Few will dispute that one of the most challenging aspects of feline companionship is taking care of the litter box. Dumping Fluffy's waste in the trash may seem off-putting for the green-minded cat owner, but it's arguably the best option for containing parasites, protecting watersheds and safeguarding sea otters.
According to the 2015-2016 APPA National Pet Owners Survey, 85.8 million cats are owned in the United States. These domestic cats, along with their feral counterparts, produce a lot of poop: 1.2 million tons of annually, according to a 2013-study published in Trends in Parasitology. And whether you flush it, trash it or bury it, cat waste is a growing problem that, according to the study's authors, may contribute to a "major public health problem."
Searching for an ecofriendly solution to their cat waste problem leads many pet owners down the troublesome path of flushable litters. Household plumbing systems aside, used litter should never be flushed down the toilet, even if marketed as flushable. Most modern waste treatment facilities are not designed to filter out the eggs of Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite shed in the feces of cats. Besides being harmful to humans, T. gondii recently has been linked to illnesses and deaths of sea otter deaths in California. In an effort to protect its iconic otter, California's Legislature passed a law in 2006 that requires all litter sold in the state carry a warning label advising consumers against flushing the used product down toilets or dumping into gutters and storm drains.
Bag It and Trash It
Burying or composting feline waste is equally problematic as T. gondii can live in soils for up to a year. While far from ideal, the preferred method for disposing of used litter is to bag it and place it in trash destined for landfills. According to Judd Alexander in his book "In Defense of Garbage", Americans are doing just that to the tune of disposing more than 2 million tons of cat litter per year. On the upside, these facilities are lined to prevent leakage into surface and groundwater, protecting both our waterways and wildlife. On the downside, most of these encapsulated bags of litter will languish in landfills for years, perhaps even generations.
If you're concerned about your cat's carbon footprint, at least as far as waste is concerned, try the following:
- Use corn-based or some other form of biodegradable poop bag, rather than plastic shopping bags. Even paper bags work, if you don't mind cleaning your trash receptacle periodically.
- Consider switching to a biodegradable litter such as paper- or corn-based. Besides being nonbiodegradable, clay-based litters are produced by strip-mining.
- If your cats only will use clay litter, choose clumping varieties, which result in less waste.
- Finally, consider making your cat a full-time resident of the great indoors. Indoor cats are less apt to contract or spread T. gondii, harm native wildlife or defecate in the neighbor's vegetable garden.
- American Pet Products Association: Pet Industry Market Size & Ownership Statistics
- Trends in Parasitology: Toxoplasma Oocysts as a Public Health Problem
- California Legislative Information: AB 2485
- Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association: Outdoor Fecal Deposition by Free-Roaming Cats and Attitudes of Cat Owners and Nonowners to Stray Pets, Wildlife and Water Pollution
- Journal of Wildlife Diseases: Patterns of Mortality in Southern Sea Otters (Enhydra Lutris Nereis) from 1998-2001
Barbara Cozzens has been writing for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in publications of the Nature Conservancy, the World Bank Group, National Geographic Society, Duke University and others. Cozzens holds a Bachelor of Arts in biology from Colgate University and a Master of Environmental Management from Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment.