How Pet Obesity and Climate Change Are Connected

May 25, 2021 - 3 min read
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 bacon snack really 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.

Not only are pet obesity and climate change connected, 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. Globally, 2020 was the second hottest year on record, with every month except December ranking in the top four warmest, according to the 2020 Global Climate Report.

To better understand the connection between your pet and the planet, it helps to understand the carbon cost of pet food.

Climate change in a bowl

The Link Between Pet Food and Climate Change

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.

So, just how significant is this carbon pawprint? 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 vegetarian before you consider this option.) 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 pet is overweight, cutting back the amount of food they eat can help lighten their carbon cost 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 consequences.

"Obesity is a huge epidemic in 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.”

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.

Currently, Martens is working on a project in the United Kingdom to bring awareness to the relationship between overweight pets and climate change.

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

Lean & Green: Creating an Action Plan

Cat hiding in a box

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 veterinarian. 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.

  • Practice precise portion control. To ensure your pet is receiving the correct amount of food, don’t simply “guestimate” their dinner portion. Invest in a measuring scoop 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 mealtime. Instead of high-calorie store-bought dog treats, consider a small portion of a pup-safe fruit or vegetable.

  • 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 to 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.

Maintaining a healthy weight is hard work, but it’s worth it – for your pet and for the planet. From our many pets to yours, good luck and bone appetite!

Want to learn more about eco-friendly pet parenthood? Read our Climate E-book here.

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