Your cat is killing the Earth - but you can prevent it

DW encourages their human companions to protect the planet we all share. From carbon pawprint to waste to wildlife - it is in our hands to take up better practices.

Your cat's sweet purring and loving, contented looks won't change the fact that it's guilty for the planet's suffering - just like we are.

Nature and Environment | 05.07.2017

A recent study confirms that pets' meat-based diet has a fatal impact on the climate, due mainly to high carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, our loyal friends are big resource consumers and waste creators.

The situation is particularly worrisome considering the paradigm shift in the human-pet relationship in emerging economies such as China.

Moreover, cats that go or live outdoors eat urban wildlife, particularly newborn chicks. Environmental groups are calling for an to end this vicious cycle.

Nature and Environment | 04.05.2017

So is it possible to love and respect your pet, while still protecting the planet?

Huge carbon 'pawprint'

Cats and dogs are responsible for 25 to 30 percent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the United States, according to a new paper.

To better understand these numbers: a country made up only of US cats and dogs would rank fifth in the world in meat consumption - behind only Russia, Brazil, the United States and China, the author calculated.

Although meat is essential for nutrition of these animals, we might be spoiling them - and with them, our planet. About 54 percent of dogs and 59 percent of cats in the US are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. 

And after eating, we all know what comes next. Pets in the US alone produce as much feces in a year as 90 million humans.

A walk on the wild side

In Germany alone, around 2 million cats are ownerless - and countless housecats are given free rein outside.

The German Hunting Association (Deutscher Jagdverband) estimates that cats kill at least 14 million birds a year - in addition to numerous small mammals and reptiles.

Marius Adrion, part of the team for bird protection with the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), underscores this risk.

"There is a clear influence of cats into birds' population," Adrion told DW. Above all, he said, this is a key issue for regions with flightless birds.

A 2013 study found that cats kill billions of animals in the US each year, and represent a major threat to wildlife. Cats have contributed to species extinction - especially on islands. And the worst threat is from feral cats, the study concluded.

The UK charity Cats Protection points out that despite cats being naturally predatory animals, they're still not the primary cause of bird loss in the UK. But doubts still exist on the full impacts of cats' hunting.

Cats are natural predators - how to prevent their hunting instinct from decimating biodiversity?

"Cats tend to kill weak and sickly birds - so it is not clear whether cat predation replaces other forms of death, or is in addition to natural death," Sarah Elliott, central veterinary officer with Cats Protection, said in a press release.

In the same vein, the UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) believes that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway before the next breeding season.

But if proven differently, the impact could be much serious as gardens are a key breeding habitat for declining birds, the RSPB warns.

How to become an eco pet-owner

Now that you are aware of the trail of destruction your little companion leaves behind, what can be done to reduce both the impact on the local ecosystem and the carbon pawprint of your cat?

Allowing cats access to the outside world is very positive for cats' mental health - but it can be done more consciously. Cats Protection recommends keeping cats indoors during the early morning and evening, when prey species are most active.

Love your cat, but don't spoil it - for the sake of the environment

Adrion agrees. "Owners have to be particularly careful and avoid letting them go out in May, June or July - particularly during mornings," he said.

At that time, chicks that still cannot fly are extremely vulnerable.

Above all, neutering cats is a basic requirement to avoid overpopulation and strays, all experts agree. Moreover, spayed and neutered cats tend to stay closer to home.

Reducing the CO2 emissions is more of a challenge.

A vegetarian diet is not an option for a cat - owners can, however, switch to organic feed - which supports biodiversity and reduces pollution since it avoids pesticides - and more environmentally friendly packaging. They can also avoid using hot water for cleaning the litterbox - and above all, buy compostable cat litter.

As with all our resources, reducing consumption is the first step. Thinking twice to avoid overfeeding and reduce waste can be a good starting point.

And what better day to start than International Cat Day!  

Rare, shy, tiny predators of the desert

Almost unknown

Hardly any other wild cat has been less researched than the black footed cat. One reason: the animals are almost impossible to see. They are just about half the size of domestic cats. A full grown tomcat weights about four pounds, or 1.9 kilograms, a female about 1.3 kilograms. Researchers estimate the population at 10,000. In South Africa and Botswana they are strictly protected.

Rare, shy, tiny predators of the desert

An inhospitable home

Black-footed cats live in the dry zones of southern Africa, in the savannah and the semideserts of the Karoo and Kalahari. The main population centers are in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, but they can also be found in Zimbabwe and Angola.

