Pet obesity and climate change: are they connected?

May 25, 2021 - 4 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
cat sleeping on a globe

When faced with pleading puppy eyes, many pet parents reach for the treats. After all, food is love! How much could another scoop of kibble or one more tiny piece of bacon hurt?

Unfortunately, overfeeding is unhealthy—and not just for our pets. In addition to experiencing weight-related health problems, obese dogs and cats have heavier “carbon pawprints” as a result of their increased consumption.

What's a "Carbon Pawprint"?

A "carbon pawprint" or "footprint" refers to your cat's or dog's impact on the earth via their carbon output. (You can measure your pet's carbon pawprint using our calculator!)

Not only are pet obesity and climate change connected, but they’re both growing in scale and severity. According to a survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 60% of cats and 58% of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese.

Meanwhile, the earth’s temperature has risen by an average of 0.14° Fahrenheit (0.08° Celsius) per decade since 1880, or about 2° F in total, according to the 2023 Global Climate Report.

To better understand the connection between your pet and the planet, let's start at one of the biggest sources: your pet's food dish.

From beets to burgers, all food requires natural resources and energy to produce.

But compared to plant-based diets, raising meat takes a much heavier toll on the environment, necessitating more energy, land, and water. And most pet foods, of course, are comprised almost entirely of meat.

Climate change in a bowl

So, just how significant is this carbon pawprint of pet food? Consider the following findings from a 2017 study by UCLA researchers:

  • Meat-eating cats and dogs in the United States create 64 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of 13.6 million cars driving for a year.

  • Cats and dogs are responsible for up to 30% of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the U.S.

  • The “final stop” for all of this meat? Pets in America produce 5.1 million tons of feces per year, which is approximately the total annual trash production of Massachusetts.

Decreasing the amount of meat in your pet’s diet isn’t always an option. Dogs are omnivores and benefit from the nutrients in both meat and plants. There may be certain types of vegetarian diets that are healthy for dogs, but you absolutely must consult your veterinarian before you consider this option.

he veterinarian weighs an overweight pet on a scale, fat cat

Meanwhile, as “obligate” carnivores, there’s really no such thing as a healthy vegetarian diet for cats; they need the unique amino acids found in meats to stay healthy.

However, if your dog or cat is overweight, cutting back on the amount of food they eat can help reduce their carbon pawprint while improving their health.

Unhealthy Pets Have Unhealthy Carbon Pawprints

If your pet is looking a little “fluffier” these days, you’re not alone.

Pet obesity is on the rise, and those extra pounds come with serious health consequences.

"Obesity is a huge epidemic among our four-legged friends," says Dr. Lauren Jones, a veterinarian in the Philadelphia area. "As with people, obesity can lead to diabetes, heart disease, or the exacerbation of underlying arthritis.”

Obesity is a huge epidemic among our four-legged friends

Combined with higher rates of pet ownership, overfeeding is creating an increased demand for pet foods, says Pim Martens, Professor of Sustainable Development at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. To meet this demand, manufacturers must raise more livestock specifically for pet consumption, as more sustainable byproducts from the human-grade meat industry no longer suffice.

“In a lot of Western countries, most of the pets are overweight,” Martens says. “To reduce the ecological pawprint of an overweight pet and make them healthier, feed your pet less. It's a win-win.”

How to Help Your Pet Lose Weight

overhead shot of black doodle dog standing on wooden scale above robins egg blue floor

As pet parents, it’s our responsibility to make sure our pets (and our planet!) stay as healthy and fit as possible.

“Achieving and maintaining an ideal body weight is a crucial part of keeping pets healthy and living into their golden years," says Dr. Jones.

Of course, losing weight and eating less are easier said than done. To help your four-legged friend live their best life, consider the following diet and exercise tips:

Consult Your Vet

First things first: Before changing your pet’s diet or exercise routine, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Every animal is unique, and your vet can determine your individual pet’s ideal weight, caloric intake, and exercise goals.

Take Things Slow

Weight loss is a marathon, not a sprint.

“While working with a veterinarian on a weight loss plan for your pet, it is important to undertake efforts gradually, with a goal to lose no more than 1-2% of an individual’s body weight per week,” advises Dr. Jones.

While working with a veterinarian on a weight loss plan for your pet, it is important to undertake efforts gradually.

Take Control of Pet Food Portions

To ensure your pet is receiving the correct amount of food, don’t simply “guesstimate” their dinner portion. Invest in a measuring scoop or scale and serve the exact amount your veterinarian advises. If you don’t trust yourself, consider purchasing an automatic feeder that dispenses the correct amount of food at designated mealtimes.

Limit Treats

When it comes to calories, treats can add up quickly. If you give your pet a treat, consider subtracting those calories from their next meal. Instead of high-calorie store-bought dog treats, consider a small portion of a pup-safe fruit or vegetable. (Or make your own!)

Dog with banana

Pet food safety

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Dog with banana

Incorporate Exercise

In addition to eating less, it’s important for overweight pets to move more.

“Restricting calories alone is generally insufficient in helping a pet lose weight, as they need to get up and get moving to increase their calorie expenditure,” says Dr. Jones.

Obese pets may have trouble with strenuous exercise and should gradually increase their activity under the supervision of your veterinarian, Jones adds. Not sure where to start? Check out our guides to cat and dog exercise.

Maintaining a healthy weight is hard work, but it’s worth it—for your pet and for the planet.

Monica has written for a variety of brands and publications, including Martha Stewart Living, Anthropologie, and pet-friendly outlets including Petco, Chewy, and ManyPets.