An in depth review
Our pets have become members of our family and it’s easy to see why. They are invaluable companions, acting as sources of comfort, affection and unconditional love. They also bring a host of physical and psychological benefits, even improving the social and emotional development of children and increasing people’s capacity for compassion. However, have you considered the environmental impact of owning a pet?
Research on the environmental impact of our pets is still a relatively new area and estimates vary. The carbon footprint (or pawprint) of a pet depends on the species, their size and their diet. But in a worst case scenario, a dog’s yearly carbon footprint could be the same as manufacturing and running two 4x4 cars. As more research emerges on the environmental impact of pets, one thing is becoming clear, it could be much larger than first thought.
Did you know that pet food production emits more greenhouse gases each year than entire countries, such as Mozambique and the Philippines?
Our pet’s diets are considered the biggest contributor to their carbon pawprint or ‘ecological pawprint’. Dogs are omnivores and cats are obligate carnivores which means their natural diet includes animal protein. Animal protein has a greater environmental impact than plant-based proteins because it demands more land, energy, water and food to produce. In fact, meat-eating cats and dogs in the USA create the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions of 13.6 million cars driving for a year. Research from the University of Edinburgh has shown that around 49 million hectares of land – that’s roughly twice the size of the UK – are used to produce it. Another study estimates that if there was a country made up of just cats and dogs, it would rank fifth in the world for meat consumption. What’s more, we are feeding our pets too much food, with over 50% of cats and dogs now being overweight. Researchers note that to date, the environmental impact of pet food has been overlooked but should be incorporated into considerations and actions for tackling climate change and biodiversity loss.
Products and waste.
Pets are now considered members of family, which has subsequently changed people’s spending habits. While spending in other areas of life has decreased, we are spending more on our pets than ever before. Between 2004-2014, pet dog consumerism increased by over 70% in the USA, from 34 billion dollars to 58 billion dollars, with similar trends in Finland and the UK. Spending on pet paraphernalia has increased more than spending on any other area of leisure from 2006‒2012. Feeding and caring for such a large and growing pet population comes at a cost, but providing for ‘consumerist’ pets further increases that cost. Overbuying leads to greater waste generation, uses up precious resources and creates carbon emissions. As well as this, the many products we buy our pets can often contain plastic. We are now producing over 380 million tons of plastic every year and only 9% of this gets recycled, with most of it going to landfill or polluting the natural world. So just like us, the products we buy our pets create an environmental impact.
Did you know pet poo is classed as an environmental pollutant?
It is estimated that dogs in the UK produce over 1500 tonnes of poop, every day! American dogs and cats produce as much faeces as 90 million adults, generating as much waste as the entire state of Massachusetts. That’s a lot of poop. But what can we do with all this poo? The majority of pet poo is wrapped in plastic or biodegradable plastic and ends up in landfill or incineration. As brilliant as biodegradable poo bags sound, in landfill they will decompose to produce methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide. Both cat and dog poo contain many more pathogens (e.g. bacteria, viruses and parasites) than human poo. Some of these pathogens, such as Toxoplasma and Toxocara can infect humans and kill susceptible wildlife when they leak into the environment. Furthermore, pet owners who fail to clean up after their pets out on walks may leave dog poo in nature, leading to overfertilization of the land that can reach levels that would be illegal on farmland. Research has shown that the excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in dog poo leads to loss of plant biodiversity and habitat degradation.
The Mammal Society estimates that domestic cats in the UK kill around 100 million prey items every year, of which 27 million were birds (not counting the creatures the cats didn't bring home). In the USA, the yearly estimate is 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion bird victims and 6.9 billion to 20.7 billion mammals, most of which were native rather than invasive species. But before you go locking your cat up, it must be noted that despite the large number of wildlife caught, there isn’t scientific evidence to prove that these kills are causing bird populations to decline. This may be because cats mostly catch sickly or weak animals that may have died naturally anyway.
Did you know that (globally) dogs have contributed to the extinction of nearly one dozen wild bird and animal species?
The world’s dog population lives in a range of conditions, from feral to free-ranging to entirely dependant on humans. It is said that dogs now threaten nearly 200 species worldwide, some of which are critically endangered. They can impact wildlife in several ways, by killing wild animals, disturbing ecosystems, transmitting disease, competition for prey, and also interbreeding with closely related species. Some of the regions which are most impacted by these issues are South-east Asia, Central and South Americas, Asia and Australia. In Europe and the UK, domestic dogs are interbreeding with wolf populations and disturbing or killing wildlife and livestock. For example, on small nature reserves the mere presence of dogs can cause a 40% reduction in bird species across the whole reserve.
Did you know that if global healthcare were a country, it would be the 5th largest carbon emitter in the world?
The environmental impact of health care makes for shocking reading. For example, in 2013, the USA healthcare sector was estimated to be responsible for 12% of acid rain, 10% of smog formation, 9% of air pollutants and 12% of air toxins nationally. The reality is, healthcare is very energy intensive, has a significant carbon footprint (through the procurement of equipment, pharmaceuticals, anaesthetic gases), generates large volumes of waste, and also leads to medicines contaminating the environment. Although the effects of veterinary care are less researched than human healthcare, the effects are likely comparable. We know that controlling endemic diseases in cattle can reduce their overall greenhouse gas emissions by 7-25%. While cattle are very different species kept in different situations, it does go to show how animal and planet health are interlinked.
Did you know that one flea treatment of a medium-sized dog with imidacloprid, a common flea product, contains enough pesticide to kill 60 million bees?
With 4 tonnes of imidacloprid sold every year in UK alone, the impact on of our pet’s parasite treatments and medicines on wildlife have likely been underestimated. New research has shown that two common flea treatments are poisoning rivers across the UK, posing serious risks to insect and bird populations. One such flea product, fipronil and it's highly toxic breakdown products, were found in 99% of samples taken and were 5 and 38 times higher than their chronic toxicity limits, respectively. Washing of our pets is known to flush these potent pesticides into sewers and then watercourses.
Of course, we still need to protect our pets from certain external parasites which can be the cause of disease transmission and ill health - therefore a lot more research in this area is desperately needed to determine which products are safest to use.
Sustainable pet ownership.
Pet ownership is on the rise worldwide. For example in the UK, in 1965 there were only 4.7 million dogs but this has risen to 12.5 million, with cats following close behind. Now over half of UK households own more than one pet, with dogs being the most popular pet. As previously mentioned, the larger the animal the bigger the impact, so a dog’s carbon pawprint would be much larger than, say a guinea pig’s, but the emotional and psychological benefits are very similar.
Despite an increase in pet ownership, only 17% of new pet dogs are sourced from rescue centres and the number of homeless animals has risen to 1.1 million in the UK. Now over 200,000 cats and dogs are euthanised every year due to being unable to find a home. New cat ownership in the UK shows a slightly brighter picture, with 53% being rehomed or rescued. In the face of the UK’s overpopulation crisis, the number of people rescuing pets from aboard has more than tripled since the pandemic. Importing animals instead of rescuing them locally increases the risk of introducing new diseases, raises ethical questions in the current context and of course greatly increases their carbon pawprints.
Indeed, there are negative environmental impacts of owning pets, but they may also act to reduce our own carbon footprints. Pet owners may be less likely to travel frequently, or use the car, opting to walk instead. They may also be happier and healthier, and therefore less reliant on our on own carbon-intensive healthcare systems. So the issue may not be entirely black and white, but nonetheless there is ample evidence to suggest we should be taking steps to reduce our furry friend’s environmental pawprints to enable pet ownership to be more sustainable.