The truth about cats' and dogs' environmental impact

August 2, 2017
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

With many Americans choosing to eat less meat in recent years, often to help reduce the environmental effect of meat production, UCLA geography professor Gregory Okin began to wonder how much feeding pets contributes to issues like climate change.

All that has important consequences. Okin calculated that meat-eating by dogs and cats creates the equivalent of about 64 million tons of a year, which has about the same climate impact as a year's worth of driving from 13.6 million cars.

"I like dogs and cats, and I'm definitely not recommending that people get rid of their pets or put them on a vegetarian diet, which would be unhealthy," Okin said. "But I do think we should consider all the impacts that pets have so we can have an honest conversation about them. Pets have many benefits, but also a huge environmental impact."

In a paper publishing Aug. 2 in the journal PLOS One, Okin says he found that cats and dogs are responsible for 25 to 30 percent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the United States. If Americans' 163 million Fidos and Felixes comprised a separate country, their fluffy nation would rank fifth in global meat consumption, Okin calculated, behind only Russia, Brazil, the United States and China. And it all has to go somewhere—America's pets produce about 5.1 million tons of feces in a year, as much as 90 million Americans. If all that were thrown in the trash, it would rival the total trash production of Massachusetts—from the humans, at least.

Compared to a plant-based diet, meat requires more energy, land and water to produce, and has greater environmental consequences in terms of erosion, pesticides and waste, Okin noted. Previous studies have found that the American diet produces the equivalent of 260 million tons of carbon dioxide from livestock production. By calculating and comparing how much meat 163 million cats and dogs eat compared to 321 million Americans, Okin determined how many tons of greenhouse gases are tied to .

His calculations start with publicly available information, like the number of dogs and cats in the country and the ingredients in market-leading pet foods, producing estimates that create a starting point for conversation.

He found that the nation's dogs and cats eat about 19 percent as many calories as the nation's people, on par with all the calories consumed by the population of France in a year. Because dog and cat food tends to have more meat than the average human diet, this means that and cats consume about 25 percent of the total calories derived from animals in the United States.

Okin, a member of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, usually researches dust bowls, desert landscape dynamics and wind erosion, and how those things can impact individual ecosystems and the global climate. Pinning down the of canine companions and feline friends was more of an—ahem—pet project that occurred to him while he was thinking about the growing trend of raising backyard chickens.

"I was thinking about how cool it is that chickens are vegetarian and make protein for us to eat, whereas many other pets eat a lot of protein from meat," he said. "And that got me thinking—how much meat do our pets eat?"

Okin recognizes that some of the products in pet food aren't something people should or would eat. But some of it is. In his research, he confirmed his hunch that premium pet foods usually contain more animal products than other brands, and that premium pet food purchases are increasing. As growing numbers of people consider pets less as animals and more as family members, Okin said, pampering has increased and the options for pet food with high-quality meat has kept pace. This means pets are increasingly eating cuts of meat suitable for humans.

"A dog doesn't need to eat steak," Okin said. "A dog can eat things a human sincerely can't. So what if we could turn some of that pet food into people chow?"

A commitment to snout-to-tail consumption, where as much rendered product as possible is produced for human use, could significantly reduce national . Okin estimates that if even a quarter of the meat in pet food could be consumed by humans, it would equal the amount of meat consumed by 26 million Americans, nearly the population of Texas. Okin noted that ideas about what is edible vary dramatically by culture. He also pointed to a controversy in 2012 about "pink slime," also called lean finely textured beef.

"It's perfectly edible and completely safe, but it's unappetizing, so people don't want it in their food," Okin said. "But frankly, it's a good, inexpensive protein source."

As eating less meat expands from vegetarian to environmental circles as a way to reduce one's carbon footprint, considering what to feed pets is a natural next step, Okin said. It's not just an issue in the United States, he noted. In places like China, Brazil and other emerging countries, as the population becomes more affluent, they're eating more meat and they're getting more pets.

"I'm not a vegetarian, but eating meat does come at a cost," he continued. "Those of us in favor of eating or serving meat need to be able to have an informed conversation about our choices, and that includes the choices we make for our pets."

He doesn't see a simple solution. Pets provide friendship and other social, health and emotional benefits that can't be discounted, Okin said. People concerned about could consider vegetarian pets, like birds or hamsters, he suggested. The pet industry, he noted, is also beginning to take steps toward sustainability, and could work to reduce overfeeding and consider alternative sources of protein. But it's a complicated issue, and where pets are concerned, Okin knows it's important to have a sense of humor about it.

