of litter. Mineral-based clay and silica litters have to be mined from the ground, which leads to deforestation, loss of wildlife habitat, erosion, and depletion of natural materials. It can also pollute watercourses and harm fish and aquatic vegetation, as well as destroying watersheds and increasing flooding. 

Paul Trott, UK Marketing Manager at Hagen pet products, says that eco-friendly cat litter (typically made from paper, wood, straw, or corn) is now one of the fastest-growing categories in the cat litter market, which is worth £120 million in the UK alone. In November 2020, Hagen launched two new types of Catit Go Natural! litter: one is made from wood and the other from pea husks, a by-product of the food industry which would otherwise be sent to landfill. 

He explains: “Our wood clumping litter comes from sustainably-managed forests and the wood we use to make it is taken from offcuts and sawdust from the lumber industry. The production process is also sustainable: the litter is made in a factory in Italy that’s completely off-grid, as it produces its own energy from solar panels. It’s manufactured via a cold-press process, which means that nothing burns so there are no emissions, and the packaging is made from plant-based cellulose paper — the entire product is natural, compostable and biodegradable.”

Feline diets do have a carbon footprint.


Research from YouGov indicates that over half of UK pet owners think that sustainable ingredients in pet food are appealing. However, in recent years, manufacturers have put increased emphasis on ‘premium’ or ‘gourmet’ foods, most of which are made from select cuts of meat. Producing this amount of animal protein uses an enormous amount of natural resources: it takes a lot of land, water, and food to farm the cows, sheep, pigs, poultry, and fish that are made into pet food, plus thousands of food miles to reach your cat’s bowl. 

If you’re keen to reduce your cat’s EPP, simply choosing cat food which comes in recyclable packaging can make a difference. Dr Sarah Ellis favours varieties that come in cans or foil trays, which can be easily recycled. Don’t worry if your cat prefers single-serve pouches: Cat’s Protection has partnered with Purina PetCare to create a free recycling programme. Pouches can be dropped off at a local Cats Protection centre, ready to be sent to TerraCycle where they’re processed into plastic granules ready for reuse. As an added bonus, all donated packaging helps to earn Terracycle points, which can be converted into financial donations to Cats Protection. The recycling programme has been paused due to Covid-19, but will be running as soon it’s safe to do so. 

Although some cat owners may like the idea of reducing the meat in their cat’s diet, Alice Potter advises against this. She says: “Some owners may consider changing their cats’ diet in order to be more environmentally conscious, but it’s important to know that cats are strict carnivores and depend on some very specific ingredients that are found in meat, including taurine, vitamin A, and arachidonic acid, so they can become seriously ill if they are fed a vegetarian or vegan diet.”

Fortunately, the pet food industry is already working on a sustainable alternative. Hagen is soon to launch a new eco-friendly cat food called Nuna, which is made from insect protein, mixed with small amounts of chicken or fish. Paul Trott explains: “Insect protein is a hot topic in the pet food industry right now, as switching from established protein sources like beef and chicken can help to reduce the ecological impact of farming. As cat owners know, cats already eat insects as part of their normal diet. Nuna looks like regular kibble, but it’s made from flour that comes from the ground-up larvae of the Hermetia Illucens fly. These insects are safe, clean, easy, and sustainable to farm, as the larvae are fed on reclaimed fruit and vegetables, which would otherwise go to landfill.” 

Paul adds: “As an organisation, we’re keen to increase our ecological credentials. These recent launches are the just the first in a wider range of eco-friendly products that offer a great solution to cat owners who wish to take a more sustainable approach.”

As we become more eco aware, it seems that people are pulling together to make cat ownership more environmentally friendly.