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 Pet Food Impacts the Environment
So what makes 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 that 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.
Feeding Your Pet: 6 Environmentally-Friendly Tips
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" 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.
#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, adds 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 cat 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.”
#4. Buy Eco-Friendly Pet Food Brands
Studies have shown that 66% of consumers are willing to spend more for 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.
“Choosing environmentally conscious pet food producers is a great step forward,” says Casper Ohm, senior research scientist at Water-Pollution.org.uk. “For instance, Pure Pet Food uses fully recyclable packaging, while Wild Earth produces 100% plant-based dog food.”
In the future, expect even more options. A recent 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 Appropriate Portions
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 caloric needs.
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.
Pet Food Sustainability: Staying (Climate) Positive
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!