Our four-legged friends don’t drive gas-guzzling SUVs or use energy-guzzling appliances, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have an impact on the climate. In fact, researchers have shown that pets play a major role in the climate crisis.
But what do Barkley and Whiskers have to do with warming our planet? It’s the products we buy for them that need a closer look.
A diet high in meat is the biggest contributor to the carbon footprint, and requires a lot of energy, land and water to produce. And pet food production emits huge amounts of planet-warming gases.
According to a 2017 study, feeding dogs and cats produces the equivalent of 64 million tons of carbon dioxide each year in the US. That’s roughly the same impact as 13.6 million cars on the road. And, if our furry friends were to form a separate country, it would rank 5th in world meat consumption behind China, the US, Brazil and Russia, according to UCLA professor and author Gregory Okin.
But don’t panic. Saying goodbye to your best friends is not the answer.
Apart from all the joy they bring, pets have a positive effect on our physical health and mental well-being. Having a pet in the family is associated with less stress, fewer heart attacks, lower rates of depression, and increased self-esteem.
“Our work does not mean that we are ‘against’ keeping pets,” said Pim Martens, a professor of Sustainable Development at Maastricht University who has researched the impact of animals on the planet. “There are also many benefits. Be aware of the ‘side effects’”.
So what’s a concerned pet parent to do? Here are some ways to minimize your pets’ environmental impact while caring for your furry fleet.
First, and most importantly – responsible owners considering making significant changes to their pet’s diet should discuss it with their veterinarian to ensure it is appropriate for their pet’s needs.
In fact, if you are the proud owner of a feline, you don’t even have to think about changing your diet. Cats are obligate carnivores: they have to eat meat, according to Angela Frimberger, a veterinarian at Vets for Climate Action.
Dogs, on the other hand, are omnivores and do not necessarily need meat for every meal, let alone sirloin steak.
“I really want pets to be fed a good quality, nutritionally adequate diet,” Frimberger said. “But for most healthy pets, the tendency to feed foods with good quality ingredients comes from the habit of viewing our pets’ needs from the perspective of what we would like, rather than what they actually need or like. We should remind ourselves that what is attractive does not necessarily equate to the true nutritional quality of the pet.”
Frimberger said there are a number of new food developments on the market worth exploring, especially for dogs, including lab-grown meat. A 2014 study found that insects are a good and nutritious source of protein for pets, and are unlikely to bore your companion (unlike humans who find eating such animals offensive).
“Insect-based pet foods can be nutritionally complete and are starting to be marketed around the world,” Frimberger said. “Also, they can be a solution for some animals with food allergies to traditional protein sources.”
And, of course, feed only the amount of food your pet needs; they will be healthier and feel better if they are not overweight.
While toys, bowls, litter, poop bags and leashes are all necessary for your pet, looking at their sustainability, supply chains and whether or not they can be recycled is just as important as the product itself.
For cats, look for the most eco-friendly litter your feline will tolerate, such as one made from organic materials rather than clay. Although clays are soil minerals, they must be mined, which leads to soil erosion, habitat destruction and groundwater pollution.
For dogs, choose biodegradable poop bags and always pick up, no matter where you are. Studies show that if you don’t scoop out your pup’s poop, harmful microorganisms such as roundworm, E. coli and giardia can survive in your garden for up to four years, posing a health risk to humans.
Baker recommends flushing pet poop directly down the toilet.
“Our water system is designed to handle toxic waste and keep those pollutants out of the environment,” Okin said. Just make sure you don’t throw in other things too, like pet poop bags or unwashable cat litter. Feces only.
And while it can be tempting to dress up your little ones for outings and various holidays, it’s important to buy products with the pet’s true well-being in mind. In other words, ask yourself: what does your pet really need, and what are you buying to satisfy the urge to shop?
“We have to think about the real needs of the pet rather than our drive for consumerism,” Frimberger said.
As a general rule, larger pets will have a greater climate impact than smaller ones, mainly because they need more food. So you may want to consider smaller races or species if you want to minimize your impact on the planet. The carbon footprint of a Chihuahua will be much smaller than that of a Saint Bernard, for example.
You can also consider how some breeds of pets come with more health issues.
“Avoiding animals with known health problems will reduce the need for veterinary intervention, which has a carbon footprint and, above all, will reduce unnecessary suffering in terms of poor health and well-being,” said Gudrun Ravetz with Vet Sustain.
And for those who don’t have all the fluff, cuddling and slobber – you’re in luck.
“Rodents and small birds are great options,” Okin said. “Even snakes, turtles and reptiles can have little effect on those who are doing it.”