Pets Are Part of the Climate Problem: Ways to Reduce Their Carbon Pawprint

Written by Camilla Jessen

Mar.18 - 2024 7:45 PM CET

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
These tips can help you minimize your pet's carbon pawprints.

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While our beloved pets may not drive gas-guzzling SUVs or use high-energy appliances, they still play a significant role in the climate crisis. But what do Fluffy and Whiskers have to do with our warming planet? It’s the products we buy for them that need a closer look.

The meat-heavy diet of our furry friends is one of the biggest contributors to their considerable carbon pawprint, as the production of pet food requires an abundance of energy, land, and water to produce - and thus emits huge amounts of greenhouse gases.

A 2017 study revealed that pets' diets in the US generate about 64 million tons of CO2 annually, equal to the emissions of 13.6 million cars. Should pets form their own nation, they'd be the world’s fifth-largest meat consumer, trailing only China, the US, Brazil, and Russia, explains UCLA's Gregory Okin.

But don’t panic. Saying goodbye to your furry friends is not the answer.

The benefits of pet ownership, including reduced stress, lower heart attack and depression rates, and boosted self-esteem, are well-documented and significant.

Pim Martens, a Sustainable Development professor at Maastricht University, emphasizes, “Our work does not mean we are ‘against’ keeping pets. There are lots of benefits as well. Just be aware of the ‘side-effects.’”

So, how can pet owners balance love for their animals with environmental responsibility? The following suggestions aim to lessen pets' carbon pawprints without compromising their care.

Assessing Your Pet's Diet

The cornerstone of minimizing your pet's carbon pawprint lies in their diet.

However, before swapping their meaty kibble for carrot sticks, you should always discuss significant changes to your pet's diet with a veterinarian to ensure it meets your animal's specific needs.

In fact, if you're a cat owner, you shouldn't even consider altering their diet. Cats are obligate carnivores—they must consume meat, as stated by Angela Frimberger, a veterinarian with Vets for Climate Action.

Dogs are omnivores and don't necessarily require meat at every meal.

Frimberger points out, "for most healthy pets, the trend to feed premium quality ingredient food stems from our tendency to project our preferences onto our pets, rather than addressing their actual nutritional needs."

She also notes the emergence of lab-grown meat and insect-based pet foods as environmentally friendly alternatives that could also benefit pets with food allergies.

Reduce Waste

The environmental impact of pet care extends beyond diet. While essentials like toys, bowls, litter, poop bags, and leashes are often necessary for your pet, considering their durability, supply chains, and recyclability is equally important as the product itself.

For instance, choosing sustainable litter options for cats and biodegradable poop bags for dogs can make a difference. The extraction and production processes of conventional clay litter contribute to environmental degradation, making organic materials a preferable choice.

Gregory Okin advocates for flushing pet poop down the toilet, leveraging our water treatment systems' capability to handle waste, thus preventing pollutants from affecting the environment. “Our water system is designed to handle toxic waste and to keep those pollutants out of the environment,” according to Okin.

Angela Frimberger also reminds us, "It's about recognizing what our pets genuinely need versus what we're compelled to buy out of consumer impulse."

Mindful Adoption

When considering the environmental footprint of pets, size definitely matters.

Larger animals generally consume more food, translating to a larger impact on the planet. If minimizing your ecological impact is a priority, selecting smaller breeds or species is a smart move. For example, a Chihuahua's environmental footprint is significantly smaller than that of a Saint Bernard.

You might also consider that some breeds are prone to health issues.

“Avoiding animals with known health problems will reduce the need for veterinary intervention, which has a carbon footprint, and most importantly will reduce unnecessary suffering in terms of poor health and welfare,” says Gudrun Ravetz of Vet Sustain.

For those less inclined towards pets with lots of fur, the need for constant cuddling, or sharp claws, there are suitable alternatives.

“Small rodents and birds are great options,” Okin suggests. “Snakes, turtles and reptiles can have a really low impact, too, for those that are into it.”

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