What's The Ecological Impact of Feeding our Domestic Pets?
I have two beautiful fur babies - schnauzers - that I consider as part of our family. I always had dogs growing up and couldn't imagine not sharing my home with a furry friend. And I'm not the only one; 4.5 million of us in Australia are dog "owners", 2.5 million have cats, in the UK there are 8 million cats and 8 million dogs, and in the US, 40% of households have a dog. In total there are currently around 1 billion pet cats and dogs worldwide, giving love and affection to their owners. And the pet companies are cashing in! In the United States alone, pet care is currently a $50 billion industry! The range of products and services on the market is staggering, as we strive to give our pets the best food and lives. However I have been pondering, what is the environmental impact of feeding the huge and growing quantity of "companion" animals around the world? Do my puppy friends have high "ecological footprint"? I live as a vegan but can my dogs do so healthily as well?
We are feeding our dogs meat, that often comes from factory farms, and this amounts to hundreds of millions of tonnes of meat and grain being raised and grown, requiring vast amounts of energy, much of it drawn from fossil fuels. It is then tinned, packaged and transported to all points of the globe for our furry friends. Brenda and Robert Vales, in their controversial 2009 book "Time to Eat the Dog?" claim a dog's ecological footprint is twice that of the average SUV!
"My 55-pound pit bull, for instance, consumes about 500 pounds of meat a year, half of it lamb. The production of one pound of lamb, says the Environmental Working Group, releases 85 pounds of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, so just feeding my dog loads our warming planet with more than 21 tons of heat-trapping gases."
We also feed the ever decreasing fish from our oceans to our pet cats, yet fish is not even a natural food for cats. Most of the fish fed to cats includes sardines, herring, anchovy and capelin, the same fish that provide the foundation for a food chain that supports the larger fish like cod, tuna, swordfish, as well as marine mammals and birds. But as the gourmet section of pet food grows, so does the demand for larger species of slow-growing, at risk fish such as tuna for our cats.
When looking at cats, in Australia alone domestic housecoats consume an average of 13.7 kilograms of fish a year which is close to the the annual per capita consumption of fish and seafood consumed by human Australian citizens. Calculations by Deakin University researchers show an estimated 2.48 million tonnes of forage fish are used each year by the global cat food industry to satisfy feline appetites.
For 5 years my schnauzer has been eating a vegetarian mix by default. He was on an allergy blend due to vomiting (which we ended up realising was because he had a ball in his stomach!). He has always been healthy, happy and full of vigour - (apart from the vomits.) Another remarkable example is that of Bramble, a 27-year-old border collie whose vegan diet of rice, lentils, and organic vegetables earned her consideration by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest living dog in 2002. I think this alone is enough to demonstrate dogs can thrive on a plant-based diet - even if their preference is to eat another animal. I did also find this vegan pet food mix. There are many vegans who only feed their pets plant-based diets.
Now and then I will buy cow bones from the organic butcher, from a farm I have researched. I do this because dogs physically are made to eat meat; from the sharp incisors, short intestinal tract and extremely high acid in their stomachs-none of which us humans possess. It feels completely wrong on some levels and then right on others, falling into the grey part where morals overlap each other. Did the farm animal deserve to die to feed my dog?? I think I am ok with where I am at with them eating predominately a vegetarian diet, with raw eggs included and then on occasion an organic bone, however my vegetarian children are certainly not and I want to keep coming back to my decision and reassessing how I feel about it.(* Note: since I posted this we have made a pact that we will never feed the dogs another animal again since they can survive without it, thanks to my kids!)
I would never feed a cat fish due to dwindling populations (if you are going to make sure it is not tuna or large fish species), nor my dog kangaroo. Kangaroo meat for pets is a huge market in Australia, on the basis that there is an "over abundance" of them. However for me, the research I have done does not at all support this and wildlife is already under the pressure of decreased native habitat and droughts and to feed them to our domestic pets does not sit well with me; especially as Australia has the highest rate of extinction of our wildlife that were once also considered "over abundant."
We all must find our line we draw in the sand, but I think the key is to have the discussion; to have the look.
Ultimately we don't want to make choices with ecological ignorance anymore. Part of this is also knowing where the brands you support come from. There are three leading pet-food manufacturers – Nestlé, Mars and Colgate-Palmolive – which, between them account for more than 80% of the world's pet-food market.
Mars Incorporated is an American global manufacturer of confectionery, pet food, and other food products. It had US$30 billion in annual sales in 2010 and at that stage was the third largest privately held company in the United States. Last year they also bought Procter & Gamble (P&G) pet food businesses for 2.9 billion dollars.
• Eukanuba, IAMS, Natura Pet Products that includes: Innova, Evo, California Natural, Karma, Healthwise and Mother Nature, Advance, Pedigree & Pal, Royal Canin, Nutro (natural Choice), Smackos, Greenies, Exelpet, My Dog
Nestlé is a Swiss multinational nutritional, snack food, and health-related consumer goods company. It is the largest food company in the world.
• Purina, Beneful, Supercoat, Michael’s Canine Creations
Colgate-Palmolive Company is an American company focussed on health care and personal products and also have a pet business section including, Hills, Science Diet, Prescription Diet.
I hope this blog encourages you to have a look into what is in your pet food, where it came from and perhaps, like it has done for me, encourage you to spend a little extra time to make sure you are making the choices intentionally of what you feed them.