I’ve heard that pet food has a huge impact on the environment. Would it be better if we gave our cats and dogs a vegetarian diet?
Cats and dogs get more protein from meat and fish than we do. In the US, they make up about a quarter of all calories consumed from animal products and they emit the CO2 According to a study by the University of California in Los Angeles in 2017, this corresponds to around 13 million cars from animal husbandry. They would certainly be more environmentally friendly if they were vegetable, but can we make these choices for a species that has different nutritional needs than ours?
Domestic cats are obligatory carnivores – they need the nutrients in the meat to survive. Take the amino acid taurine, for example. Without it, cats develop heart problems and go blind. Although such essential nutrients can be given as a supplement to plant-based meals, there is a heated debate between animal experts and vegetarians as to whether these are overall sufficient for the needs of cats.
Dogs, on the other hand, appear to be better adapted to an omnivorous lifestyle and can thrive on a diet high in grain. However, that doesn’t mean we can just cut out proteins.
Read more about the science of dogs:
A sustainable alternative is insect-based food from companies like Yora in the UK, which sells high-protein dog food pellets made from ground fly larvae. It’s expensive and not entirely carbon neutral as the insects come all the way from a producer in the Netherlands, but with all the hype about insect farming, there could be more local suppliers soon.
And it’s not just about CO2 emissions. For example, imposing a vegan lifestyle on your cat can cause them to take their frustration out on local wildlife and further harm bird and rodent populations. Research conducted at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and published in the journal Nature suggests that U.S. cats are already killing 1-4 billion birds per year plus 6-22 billion small mammals – a source of great agony for wildlife lovers.
What are the greenest ways to entertain our furry friends?
We should also think of all those dog-eared plastic pet toys that find their way into landfills and the constant stream of grooming products that get into the waterways from pet parlors. Of course, humans use far greater amounts of plastic and water-polluting chemicals than our pets ever will, but if we are committed to sustainable lifestyles, we cannot ignore what we offer our pets either.
If you are a conscientious pet owner, there are many ways you can reduce your pet’s impact on the environment. How about: providing edible dog toys or recyclable wooden “cat trees” for cats to climb; research your dog grooming brands and switch to eco-friendly products; Sticking to local green spaces for walks instead of driving to the beach or some far-away beauty spot?
What about all that crap?
The 163 million dogs and cats in the United States alone produce as much feces as about 90 million Americans, the 2017 study found. That’s a lot of trash in dog baskets and litter boxes.
More recently, German researchers tried to estimate the effects of climate change on just one dog in its lifetime and came up with a figure of around 7 percent of the effects of the average person living in the EU. As part of their analysis, they tried to understand the effects of dog litter when collected in small plastic bags and collected by waste disposal companies, compared to when they were left on the street or in a park.
They found that the impact of dog poop on climate change was small as long as everything was picked up by owners and collected from dog poop bins by collection trucks on their normal routes, rather than being removed from parks and streets on a poop-by-poop basis .
Bottom line: at least if you have a dog, you can pick up the poop, so do it. Although it’s much harder to keep your cat from messing up your neighbor’s petunias …
Read more about the science of cats:
I don’t have a pet yet, but I’m considering getting one. What’s the greenest option?
Um, a frog? (Just kidding.) In fact, small animals like amphibians, reptiles, and spiders are generally considered better environmental options when it comes to pet food because they eat less, but they use energy in other ways, e.g. or water filters for aquariums.
Money.co.uk recently put together an Eco Pets League in which large dogs do worst, closely followed by ponies, horses and other dog sizes. The results were based on a five out of five environmental rating in a number of categories from food and droppings to heating / lighting and accessories – not a scientifically rigorous method, but it does give us an idea.
Cats, fish and reptiles did a little better than our canine companions, but at the top of the ranking? The humble turtle that does well across the board and got bonus points for little impact over a long lifespan.
If a turtle is not the snuggly ball you are looking for, it is best to choose the pet that suits your lifestyle and try to be a responsible person, for the sake of your pet but also for the sake of the planet.