Cats, Dogs Responsible for Up to 30% of Meat Environmental Impact in US

CC BY 2.0. Georgie Pauwels / Flickr

If American's cats and dogs were their own country, they'd rank 5th in global meat consumption, says new study.

Okay, this is a tricky one; and I'll likely be taken to the mat by pet-loving commenters, but as the planet seems to be going to Hades in a handbasket, it feels like we really shouldn't be leaving any questions unasked. Which was the thought of UCLA professor Gregory Okin, who began to wonder how much the feeding of pets contributes to issues like climate change. It all started with musings about the ascent of 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," Okin says. "And that got me thinking – how much meat do our pets eat?"

(And just to get this out of the way; the companionship of pets has tremendous, unspeakable benefits for humans and this is not a call to give up on having cats and dogs. It's just something to think about and perhaps prompt solutions to improve the situation.)

Environmental Impact of Pet Food

So ... Okin did the research and crunched the numbers and concluded that meat consumption by dogs and cats creates the equivalent of about 64 million tons of carbon dioxide a year; around 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 says. "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."

During his research – which was published in the journal PLOS One – Okin discovered that cats and dogs are responsible for 25 to 30 percent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the United States. Alison Hewitt writes for UCLA:

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.

As we've written about extensively, meat requires more energy, land and water to produce than that required by a plant-based diet. Okin cites previous studies that 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 pet food," notes Hewitt.

In his research, Okin found that American cats and dogs consume a surprising 19 percent as many calories as do American people – our pets eat the same amount of calories as the entire population of France eats in a year. And since cats and dogs don't eat salad and fries – but mostly meat – they eat about 25 percent of the total calories that comes from animals in the U.S.

One of the more interesting takeaways, for me at least, is what this could mean for pet food. Traditionally there have been a lot of bits and pieces in pet food that humans would not eat – but as pet pampering reaches astronomical proportions, people are increasingly buying premium pet foods comprised of quality meat suitable for human consumption. Although it's easy to anthropomorphize our pets and think that nothing short of human-grade meat is acceptable for them, a switch in that thinking would make an impact.

Reducing the Environmental Cost of Pet Food

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

Okin says that if 25 percent of the meat in pet food was eaten by humans instead, it would be around the same amount of meat consumed by 26 million Americans.

"I'm not a vegetarian, but eating meat does come at a cost," he says. "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."

In the end, the issue isn't about necessarily giving up our pets ... but maybe we should be rethinking their steak dinners.