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Reducing the environmental pawprint of our pets

Pets – we love them! The UK is home to millions of fabulous fidos and felines and is in the top 10 countries with highest pet ownership. That takes a lot of pet food – and huge volumes of meat – which means our pets come with an environmental “pawprint”. Feedback are setting out on a mission to make the world’s pets sustainable.

What's the problem?

Nearly 9 million tonnes of pet food is sold every year to feed the growing number of pets kept around the world. Whilst the impact of human diets on the climate has come under the spotlight – with many people switching to vegan, vegetarian or reduced meat diets – we rarely consider what impact our animal companions have on the planet. Millions of tonnes of meat, fish and crops are used in pet food every year, and this means our pets have an “eco pawprint”.

Estimates massively vary on the impact of pet food. Globally, it is estimated that pet food production requires an agricultural land area of twice the land area of the UK to produce; moreover, pet food production is estimated to be responsible for the same amount of emissions as some countries, such as Mozambique or the Philippines. One recent study estimated that pets in the United States account for 25–30% of the environmental impacts from US animal production. We have estimated that nearly 3 million tonnes of whole fish and fish-by-products are used in to produce food for pets and animal fur every year (calculations based on this study and FAO fish utlisation data).


What's the solution?

The simplest way to reduce the pawprint of your pets is to keep fewer of them. Keeping only one pet, or even sharing a pet between households, means your favourite pet will get more attention and love.

Some pet species are also lower impact: as a general rule, the smaller the animal, and the less meat it eats, the lower the pawprint. So, cats generally have a lower impact than dogs, smaller dogs have a lower impact than big dogs, and rabbits and hamsters have a lower impact than cats or dogs.

But for many of us, the idea of being without our favourite cat or dog is too much. Don’t worry! There are still many options to reduce your pet’s pawprint, including by switching their diet to a one that is both healthy and sustainable.

Premium dog and cat foods have a particularly high environmental pawprint and should be avoided wherever possible. A recent study found that premium pet foods have 2-3 times the environmental impact of market-leading cat/dog foods. Although there is very little evidence that this is in any way better nutritionally for pets, premium pet foods use prime cuts of meat rather than by-products or offal. This means that livestock are actively produced for this pet food, increasing the size of the livestock sector. However, most pet foods make use of by-products – offal that is rarely eaten by humans – so they are often making use of leftover meat. This reduces how much they incentivise extra meat production.

Petfood which contains any significant quantity of beef or lamb is usually particularly high impact, so we recommend avoiding them. Chicken generally has the lowest environmental impact of meat, especially if it is sustainably produced or organic chicken.

Another exciting option is the development of vegan and vegetarian dog food, which veterinarians generally believe that, as long as it is carefully formulated, dogs can consume for a healthy lifestyle. Although they are not widely available yet, some brands are already selling vegetarian or vegan dog food, including Wild Earth and Benovo. Excitingly, these pet foods may soon be more widely available: Mars Petcare (owner of Pedigree and Whiskers brands) are in the process of developing high-protein plant-based pet foods to replace chicken, beef and rabbit, and have bought a stake in Wild Earth.

Although current evidence suggests that cats cannot survive healthily without meat, we can consider using lower-impact meat for their food. For instance, Conscientious Cat are in the process of developing a cat food made from insects, which are an extremely low impact form of animal protein. Companies like Eat Grub are already marketing insect-based protein for human consumption, and the market is expected to grow exponentially. Pets usually won’t care about the “yuk” factor that may put some humans off eating insects, as long as it tastes good!

Finally, when buying all pet food (vegan or not), avoid deforestation risk commodities like soya where possible, unless you can see they have been grown in Europe, America or other lower-risk countries.


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