"Maybe we could all have little ponies," he said, half-jokingly. "We'd all get more exercise taking them for walks, and they would also mow the lawn."

Explore further: Is a grain-free diet healthier for my dogs and cats?

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Cusco
4.6 / 5 (10) Aug 02, 2017
"A dog can eat things a human sincerely can't."

Umm, having grown up the grandson of a butcher and son of a farmer, and having lived in Latin America, I can confidently say that his comment is wrong. I've eaten cow nose soup, picked pigs feet, fish head soup, and lamb lung scramble, there's damn little of any animal that's inedible.
Zzzzzzzz
5 / 5 (6) Aug 02, 2017
"A dog can eat things a human sincerely can't."

Umm, having grown up the grandson of a butcher and son of a farmer, and having lived in Latin America, I can confidently say that his comment is wrong. I've eaten cow nose soup, picked pigs feet, fish head soup, and lamb lung scramble, there's damn little of any animal that's inedible.

As a man who has owned a number of dogs, not to mention the farming & butchering etc...., the comment is quite correct.
dan42day
4.6 / 5 (10) Aug 02, 2017
Fortunately, people who feed their pets steaks tend to see them as the children they don't and will never have. They also tend to spay and neuter their pets. If more people would adopt pets instead of having children, the real problem on this planet would be solved.
rderkis
3 / 5 (4) Aug 02, 2017
the real problem on this planet would be solved.

And just what is that REAL problem, oh enlightened one?
Whydening Gyre
4.4 / 5 (7) Aug 02, 2017
the real problem on this planet would be solved.

And just what is that REAL problem, oh enlightened one?

Well, OBVIOUSLY, he meant over population....
rderkis
1 / 5 (3) Aug 02, 2017
I don't think overpopulation of dogs and cats is what he meant. I think he meant underpopulation of dogs and cats. :-)
Cerbera
5 / 5 (4) Aug 02, 2017
The impact of pets is tiny in comparison to the impact of people; tackling our polluting nature is likely to have a bigger beneficial impact.

Also, as suggested in the article, most of the meat in pet food is the "left overs" from human consumption - I'm not suggesting that we can't eat the parts, but that most people prefer not to. In that sense they are consuming our "waste meat".

The better approach would be to look at reducing beef consumption period and looking more to poultry which is estimated to have a tenth of the environmental impact as beef.

Also for further context there are over 250 million cars in the US; makes the "same climate impact as a year's worth of driving from 13.6 million cars" seem rather small.
rderkis
3 / 5 (2) Aug 02, 2017
None of this matters. This is like arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Within a vary few years we will have fusion. Essentially free energy. With it we will irrigate all the deserts, eliminate the use of fossil fuel. Make available all the fresh water from seawater we could ever use.
In those same few years gene editing will reach a second generation which will mean GMOs that will feed the world, and an end to disease and cancer. All this will go hand in hand with stem cell therapy.
Plus with the ability if we want to, to shrink a adult to half our size, making food housing and shelter much more accessible to all.
And as a side note I look forward to increasing my dogs intelligence enough so he will know exactly what I am saying. :-)
Dingbone
Aug 03, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Captain Stumpy
4 / 5 (4) Aug 03, 2017
...I can confidently say that his comment is wrong. I've eaten...
As a man who has owned ...
and as a man who has owned a number of dogs (and cats), not to mention the farming & butchering etc....and who still hunts his own fresh meat, i agree totally

And as a side note I look forward to increasing my dogs intelligence enough so he will know exactly what I am saying. :-)
@rderkis
mine really did understand what i was saying most of the time
i attribute her intelligence to being raised by wolves, really... though she may also have just been a rare fluke with exceptional intelligence

she died, and now i have a crackhead with the IQ of a wet turnip

Crackhead is a lot of fun, and is fiercely loyal, but a far, far cry from my last little girl...

tackling our polluting nature is likely to have a bigger beneficial impact.
@Cerbera
true that
HannesAlfven
2 / 5 (4) Aug 03, 2017
Let's hope that this "researcher" was not paid with taxpayer money to do this "study".
Moltvic
1 / 5 (1) Aug 03, 2017
https://www.sciencenews.org/article/cats-kill-more-one-billion-birds-each-year

That's only because we don't let them out more often. They would be able to get more done if we would actually allow them to be outdoors, in their natural environment.

