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Why feeding Fido isn’t eco-friendly

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With 78 million dogs and 85.8 million cats living with us in our homes, it begs the question: What’s the impact our beloved dogs and cats are having on the environment? 

Eating meat is tough on the environment. And more Americans are heeding the warning signs (livestock accounts for 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions annually). While humans can adjust their meat-eating preferences somewhat easily, our pets rely on us for all their dietary needs.

With 78 million dogs and 85 million cats living with us in our homes, it begs the question: What’s the impact our beloved dogs and cats are having on the environment? In a new paper published in the journal PLOS One, UCLA geography professor Gregory Okin examined the issue. And although cats and dogs don’t usually strike us a pollutant source, Okin found they are responsible for 25 to 30 percent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the United States. All told, cats and dogs would rank fifth in global meat consumption (if they were start their own country).

To put things in perspective, our meat-eating furry friends create the equivalent of about 64 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, which has about the same climate impact as a year’s worth of driving from 13.6 million cars. What’s more, all that meat they're eating has to go somewhere — pets produce about 5.1 million tons of feces a year, as much as 90 million Americans. If all that poo was thrown in the trash, it would rival the total human trash production of Massachusetts.

“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 said in a statement. “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.”

What makes eating meat so harmful to the environment? 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 concluded there is no simple solution to help mitigate the environmental impact from our cats and dogs. However, he suggested, there could be a partial solution, albeit cringe-worthy. Remember the “pink slime” controversy from 2012? A commitment to snout-to-tail consumption, where as much rendered product as possible is produced for human use, could significantly reduce national meat consumption. So go ahead and eat the pink slime, Okin suggests. He estimates that if even a quarter of the meat in pet food could be consumed by humans, it would equal the amount of meat consumed by 26 million Americans.

“It’s perfectly edible and completely safe, but it’s unappetizing, so people don’t want it in their food,” Okin said. “But frankly, it’s a good, inexpensive protein source.”

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