Rare, shy, tiny predators of the desert

Skilled hunters

Other animals: be warned! During its nightly raids, a black-footed cat will catch a rodent or a bird every 50 minutes. This northern black korhaan is almost half a meter in size - more than a foot and a half. The wild cats can catch birds in flight, jump 1.4 meters high and two meters in distance.

Rare, shy, tiny predators of the desert

Brave and ready to fight

Even though black-footed cats are generally shy, they will fight bravely against attackers - even snakes. This picture was taken just before the cat attacked. And the cats will even eat non-poisonous snakes. Of course weaker animals fall prey to the cats much more easily. A cape hare is considerably smaller than a European hare, but at 2.5 kilograms, still a lot bigger than the cat.

Rare, shy, tiny predators of the desert

A case for Dr. Sliwa!

Even when the black-footed cats live near human settlements, it is quite possible that no-one will ever see one. The animals are extremely shy. Alexander Sliwa from the Black-Footed Cat Working Group tries to detect animals, which he previously fitted with radio collars .The Cologne-based zoologist has been researching black-footed cats since 1992.

Rare, shy, tiny predators of the desert

Welcome to kitty's cave!

Currently, twelve animals are fitted with radio collars. Sometimes the zoologists have to get a bit closer to the animals - but that is not easy. The animals live in burrows abandoned by spring hares, ground squirrels, old world porcupines or aardvarks. Empty termite mounds are also popular among the cats for their perfect natural air conditioning.

Rare, shy, tiny predators of the desert

Protection from other predators

Young kittens are relatively safe in their cat-apartments. A female will have between one and two young after a pregnancy of 63 to 68 days. The mother often changes her housing location to prevent predators like jackals from finding the young ones.

Rare, shy, tiny predators of the desert

Get out the pickaxe

When the zoologists want to get a cat out of its underground dwelling, they have to use heavy tools: pickaxe and shovel. In the midday heat on a December summer day, this is real hard work.

Rare, shy, tiny predators of the desert


The cat is caught in the net! Don't let her get away! The researchers have to move fast, if they want to check the animal's condition thoroughly. To avoid stress, the cats get an anesthetic shot right away. Then the general medical checkup can begin.

Rare, shy, tiny predators of the desert

A predator on the examination table

Since 2005, an international working group has dedicated its work to the protection of black-footed cats. Researchers from the U.S., South Africa and Germany meet once a year for three weeks. They catch the animals, fit radio collars and take samples of blood, urine, feces, saliva, fatty tissue and sperm.

Rare, shy, tiny predators of the desert

The proof!

The foot is actually black! The feet of the black footed cats are not as well set up for climbing as those of domestic cats - because there are not many trees around, where they live. But they are good runners. A male cat will walk about 30 kilometers or 19 miles in one night.

Rare, shy, tiny predators of the desert

Deadly metabolic disease

The zoologists are testing the felines for signs of a particularly dangerous metabolic disease called amyloidosis. The disease is fatal for the cats. First zoologists diagnosed amyloidosis in zoo animals after a dramatic decline in populations. Later the disease was also found in the carcass of a wild black- footed cat.

Rare, shy, tiny predators of the desert

Wake up kitty!

After the check-up, kitty is given an anti-anesthetic. Then the cat will be released into its cave. There it can recover from its surprise capture. For the researchers, the real work is just about to begin. They want to understand not only the medical condition of the cats, but also their daily routines and habits.

Rare, shy, tiny predators of the desert

Close-circuit TV in the desert

Two camera-traps are installed right in front of the cave. Are the cats going to behave normally after waking up from their nap? Are they doing allright? Let's see who sticks his snout out first! Video-traps start recording as soon as something starts moving in front of the lens.

Rare, shy, tiny predators of the desert

Smile please!

The cats are suspicious of the photo-cameras at first. Thentheir curiosity wins, and they start investigating them, cautiously. This cat obviously survived the medical check up well and is checking to see if the weird researchers have finally gone.

Rare, shy, tiny predators of the desert

On the red list.

Zoologist Alexander Sliwa has been the first to document the hunting, territorial and reproductive behavior of the black-footed cats. His research provided the data for an evaluation of the conservation needs of the species. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature is listing the cats as endangered in their "Red List of Threatened Species".