Each year farmland roughly twice the size of the UK is used to produce enough dry pet food for the global market.
A study, published in the journal Global Environmental Change in 2020, finds that annual greenhouse gas emissions associated with pet food production amount to 106 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
food for thought
Livestock currently accounts for 5% of carbon dioxide emissions and 40% of methane emissions, which is why we are all urged to eat less meat with initiatives such as “Meatless Mondays” and “Vegan”. But is it a good thing for our pets to eat less meat?
Dogs became omnivores (eating both animal and plant matter) during domestication, when they started eating the remains of early humans. This means that it is possible for dogs to thrive on a vegetarian diet, as long as all of their nutritional needs are met. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of commercially produced vegetarian dog foods that use vegetable protein sources such as chickpeas, green peas, soybeans and lentils.
Cats, however, are another matter. They are obligate carnivores, which means they need certain nutrients that are only found in meat and therefore could not live on a vegetarian diet. Taurine, for example, is a vital amino acid for cats that can only be absorbed through meat. Without it, they can develop life-threatening heart disease.
Your pet doesn’t have to be “meat-free” to have a positive impact on the environment, because you can make better choices for them. For example, human-grade meat is not necessarily better for your pet than by-products of the meat production industry like bone meal and organ meats. Some argue that the growing popularity of “human grade” meat in pet food is just a marketing tool and shouldn’t be given to cats and dogs.
Not all meats have the same negative effect, so you can turn to sources that have less of an impact. For example, chicken is a better choice than beef or lamb, and you should ensure that any fish comes from a certified sustainable source.
Pet food manufacturers are also looking for new, more sustainable sources of animal protein, which has led to the introduction of insect-based foods for cats and dogs. The British Veterinary Association has argued that insect-based pet food is the future of nutrition and is urging owners to consider trying it. It is estimated that, compared to beef, insect-based feeds use 2% of the soil and 4% of the water per kg of protein.
Other things you should consider when choosing a pet food are: airline miles (where is the food produced?) and packaging (is it made from recycled materials? Is it recyclable?). The amount of packaging should also be taken into account – it may be better to buy larger bags of food than smaller ones, as long as the food can be eaten before the expiry date, or to buy food bulk animals and use reusable containers to store them. .
An estimated 12.5 million pet dogs in the UK produce over 1,000 tonnes of faeces every day, much of which is picked up by responsible dog owners in plastic bags, which then end up at the landfill. That’s a huge amount of single-use plastic.
If you plan on using plastic poop bags, you should make sure they are biodegradable, or even better, compostable, to reduce their impact on the environment. If you are in a wooded area, it is recommended that you do not use bags at all. The Forestry Commission promotes the ‘stick and flick’ method of dealing with litter in the woods. It’s basically finding a stick and using it to get your dog’s mess out of the way so he’s out of the way. You can also bury it, but be careful in any areas where there might be livestock, as dog poop can be very toxic to them if eaten.
If your cat uses a litter box at home, you can use a natural litter such as sawdust or shredded paper, or choose one of the eco-brands of litter available. You need to check the ingredients to make sure the litter you’re using doesn’t contain sodium bentonite clay, which is mined in the open – a practice that can erode soil, scar the landscape and destroy wildlife. Any wood-based litter you use should come from a sustainable source. Look for products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
Way of life
If you automatically hop in the car every day to take your dog on his favorite walk, try finding routes closer to home for a change. Are there any trails or parks nearby that you have never explored? We’re not saying you should give up walking your dog in hot spots, but having a day or two a week when you’re not using your car will make a difference.
Road vehicles account for almost three-quarters of all greenhouse gas emissions from transport, and in England around 60% of 1-2 mile journeys are made by car.
Eco-Friendly Pet Products
One tip to reduce the environmental impact of the pet products you use is to ditch the plastic. Choose toys made from natural materials or try making your own using items you would otherwise throw away. For example, an old knotted t-shirt can make a great pull toy for a dog. Cats love nothing more than a cardboard box to curl up in, which is also a great way to recycle your old packaging.
Many pet accessory companies now produce collars, leashes, beds, and toys made from recycled materials, but it’s worth checking out where they’re made. Choose UK-made accessories if you want to avoid unnecessary air miles.
Pest prevention is a balancing act between finding something that works while minimizing the impact on the environment. Toxic pesticides found in veterinary flea treatments used on domestic cats and dogs have been detected at potentially harmful levels in English rivers. Insecticides used on pets can also kill bees and other important insects we rely on for pollination.
There are natural, non-toxic alternatives you can use on your pets to discourage fleas, containing ingredients such as lemongrass, eucalyptus and rosemary.
Also check the labels of pet shampoos and sprays to see what chemicals they contain and their impact on the environment.
Adopt, don’t buy
According to animal rights group Peta, there are around 100,000 dogs (and countless cats) without homes in the UK at any given time. There’s no better way to recycle than by giving a dog or cat from a rescue shelter a loving home instead of buying a new puppy or kitten.
I’ve spent 20 years writing about pets and exploring the wonderful relationships they have with their owners. I started as an editor for Dogs Today magazine and then worked my way up to associate editor in 2008. In 2010 I left the office to pursue a freelance career, moved up north from Norfolk and started a family.
Over the years I have contributed human interest reporting, celebrity interviews and investigative reporting to publications such as The Sunday Times, Dogs Today, Dogs Monthly and Your Cat. I have also written veterinary books and press releases for the pet industry.
When I’m not writing I like to take long walks in the Norfolk countryside with my rescue lurcher Popsie. These are always followed by tea and cake.