Sustainable pet food options are out there. What does that actually mean?

March 2, 2024 - 5 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.
A joyful tan dog with fluffy fur looks up expectantly at an illustrated hand holding a small, pink treat. The dog's mouth is open, tongue out, ready to accept the snack, all against a plain, light grey background.

As doting pet parents, we treat our four-legged friends like VIPs (that’s Very Important Pets, of course).

From mealtime to playtime to bedtime, we make sure they have everything they need to live their happiest, healthiest lives. Unfortunately, taking care of pets takes a huge toll on the environment.

The biggest factor in this climate conundrum? Dog and cat foods, which require large amounts of natural resources to produce.

Of course, high-quality food is non-negotiable when it comes to pet parenting. Is there a balance between sustainability and quality when it comes to pet food? We're getting there.

How modern-day pet food impacts the environment

A cheerful tan dog with shaggy fur holds a carrot in its mouth, complete with green tops, standing against a light grey background. The dog looks happy and attentive, possibly awaiting a command or praise.

So what makes a majority of our modern pet food so problematic? In a word: meat.

“Most pets have a meat-based diet, which we know requires a lot of land, energy, and water to produce,” says Dr. Sara Ochoa, a Texas-based veterinarian.

According to a 2021 report, the greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are double those of plant-based foods. And in 2017, researchers from UCLA discovered that our beloved cats and dogs are responsible for up to 30% of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the United States.

A meat-based diet...requires a lot of land, energy, and water to produce.

Our carnivorous pets contribute 64 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, which is the equivalent of 13.6 million cars driving for a year. To put these numbers in perspective, if Americans’ dogs and cats formed a separate country, they would rank fifth in global meat consumption.

5 tips for feeding your pets sustainably

First, always consult your veterinarian before changing your pet’s food!

Some pets need specific diets for medical conditions or life stages, and eco-friendly alternatives may not be appropriate. Additionally, changes should be made slowly and under the guidance of your vet to avoid gastrointestinal upset.

#1. Don’t buy into the "choice cut" meat marketing hype

Many premium pet foods proudly boast that they’re made with only choice cuts of meat and without animal “byproducts.”

Although these claims are certainly appealing to well-meaning pet parents, the truth is that there’s nothing wrong with byproducts. In fact, these less desirable animal parts are nutritious, practical, and environmentally savvy.

By choosing a pet food that contains byproducts, you’ll save perfectly edible ingredients from the landfill while reducing the need for more livestock.

Two oaws, one pink and the other black, come together to complete a puzzle in the shape of Earth, symbolizing global unity and cooperation. The background is a simple cream color, focusing attention on the central act.

#2. Consider buying plant-based dog food

If you stick to a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may be interested in exploring an alternative diet for your pet. So, is it possible? Maybe, depending on your pet.

“There is a growing body of evidence that dogs can live long and healthy lives on a vegetarian diet—even sporting dogs,” says veterinarian Dr. Joanna Woodnutt, MRCVS.

Before feeding your dog a plant-based diet, consult your veterinarian. The food you select should contain added methionine, an essential amino acid found in meat, according to Woodnutt.

There is a growing body of evidence that dogs can live long and healthy lives on a vegetarian diet

Cats, on the other hand, are “obligate carnivores,” meaning their bodies simply need the unique nutrients found in meat. Specifically, cats require taurine, an amino acid found in meat that cannot be easily replicated.

“While there is synthetic taurine, bioavailability appears to be poor,” says Woodnutt. “I would urge pet owners not to switch their cats to a meat-free diet until we know more.”

#3. Choose pet food proteins wisely

Not all proteins are created equal.

After accounting for land use, irrigation water, and greenhouse gas production, researchers at Yale found that raising beef requires 10 times more resources than raising poultry, dairy, eggs, or pork.

When selecting a pet food, skip recipes made from beef and opt for a more eco-friendly protein. While chicken is popular, a less traditional source is creating quite the “buzz” lately.

“Products made out of edible insects are the latest innovation in terms of sustainable pet food,” says Ochoa. “They’re extremely nutritious, and have very low greenhouse emissions in their production—nearly 96% less than beef products.”

A curious Bernese Mountain Dog puppy is looking at a round pink bowl filled with illustrated kibble, each piece depicted in black with pink centers, on a white background. A couple of kibbles have fallen outside the bowl, suggesting the puppy may have been investigating its contents.

#4. Buy from brands that focus on sustainability

Studies have shown that 66% of consumers are willing to spend more on sustainable brands, and the pet food industry has taken note. From low-carbon foods to bowls made from recycled plastic, there are a number of eco-conscious pet products available these days.

In the future, expect even more options. One survey by the Pet Sustainability Coalition found that 91% of pet industry professionals expect an increased focus on sustainable products to meet consumer demand.

While many of these foods have a higher price tag, if there’s room in your budget, consider it an investment in the earth. “We are in charge of the environmental impact of our pets' eating habits just as much as we are of our own,” says Ohm.

#5. Feed your pet the right amount

When rethinking your pet’s diet, it’s always a good idea to make sure you’re giving the appropriate portions. Keeping your pet at their ideal weight will help ensure a longer, happier life. (Plus, when you avoid overfeeding, you cut back on your pet’s carbon pawprint!)

A number of factors will influence how much you should feed your pet, including:

  • Species: Cats and dogs require species-specific foods and portions.

  • Age: Puppies, kittens, nursing animals, and senior pets require additional calories and special formulations.

  • Size: Larger breeds require more calories.

  • Activity level: Lap dogs will generally need fewer calories than working dogs.

  • Health conditions: Many health conditions can affect the caloric needs of dogs and cats.

Calorie calculators such as those developed by the Pet Nutrition Alliance can serve as general guidance. However, each pet is unique, so review your portion plan with your veterinarian.

A sleepy Bernese Mountain Dog puppy is lying down with its head resting between its paws next to an illustrated, automatic kibble dispenser. The dispenser has a large container on top filled with black kibble with pink centers, and a bowl at the bottom with a few pieces of kibble, set against a light grey background.

The bottom line

If you’re an animal lover, it’s easy to become overwhelmed—and maybe even pessimistic—when researching how to care for both your pets and the environment. But there’s no need to feel guilty or discouraged.

“Pets are a huge part of our lives, and the joy and unconditional love they bring to us is second to none,” says Ochoa. “Even though our pets’ carbon footprint is high, you don’t have to resort to extreme measures. There are quite a number of healthy, convenient, and environmentally friendly courses of action to take.”

So when you're thinking about how to move forward and feel like there are so many ways you fall short, just remember that the fact that you're considering environmentally friendly pet food options is a great first step.

Who’s a good pet parent? You are!

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