Climate change is a formidable beast. It springs up on the heels (and paws) of myriad causes and wreaks havoc across the globe. We’re living through an era of melting glaciers and rising sea levels, ferocious wildfires, and frequent hurricanes.
That may seem like a pretty heavy intro for an article about pet parenting; when people think up ways to cut down on carbon emissions, they rarely look to that furry family member at the end of the leash. Instead, we tend to consider our own fuel consumption, the clothes we buy, heck, even the water flow in our showerheads.
But we should all be a whole lot more concerned about our pets’ environmental pawprints. Our furry friends are far bigger drivers of CO2 emissions than we’d like to admit. According to one major study, feeding our pets creates the equivalent of 64 million tons of carbon dioxide in the US every year — about the same impact as a year’s worth of driving from 13.6 million cars.
Now let’s be clear: Pet parenthood is magical and important. Companionship of the furry variety can literally alter your brain chemistry, opening the floodgates for all those lovely hormones that lower stress and stave off depression. Pets help their humans become more empathetic, more loyal, and more purpose-filled. Pet parents even live longer.
So by all means, adopt a new pet, and definitely don’t feel guilty about the ones you already own. But that shouldn’t keep you from thinking harder about how your four-legged friends impact the environment or from working to reduce their carbon impact.
How pet parenting impacts the environment
So, why do dogs and cats have such a huge environmental impact? It’s simple, really: Our pets aren’t vegetarians, and meat-heavy food products play a huge role in driving CO2 emissions.
There are few reasons for that:
Cows, sheep and other animals raised for meat produce massive amounts of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — during the digestive process. (This is a polite way of explaining it.)
Raising animals for food often destroys forests and habitats that would otherwise play a role in capturing greenhouse gases.
Certain fertilizers used to supply livestock with food produce a substantial carbon impact.
Alas, our furry friends are some carnivorous little creatures. As a result, pet diets can result in a larger carbon impact than even some human diets.
“If you have a big dog, they eat far more meat than a human does on average,” says Pim Martens, Professor of Sustainable Development at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, whose research has explored the ecological impacts of canine and feline diets. In The Netherlands, where much of the research was conducted, “a reasonably large dog has almost ten times as big an ecological paw print as a human when it comes to their eating habits,” Martens adds.
Even a cat — despite its small size — still accounts for about 80 percent of a human being’s dietary impact, Professor Martens says.
Okay, so dogs and cats eat a lot of meat. What’s the solution?
The roadmap to a better carbon pawprint
We’ve already told you not to sacrifice pet parenthood itself — that would be tragic. But there are some things pet parents can do to become more climate-pawsitive citizens.
There’s a pretty easy way to gauge your pet’s carbon pawprint: Just look at them — or better yet, weigh them. The bigger your pet is, the more they need to eat, and the bigger their environmental impact is likely to be.
Now to be clear, we’re definitely not saying you should steer clear of plus-size pups. By all means, adopt a lumbering Great Dane or a slobbery Saint Bernard. Those are some good boys (and girls).
But if you do, think about varying things up next time: Instead of adopting a second canine giant, how about a toy poodle, a tiny kitten, or a small shelter dog in need of a good home?
“Sometimes I see people walking around, even in a very condensed city, with three or four huge dogs,” says Professor Martens. “And I think, "Well, maybe you could consider having one or two less, or if not, then getting a smaller one.”
If you want a big furry family, size diversity is always a plus.
Consider alternative foods (with guidance from a vet)
There are a growing variety of eco-friendly foods that incorporate less farm-raised meat than everyday pet food. Some of these foods are actually insect-based. Yuck, we know — but insect-based pet food may be able to deliver the protein your pet needs without all of the methane emissions or deforestation. And at least one study has concluded that these foods are nutritious. Plus, your dog probably doesn’t have the same aversion to creepy crawlies that you do.
Some foods go heavier on plant products, but you should be very careful before switching your pet to a vegetarian diet. In fact, if you’re a cat owner, you shouldn’t even think about it: Cats can’t produce certain vital proteins on their own, and they need meat to stay healthy.
But with dogs, there may be a little bit more wiggle room. Some vets say that canines can live on a vegetarian diet. But: You should always, always, always talk to your vet before moving your dog to a more plant-heavy diet. It’s easy to deliver the proteins your dog needs when they’re eating animal products. But if your pup is relying entirely on vegetarian foods, you may need detailed guidance from a veterinarian or nutritionist.
Whether you’re thinking of switching your pet to plant starch or mashed-up crickets, your veterinarian will likely have some great advice. Maybe they’ll steer you toward certain brands — or maybe they’ll caution you against changing up your pet’s diet at all. For example, if your pup has been the picture of friskiness after spending years on a meat-heavy diet, your vet might frown on any changes, regardless of your good intentions.
The bottom line: Trimming the fat from your pet’s diet may make for a lighter carbon pawprint — but don’t make any changes without asking a vet first.
Break out the (healthy) scraps
When Professor Martens turned his research toward Europe and Asia, something interesting emerged: In Asian countries where pet parents were more likely to feed their pets portions of their own food, carbon emissions were lower than in his native Netherlands, where the practice is less common.
“In China, a lot of leftovers are given to cats and dogs. And by comparison to Western European countries, they produce only a little bit [of an ecological pawprint],” says Professor Martens.
It’s not all that surprising: The practice inevitably reduces the amount of meat-based pet food that pet parents need to buy, which in turn reduces the quantity of livestock that farmers need to raise for food in the first place, which...well you get the idea.
Just take note: You need to be very careful when it comes to feeding your pet human food. Certain foods — like lean meets and raw vegetables — are generally okay. But not all human foods are healthy for dogs and cats (or for humans, quite frankly). In fact, some may even be toxic.
So this is definitely one of those talk-to-your-vet situations. Properly re-calibrating your furry friend’s meals and portion sizes, and making sure you’re not giving your pet unhealthy foods, will inevitably require some expert guidance. Your vet might even tell you that you shouldn’t change your pet’s diet at all.
Change up your own carbon consumption habits
It may be true that a pet’s eating habits can create more of a carbon impact than a human’s — but there’s much more to our lives than food. On the whole, humans create vastly more carbon emissions than their furry companions, and it ain’t particularly close.
It’s pretty simple, really: Your Golden Retriever can’t buy a plane ticket to Hawaii, your Siamese cat can’t drive cross-country in an SUV, and your Siberian Husky can’t work on a fracking crew. Human activity creates a carbon footprint so large that no collection of pawprints could ever possibly match it.
But by making adjustments to your own carbon consumption habits, you can more than offset your pets’ environmental impact — even if you don’t change anything else.
And there’s a lot you can do in your own life to offset your four-legged friend’s carbon pawprint, from cutting down on fuel consumption to buying more environmentally sustainable clothing.
“A lot of the sustainability and climate issues we face are a matter of people not being fully aware of them,” says Professor Martens. “Maybe if people think, ‘Wow, my dog or cat is having a huge impact,’ then they’ll consider their own ecological footprint as well.”
Why climate pawsitivity is important
Well, it’s important for the same reason that any climate-positive behavior is important. The very habitability of our world is at stake — and meat production has a huge impact.
Altering your pet parenting habits probably won’t unmelt the glaciers. But every little thing helps — and as it turns out, your pet’s carbon pawprint isn’t even all that little. So it’s high time for pet parents to think about their furry family’s environmental impact. And once they do that, hopefully, they’ll think about their own, too.