Q. Dear Umbra,

I have two indoor cats in need of a more structurally interesting environment. The big-box pet stores and online retailers carry various cat furniture, but I am concerned about the environmental impact of things like carpet and pressboard when considering a new purchase. Can you guide me toward an eco-friendly choice for cat accessories?

Juli C.
Hayward, Calif.

A. Dearest Juli,

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Most kitties I know have no problem with adopting any furniture they please as their very own (usually when you’re just about to sit on it), so it’s quite generous of you to provide something that really is just for them. If you’re not the type to go full catio, one of those contraptions that combine perches, boxes, and scratching posts ought to do nicely — a cat condo, in industry-speak.

But you’ve correctly identified the two major concerns with said condos, Juli: the wood often used to build them, and the carpet often used to cover them. Cat furniture frames (as well as some human furniture and flooring) are typically made from pressed wood, an affordable composite of glued-together wood fibers or chips. Unfortunately, that glue usually contains formaldehyde, a volatile organic compound (VOC) that tends to offgas into your home, where it can cause respiratory problems, skin irritations, and allergic reactions — not to mention that it’s a known carcinogen. You probably don’t want your cat around it, but you definitely don’t want your family around it if you can help it.

The shaggy stuff used as a scratching surface on these structures isn’t much better, I’m afraid: Your average carpet swatch also tends to emit VOCs (the ugly truth behind that new-carpet smell). Not only that, but carpet is very difficult to recycle and bulky, so it poses a disposal problem once Mr. Whiskers is through shredding it.

Now for the good news — devoted cat owners such as yourself can find better substitutes without too much trouble. Here are a few options:

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  • Several manufacturers offer cat furniture made from solid, not pressed, wood, so you’ll skip the formaldehyde fumes (this one even makes modern-style pieces to match hip home décor), and you can even find scratching posts with aluminum. As for what goes over it: Sisal or jute rope is an excellent, natural, biodegradable, and usually pretty durable choice. These models can cost two to three times more than your standard-issue cat condo, but the benefits (both health and eco) could be worth it.
  • Since the worst off-gassing happens when a product is new, you might look for a secondhand condo, which poses less of a threat to your indoor air — and giving new life to an old product is also an eco-friendly move. Of course, you’ll still have that recycling quandary to deal with when the condo meets its end.
  • You could rig up your own contraption with cardboard boxes, yarn, a couple of two-by-fours from your local lumber store, and a feather duster, couldn’t you? Or turn an old bureau into a kitty wonderland? Some enterprising people have tried and succeeded at this type of DIY project, and it could be a great deal cheaper than manufactured options.
  • You could eschew needless consumption and tell Fluffy and Fifi to suck it up. After all, generations of cats made do without condos, and somehow they turned out just fine.


Q. Dear Umbra,

My puppy is full-grown now, and I’m trying to figure out what to replace his mangled and shredded toys and blankets with. There are countless “eco-friendly” dog product companies out there, but they’re in the business to sell things to sappy dog owners. So, I’m wondering if you can shed any light on what kind of textiles/materials are actually durable and eco-friendly for dog beds and toys.

Laramie, Wyo.

A. Dearest BG,

Sappy or not, all dog owners face the challenge of feeding their pups’ insatiable urges to chew things before their teeth get too long — oh, wait, I’m thinking of gerbils. But I hear dogs are champion chewers, too. So let’s see what replacements might work for you.

Let’s start with a point I just made to Juli: Could you hit up your local secondhand stores? Old blankets and pillows make for perfectly serviceable dog beds, and you’d also divert useful materials from the landfill (and probably save some cash to boot). You could pick up a few old shoes for Fido to play with, too (though I’m not sure if that will help or hurt your attempts to keep your dog from chewing your own shoes). And if you’re up for a little craftiness, BG, you might even look for jeans and other durable articles of clothing to fashion into your own DIY dog toys.

If it’s new doggie accoutrements you seek, then I’d look for two important qualities when you shop: sustainable materials and durability. By sustainable, I mean both natural, renewable materials and recycled content; durability is key, of course, because even the eco-friendliest items have some environmental impact, so we should invest in longer-lasting toys. The durability piece will depend a bit on your pooch, BG: You know better than I what level of damage he can do.

As to the sustainability piece: Toys (and maybe some beds, too) made from hemp, wool, and organic cotton are greener choices than the petro-based plastics used in many pet products. One kind of plastic toy I won’t bash, though, is one that uses recycled plastics. When we provide a market for post-consumer recycled materials by buying them, we show critical support for getting those materials recycled in the first place. Dog beds stuffed with 100-percent recycled bottles and the like can be had, as can toys fashioned from recycled bike inner tubes and, yup, old dog toys. I’ve also seen tug toys and stuffed animals made from recycled cotton yarns. To close, I can’t help leaving you with this video of a puppy falling asleep in its water dish. It is definitively sappy, BG — but I dare you not to look.