Pets, Climate Change, and Social Responsibility

Pet ownership has gone global. From cats and dogs fish to horses, pets are companions and daily support for people living around the world, in established and growing markets alike. With pets touted as benefiting mental health and recognized as truly unique, life-expanding resources for those with disabilities, they seemingly have more upsides than downsides. Or do they? For every cat or dog, there are costly veterinary bills, grooming charges, and food costs that make up the multi-billion-dollar pet care industry. Pushing through the weedy financial costs or even the ethical arguments of pet ownership, the accounting of companion animal environmental footprint is sobering.

The global pet food market was worth almost $100 billion in 2018, with Americans accounting for $30 billion pet-food. The global dog food market alone was estimated at just over $51 billion, attributed to the growing “humanization” of animals. The humanization of pets has, in turn, put demands on manufacturers to produce “human-grade” food, even though there is no regulatory definition for such food. Whether “wet” or “dry” pet food, the industry relies on a mix of animal-derived and plant energy to feed the companion animals globally. The same environment impact accounting used to balance a human’s environmental footprint should be applied to the environmental impact of the beloved pet.

The contradiction of being environmentally friendly in life, but lavishing expensive foods, clothes, or toys on a pet may feel incongruous – especially when looking at the numbers regarding, for instance, pesticide use or the use of potable water on feed crops and livestock, combined with all the fossil fuels used to create the packaging and ship it. When looking at these figures, one realizes, in short order, the dizzying environmental impacts of pet ownership. Even the feces of American cats and dogs is equivalent to the solid waste production of 6.6 million people.

Human populations hypothetically fed by the equivalent animal-derived energy produced for dogs and cats owned by Americans could potentially feed 26 million people. Similarly, if we look at the carbon footprint of pet food production we find staggering numbers. According to Pim Martens, in the United States, “animal meat product consumption by dogs and cats alone is responsible for up to 80 million tons of methane and nitrous oxide.” The 80 million tons of methane is equivalent to an average passenger vehicle being driven 4.8 million miles. Not leaving Chinese pet owners out, Martens wrote that carbon emissions from pet food consumption of animals owned in China, “are equivalent to the emissions generated by the food consumption of between 34 million and 107 million [Chinese citizens].” Martens and his colleagues also estimated that Japan’s pet-food impact at “between 2.5 million and 10.7 million tons of GHG per year.” The GHG impact of pet ownership is perhaps less a target than arguments for population control.

The environmental problems of pet ownership have many roots but focusing on meat consumption sharpens the dilemma. According to the Tufts veterinary school, meat-based pet foods dominate the industry. Dog food, according to Tufts, is made up of 20-40 percent animal protein while cat food is 30 to 60 percent animal-based protein. Gregory Okin, in his environmental impact report of pet dietary intake in the United States, writes that cats and dogs, “constitute about 25–30% of the environmental impacts from animal production in terms of the use of land, water, fossil fuel, phosphate, and biocides.” The kind of plant and animal proteins fed to cats and dogs varies because each animal has specific dietary requirements. Dogs, as omnivores, can add plant-based nutrition to a meat diet, where cats are almost entirely meat-eaters, wrote the Tufts team.

Finally, returning to Martens, “the individual and cumulative environmental impacts of the commercial dry food consumption by companion animals and the industries behind its manufacture are significant, considering the sheer volumes of planet-wide pet ownership.” With pet ownership pushing into new markets, demographics, and nations, the stresses on the environment will only grow, especially as anthropogenic climate change strains already stretched and depleting resources relied on by humans.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on October 22, 2019.


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