Every year, agricultural land roughly double 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, reveals that the annual greenhouse gas emissions associated with pet food production amounts to 106 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Livestock currently accounts for 5% of carbon dioxide emissions and a whopping 40% of methane emissions, which is why we are all being urged to eat less meat with initiatives such as ‘meat-free Mondays’ and ‘veganuary’. But is it a good thing for our pets to eat less meat?
Dogs evolved into omnivores (eating both animal and plant matter) during domestication, when they began eating leftover scraps from early man. This means that it is possible for dogs to thrive on a vegetarian diet, as long as all their nutritional requirements are met. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of commercially-produced vegetarian dog foods that use plant-based sources of protein such as chickpeas, green peas, soya beans and lentils.
Cats, however, are a different matter. They are obligate carnivores, which means they require certain nutrients that can only be found in meat and therefore they would not be able to live on a vegetarian diet. Taurine, for example, is a vital amino acid for cats that can only be absorbed from meat. Without it, they can develop a potentially fatal heart condition.
Your pet does not need to go ‘meat-free’ to have a positive impact on the environment, as there are better choices you can make for them. For example, human-grade meat is not necessarily better for your pet compared to by-products of the meat production industry like bone meal and organ meat. Some argue that the rise in the popularity of ‘human-grade’ meat in pet food is just a marketing tool and that it shouldn’t be given to cats and dogs.
Not all meat has the same negative effect, so you could look towards those sources that make less of an impact. For example, chicken is a better choice than beef or lamb, and you should ensure that any fish has come from a certified sustainable source.
Pet food manufacturers are also looking to new, more sustainable sources of animal protein, and this has seen the introduction of insect-based foods for cats and dogs. The British Veterinary Association has backed insect-based pet food as being the future of feeding and urges owners to consider giving it a try. It is estimated that, compared with beef, insect-based foods use 2% of the land and 4% of the water per kg of protein.
Other things that you should consider when choosing a pet food are: air miles (where is the food produced?) and packaging (is it made from recycled materials? Is it recyclable?). The amount of packaging should also be considered – 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 pet food loose and use reusable containers to keep it in.
There are an estimated 12.5 million pet dogs in the UK producing in excess of 1,000 tonnes of faeces every day and much of that is picked up by responsible dog owners in plastic bags, which then end up in landfill. That’s a huge amount of single use plastic.
If you are going to use plastic poo bags, you should make sure they are bio-degradable or, even better, compostable, to lessen their environmental impact. If you are in a woodland area, it is recommended that you don’t use bags at all. The Forestry Commission promotes the ‘stick and flick’ method for dealing with waste in the woods. This is basically finding a stick and using it to flick your dog’s mess off of the path so it is out of the way. You could also bury it but take care in any areas where there could be livestock as dog poo can be very toxic to them if eaten.
If your cat uses a litter tray in the home, you could use natural filling such as sawdust or shredded paper, or choose one of the eco-brands of litter available. You should check the ingredients to ensure any litter you use does not contain sodium bentonite clay, which is strip-mined – a practice that can erode soil, scar the landscape and destroy wildlife. Any wood-based litter you use should be from a sustainable source. Look for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified products.
If you automatically jump in the car every day to take your dog on their favourite walk, try looking for routes closer to home for a change. Are there any footpaths or parks nearby that you’ve never explored? We’re not saying you should give up your dog walking hot spots but having a day or two a week when you don’t use your car will make a difference.
Road vehicles account for nearly three quarters of all the greenhouse gas emissions that come from transport, and in England around 60% of 1–2-mile trips are made by car.
A top tip for reducing 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 things that you would otherwise throw away. For example, an old knotted t-shirt can make a great tug toy for a dog. Cats love nothing more than a cardboard box to curl up in, which is a great way of recycling your old packaging too.
Lots of pet accessory companies are now producing collars, leads, beds and toys made from recycled materials but it’s worth checking where they are manufactured. Choose accessories that are made in the UK if you want to avoid unnecessary air miles.
Parasite prevention is a balancing act between finding something that works while minimising the impact on the environment. Toxic pesticides found in veterinary flea treatments that are 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 that we rely on for pollination.
There are natural, non-toxic alternatives you can use on your pets to discourage fleas, containing ingredients such as citronella, eucalyptus and rosemary.
Check the labels on pet shampoos and sprays too to see what chemicals they contain and find out what impact they have on the environment.
According to animal rights charity Peta, at any given time there are an estimated 100,000 dogs (and countless cats) without homes in the UK. There’s no better way to recycle than by giving a loving home to a dog or cat from a rescue shelter 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 a staff writer on Dogs Today magazine, working my way up to become deputy editor in 2008. In 2010, I left the office to pursue a freelance career, relocated to north Norfolk and started a family.
Over the years I’ve contributed thoughtful human-interest features, celebrity interviews and investigative news stories to publications including The Sunday Times, Dogs Today, Dogs Monthly and Your Cat. I’ve also ghost-written veterinary books and press releases for the pet industry.
When I’m not writing, I enjoy long walks in the Norfolk countryside with my rescue lurcher Popsie. These are always followed by tea and cake.