How to feed your pet without destroying the planet

Should we be feeding our dogs a vegan diet to reduce their carbon ‘pawprint’? (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Hands up if you bought a lockdown puppy or kitten?

Since the first national lockdown in March, sales of four-legged friends have soared.

Internet searches for ‘puppies near me’ increased by 650{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} during lockdown compared to searches in January, and puppy prices quadrupled at the beginning of the summer.

The RSPCA has seen a surge of interest in adoption since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic (as well as an increase in welfare-related calls) and Cats Protection has rehomed 2,400 cats during lockdown.

It’s easy to understand why. Research by the Kennel Club shows that the most common reason people have opted for a new lockdown pet is due to more time at home, and a need for extra companionship. Two thirds of the new pet owners surveyed said that their new fur baby was a ‘lifeline in lockdown’.

But pet ownership was already on a steady increase before coronavirus reared its head – especially in the US and Europe, which account for two thirds of them globally. Now, 26{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} of UK households own a pet dog and 24{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} own a cat. All this adds up to an ethical dilemma: how can we feed them without negatively impacting the environment?

We know that animal agriculture is responsible for up to 18{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} of global greenhouse emissions. But what many people don’t know is that pet food accounts for a quarter of the environmental impact of animal production – in terms of the use of land, water and fossil fuels.

The global pet food market was worth $94 Billion in 2017 and is growing.

Carnivorous pets, such as dogs and cats, need a heavily protein-rich diet to be healthy. Yet faced with the environmental impact of meat production, the UK population is favouring a plant-based diet more than ever.

The number of vegans here quadrupled between 2014 and 2019, and as of this year every one of the UK’s top supermarkets has its own vegan range.

Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning that they need to eat meat to survive and be healthy. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

If we’re cutting down on our own meat consumption, can our pets do the same?

‘Cats are carnivores and dogs are technically omnivores. They both traditionally eat a high meat diet,’ says Dr Rory Cowlam (better known as Rory the Vet, starring in the CBBC show The Pets Factor).

‘With dogs, you can reduce their meat intake. Dogs can survive on a vegetarian or vegan diet, but you need to do your research and speak to your vet about it as there are big pitfalls you can fall into, which can put your dog in harm’s way.

‘In cats, it is absolutely necessary to feed them a meat diet. They cannot currently live on a vegan diet.

‘Anyone looking to go eco-friendly with their cat can’t make that move, but they can look at the way the ingredients are being used in the food they buy.

‘A lot of companies use the offcuts of the human chain and are trying to be as environmentally minded as they can in other ways, like using recyclable and recycled packaging.’

The Pet Food Manufacturers’ Assocation (PFMA) supports this, claiming that the pet food industry uses high quantities of byproducts from the human food industry that are unsuitable for human consumption, which reduces food waste. In 2016 the industry used some 600,000 tonnes of materials that were surplus to human food production.

These offcuts, including offal like the liver and lungs, provide pets with a serious amount of nutrition. ‘Organ meats are loaded with minerals like phosphorus, iron, copper, magnesium and iodine, and provide the important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K,’ says Sam Crossley, Marketing Director at Lily’s Kitchen – a B Corp pet food provider that uses recyclable packaging and has just launched a vegan dog food option.

Yet even to meet the global demand for dry pet food, which adds vegetables and cereals to meat derivatives, requires an amount of land twice the size of the UK, and produces more greenhouse gases than whole countries, such as Mozambique and the Philippines.

‘The pet food industry faces similar challenges to the broader food sector in terms of working to source ingredients sustainably, environmentally friendly production, recyclable packaging materials,’ says a spokesperson for the PFMA.

Dogs can go veggie, but not cats (Picture: Getty Images)

‘There is much research into protein-rich meat alternatives such as ‘cultured’ meat, soy-based tofu or seitan from wheat gluten. Algae protein also has great potential, with almost double the protein content of beef. It grows 10 times faster than terrestrial plants and absorbs CO2 as an additional sustainability effect.’

A developing problem in the UK is that pet owners are increasingly expecting higher-grade meat for their pets, which adds to the production of greenhouse gases – and our tendency to overfeed our pets doesn’t help.

‘I’m all for feeding your dogs high-grade, high-nutrition food, but it’s driving more meat production which has a negative effect on greenhouse gases and climate change,’ says Dr Cowlam.

‘We have to ask these companies, why are you using those cuts?

‘If you do buy high-grade pet food, ask whether the animals in it are being produced in a high welfare and sustainable way.’

For some people who have chosen to reduce or cut animal products from their diet altogether for environmental reasons, it’s just not ethically possible to keep a pet cat or dog.

‘I adore cats particularly and would love to have one, but am well aware that they’re obligate carnivores,’ say London-based vegan, Jamie.

‘It’s become an impossible conundrum. On one hand, by having a meat-eating animal I would be choosing to prioritise their life over the lives of the animals that are killed to feed it. But I also know that there are many cats in need of rescuing, and which need meat to survive.

‘I can’t have a cat until commercially viable lab-grown meat becomes a thing.’

For Dr Cowlam, it’s all about balance – and applying many of the same principles to your pet’s diet as you would to your own.

‘Ask where your food’s coming from, buy local and sustainably, buy recyclable packaged foods that are made well. If you want to feed your dogs some extra vegetables now and again, feel free,’ he says.

‘Why not try meat-free Mondays for your dog? And look at alternative protein sources that are on the market, like insect protein, or vegan pet foods that are being launched in the UK regularly.

‘We’re moving in that direction – there will be an influx of vegetable-based dog foods into the market over the next few years.’

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