(I've seen Adam Ruins Everything, as well)
scarletlovesbear
1 / 5 (2) Aug 03, 2017
Great, now California wants to make it illegal to own pets.
katesisco
not rated yet Aug 03, 2017
Well, looking at this in a slightly different way, I just read an article on the net about how India is very publically being pushed on their belief that defecating in an open field is better than indoor pooping. Well not only does the pet population consume meat but they undoubtably are much more unhealthy feces-wise. That poop scraped up off the yard grass or park grass goes unsewered right into a land fill. AND probably a very small amount of the total pet poop at that. Most of it lies where it falls, in the field one might say.
rderkis
3 / 5 (2) Aug 03, 2017
You are all such idiots! Talking about poop when you live on the edge of such miracles in technology that will metaphorically lift us all out of the caves and into a age of plenty for everyone and out of the darkness of death, into a Utopia in just a few years. :-)
I am 70 and can see it coming as sure as the sunrise tomorrow. Open your eyes and see the accelerating rate of important research in even these articles.
Pediopal
Aug 03, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
JongDan
not rated yet Aug 03, 2017
Fortunately, people who feed their pets steaks tend to see them as the children they don't and will never have. They also tend to spay and neuter their pets. If more people would adopt pets instead of having children, the real problem on this planet would be solved.

The bigger problem is, only people in countries where there is no problem do this. Try to convince Arabs and Africans to do the same, will you?
rderkis
not rated yet Aug 03, 2017
@rderkis TMFP

If you believe that do somthing personal about it. But if you do you will miss all the fun!
barakn
3 / 5 (2) Aug 04, 2017
"A dog can eat things a human sincerely can't."

Umm, having grown up the grandson of a butcher and son of a farmer, and having lived in Latin America, I can confidently say that his comment is wrong. I've eaten cow nose soup, picked pigs feet, fish head soup, and lamb lung scramble, there's damn little of any animal that's inedible.

So you've eaten cat shit?
rderkis
5 / 5 (4) Aug 04, 2017
So you've eaten cat shit?

You must lead a vary sheltered life and have no idea of some of the stuff you have eaten.. I imagine we all have along with the roaches and rodent droppings etc.
snoosebaum
1 / 5 (3) Aug 04, 2017
i thought the problem was 'fossil fuels ' , i feel cranky today, it must be global warming, and Al Gore has turned into an obese pig
Captain Stumpy
not rated yet Aug 05, 2017
So you've eaten cat shit?
@barakn
LMFAO

i can't speak for the OP, but i was referring to the parts of an animal... not the waste products

.

it isn't a good idea to allow coprophagia either, as it can be dangerous to the dog or to you and others through your dog's affections

besides various types of worms, Toxoplasma gondii, and Giardia, it can also harbor other disease causing bacteria and other stuff...

some vets say "Dogs eat cat feces all the time and the vast majority of them never develop any problems" [J. Coates, PetMD] but they also stated that you should watch them and if it becomes a problem or regular behaviour, you should put a stop to it and get your dog checked out to see if there are any other hidden problems causing the coprophagia

an interesting 2013 study on Toxoplasma
http://www.cell.c...MainText
Osiris1
5 / 5 (2) Aug 06, 2017
The one who said that chickens are vegetarians NEVER had a flock of his own on a farm. As one who feeds and waters and checks on his flock every day.....and collects breakfast too. The EGGS, not the feces (have to qualify this in front of so many anal retentive would be coprophages around). Feces are for fertilizing the fields so the corn grows better, and for stalk crops; not so much for ground crops like lettuce where cleaning is then a big problem. Animals are inefficient digesters so 'leftovers' make good fertilizer

Back to chickens, any time a beetle or other insect is seen by one of my birds, they ALL will fight to be first to eat it! Mice too if they are stupid enough to wander into a pen full of these tyrannosaur descendants. Yes! T-Rex'es! It has been found that common chickens are related to the theropod dinos of which T-Rex was a prominent member. On a farm, NOTHING is wasted, as we are close to nature and know that just anout EVERYthing is food for SOMEthing.
Captain Stumpy
not rated yet Aug 06, 2017
The one who said that chickens are vegetarians NEVER had a flock of his own on a farm....
any time a beetle or other insect is seen by one of my birds, they ALL will fight to be first to eat it! Mice too if they are stupid enough to wander into a pen
@Osiris1
LOL
I hear ya... i've seen them attack snakes as well! i wonder why he thought they were vegetarians when every source i've seen classed them as omnivores like this common site: https://www.ideas...ken-care

our chickens (and peahens) keep the bug problem down for a fact !
(have to qualify this in front of so many anal retentive would be coprophages around)
ROTFLMFAO

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