Harm Reduction and Environmentalism for Pet Owners

How can the pet industry help the environment? How can pet owners take small steps that make a big, positive impact–without feeling guilt, overwhelm, strain, or stress?

Let me introduce to you a topic I’m learning about: harm reduction.

Before we dig into the pet industry and our role as pet owners, let’s take a big leap backwards and unpack the concept first.

An orange cat sits on a brown table. His head is turned to the side, looking curious. The text overlay reads: Harm reduction and environmentalism for pet owners

What is harm reduction?

Because I can’t say it any better, here’s the intro to a paper published in Harm Reduction Journal (bolded text by me):

Harm reduction refers to interventions aimed at reducing the negative effects of health behaviors without necessarily extinguishing the problematic health behaviors completely…. Given that a harm reduction approach can address other risk behaviors that often occur alongside drug use and that harm reduction principles have been applied to harms such as sex work, eating disorders, and tobacco use, a natural evolution of the harm reduction philosophy is to extend it to other health risk behaviors and to a broader healthcare audience.


I would argue that environmental health is an enormous public health risk. We need to breathe clean air, eat healthy food, and drink uncontaminated water. When we don’t have access to those things, our bodies suffer. Environmental health is directly tied to public health. So, I think, the harm reduction model fits environmentalism pretty neatly.

How can we reduce harm?

In this awesome post by the nutritionist at Kids Eat in Color, she outlines how an overwhelmed mother can gently reduce nutritional harm to her small child by making simple swaps: If you don’t have the energy or mental wellbeing for anything more than a bowl of cereal, feed the bowl of cereal. If you have the ability to make a greater effort, heat up a can of soup. If you can go a step further, open a bag of salad. Ultimately, she writes, “Please don’t underestimate the value of doing a little less harm and for feeling proud of yourself for making the effort…. Because I did little things to reduce harm, I eventually got more capacity. I eventually created all these systems that make my low capacity days look like eggs and toast and fruit – which isn’t bad at all!”

How can we take the environmental steps that are the equivalent of a can of soup or eggs and toast and fruit instead of a bowl of cereal?

Start where you are, right now, in this moment.

Take stock of where you are and where you want to be, bearing in mind that we are one year into a seemingly-endless pandemic, coming out of political upheaval in the US, emerging from a challenging winter, and so on. In other words, when you examine where you are NOW, do it with grace. Then, take the first tiny step forward.

Four dogs chase an orange toy across a grassy yard. Two women stand behind watching the dogs play.

Harm reduction examples for pet owners

Let’s get practical now. What are some ways that you, a loving pet owner, can reduce harm with your small pet care decisions?

I’ve got 10 ideas that, I hope, serve as a jumping-off point for you to come up with what works for your family.

  1. Switch your pet to a food that partners with TerraCycle to recycle the packaging. See the list here.
  2. Buy the largest possible package of your pet’s food possible.
  3. Cats are obligate carnivores. They need to eat meat. Choose one that has less of an impact on the planet. Swap your pet’s protein from beef or pork to chicken or fish.
  4. Learn how to clip your pet’s nails and DIY at home. Toss the clippings in your garden (along with all the pet hair you brush out–perfect bird’s nest fodder).
  5. If you feed kibble, talk to your vet about swapping out a percentage for fresh fruits or veggies. Here’s a list of 15 healthy veggie options for dogs.
  6. Adopting a pet for the first time? Don’t forget there are lots of vegetarian pets!
  7. Spend time every single day playing with your pet. It doesn’t sound like a direct relationship to environmental health, but it’s good for your physical and emotional wellbeing AND for your pet’s. You’ll both be happier, and that makes everything better! Bonus points for playing outside. Yes, even your cat!
  8. Considering a fish tank? Choose fresh water over salt water.
  9. Plant pots of wheatgrass to help clear the air and provide a healthy snack for your cat, guinea pig, or rabbit. Bonus: Juice some for yourself!
  10. Keep fresh water available at all times. In most places, from the tap is just fine. If you must filter, consider a pet fountain like this one.

That list is by no means exhaustive. Or even thorough. It’s just a starting point. The idea is to reduce the harm we cause to the planet one tiny step at a time.

We can all reduce harm

We need to break the cycle of trying to do everything, having it fall to pieces, and then doing nothing as a result. Doing one tiny thing here and there is better than doing nothing.

This is just the beginning. As I learn more, I’ll share more.

When you can do better, do it. In the meantime, celebrate what you can do today! In fact, let’s start right there: Tell us in the comments what one tiny thing YOU, as a pet owner, can do today to reduce harm?

Images: Photos by Amber Kipp and Anthony Duran on Unsplash

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