How Sustainable Is Pet Ownership?

Cute puppy boxer
CC BY 2.0. Magnus BrA¥th

Magnus BrA¥th/CC BY 2.0

Ask any pet owner: they will tell you they cannot conceive of life without their furry, scaly, or feathered companion. Studies prove that pet owners benefit from the companionship in the form of fewer medical visits, reduced stress and depression, and better social integration.

But will the stress on the planet of producing food for the growing human population change the way we view the ownership of domestic animals that serve only as companions?

cute kitten

pmarkham/CC BY-SA 2.0

Pet food follies

Pet food companies market $55 billion in pet foods globally with an emphasis on making human owners feel guilty if Fido is not getting the “best” food for protecting joints, boosting energy, or extending lifespans. Pet store shelves even boast "organic", "local", and "vegetarian" pet foods.

But do pets need the same trend-of-the-day antioxidants or omega-3s that are touted for human health? Making matters worse, pets are increasingly being overfed, resulting in a pet obesity epidemic while using resources that are and will be increasingly needed to feed the growing human population.

For pet owners trying to make sustainable choices in their own lives, including pets in the equation may not be as easy as committing oneself to such choices. Animals do not have the same digestive enzymes and metabolic needs, so a diet that works for us may not be healthy for our animals – which kind of goes against the whole philosophy of trying treat those creatures that depend on us humanely.

Cute puppy in grass

Lennix3/CC BY-SA 2.0

How to improve pet food sustainability

Pet food also can fill a unique niche, using by-products or wastes from the manufacturing stream for human food -- even lightening the footprint of the human food chain life cycle analysis rather than competing for the same resources.

A study just published in the journal Advances in Nutrition suggests that pet food manufacturers need to take a big leap forward in considering sustainability issues. "If you just change the diet a little, the financial and environmental costs associated with it are quite different", lead author Kelly Swanson says.

The study recommends that sustainability indicators be adopted and measured in the pet food industry. This will drive the search for alternative sources of protein, especially plant-based proteins. and possibly better routing of the large amount of food waste that is unfit for human consumption into pet food. It will also highlight areas of negative impact, such as sweeping seas clean of fish for the benefit of house pets.

The study recommends education to help combat pet obesity, citing studies that indicate 34% of dogs and 35% of cats in the US are obese. They also emphasize the continuing importance of optimizing pet food digestibility, which mean more nutrients can be used by the animal, and less to pick up afterwards.

Research efforts in pet nutrition also could fine-tune their focus to add sustainability considerations into the equation. In particular, the study notes that current dietary protein recommendations stem from short-term (6 month) studies and evaluate indicators like growth and protein markers rather than actual health endpoints. Thus, these recommendations may not provide for optimal nutrition.

Given that sustainability of the planet depends on sustainability in every sector, it sounds like the pet food industry has some low-hanging fruit. We hope they take up the challenge.