While many people have pointed out the reality that cutting one’s consumption of meat is a notable means of reducing one’s carbon footprint, I haven’t heard many people bring up the subject of meat consumption by pets…
Considering how the practice of keeping a “pet” dog or cat has become vastly more common in recent decades in the western world, the subject is clearly one that requires scrutiny — if the stated aim of keeping anthropogenic climate warming to under 2° Celsius is to actually be achieved.
On that note, new research from UCLA professor Gregory Okin has quantified the impact of meat/food consumption by domestic dogs and cats on carbon dioxide emissions (and CO2-equivalent emissions). The findings are pretty stark: in just the US, it relates to the equivalent of around 64 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.
That’s roughly the equivalent of the emissions from a year’s worth of driving by 13.6 vehicle owners in the US.
To put that another way, dogs and cats are responsible for around 25% to 30% of the total environmental impact of meat consumption in the US. That might be surprising to some, but the reality is that there are now around 163 million domestic dogs and cats in the US (this figure of course doesn’t include unaccounted-for strays).
“I like dogs and cats, and I’m definitely not recommending that people get rid of their pets or put them on a vegetarian diet, which would be unhealthy,” Okin noted. “But I do think we should consider all the impacts that pets have so we can have an honest conversation about them. Pets have many benefits, but also a huge environmental impact.”
The press release provides more: “If Americans’ 163 million Fidos and Felixes comprised a separate country, their fluffy nation would rank fifth in global meat consumption, Okin calculated, behind only Russia, Brazil, the United States and China. And it all has to go somewhere — America’s pets produce about 5.1 million tons of feces in a year, as much as 90 million Americans. If all that were thrown in the trash, it would rival the total trash production of Massachusetts — from the humans, at least.”
These feces of course often end up polluting watersheds, beaches, and sidewalks. The fecal waste from pets is actually in many areas one of the primary drivers of destructive algal blooms in freshwater bodies throughout the US. While un-responsible pet owners often shrug off their refusal to pick up after their pets with the statement that “it’s natural,” the reality is that the scale and concentration is entirely unnatural — even in highly biologically productive wild areas, there aren’t many large predators that can supported by the rest of the ecosystem.
The press release continues: “Compared to a plant-based diet, meat requires more energy, land, and water to produce, and has greater environmental consequences in terms of erosion, pesticides, and waste, Okin noted. Previous studies have found that the American diet produces the equivalent of 260 million tons of carbon dioxide from livestock production. By calculating and comparing how much meat 163 million cats and dogs eat compared to 321 million Americans, Okin determined how many tons of greenhouse gases are tied to pet food.
“His calculations start with publicly available information, like the number of dogs and cats in the country and the ingredients in market-leading pet foods, producing estimates that create a starting point for conversation. He found that the nation’s dogs and cats eat about 19% as many calories as the nation’s people, on par with all the calories consumed by the population of France in a year. Because dog and cat food tends to have more meat than the average human diet, this means that dogs and cats consume about 25% of the total calories derived from animals in the United States.
“… Okin recognizes that some of the products in pet food aren’t something people should or would eat. But some of it is. In his research, he confirmed his hunch that premium pet foods usually contain more animal products than other brands, and that premium pet food purchases are increasing. As growing numbers of people consider pets less as animals and more as family members, Okin said, pampering has increased and the options for pet food with high-quality meat has kept pace. This means pets are increasingly eating cuts of meat suitable for humans.”
That statement, it should realized, can be taken much further when considering that it wasn’t that long ago (and is still the case in some places) that people ate essentially the whole animal — from snout-to-tail. The squeamishness concerning the consumption of “dirty” or “weird” parts of animals is a modern thing, and not universal even nowadays.
“I’m not a vegetarian, but eating meat does come at a cost,” he concluded. “Those of us in favor of eating or serving meat need to be able to have an informed conversation about our choices, and that includes the choices we make for our pets.”
The new findings are detailed in a paper published in the journal PLOS One.