Carbon pawprints: the environmental impact of pets
By Celia Topping Friday 05 February 2021
Carbon pawprints (aka carbon footprints of animals) – yes, ok, it’s a cheap pun, but behind the gag lies a very real concern. Climate change is happening fast, but it’s not only us humans creating carbon emissions on planet Earth. We also need to consider the global impact of 470 million pet dogs and 370 million pet cats on climate change.
In the UK alone – a self-confessed nation of animal lovers – we dote on and adore our 12 million pets. Some 44% of the UK’s population own a pet – that’s a heck of a lot of poo-bags!
Read on to find out the truth behind your pet’s carbon footprint. And how, by making small tweaks in our daily lives, we can help to keep our planet the place we know and love.
What are the benefits of owning a pet?
Before we launch into the reasons why pets can be bad for the environment, let’s take a look at why so many of us choose to share our lives with a fluffy/furry/feathered/finned friend.
Pets are a valued part of our society, and it’s not a newfound relationship. Dogs have been our furry companions for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found dog bones alongside human bones from as far back as 14,700 years. And anyone who owns a dog, cat or other faithful friend, will happily regale you with the many benefits their buddy brings – such as:
Physical health benefits, like dog-walking
Mental-health benefits and reduced stress levels from the joy of friendship a pet can bring
A sense of validation on returning home to find your pooch waiting
Preventing loneliness, and offering a sense of wellbeing
Learning about responsibility and kindness
Developing a sense of empathy
A motivating factor in getting outdoors in nature
Finding new friendships in fellow pet-owners
Generally making an owner’s life happier
But the perks don’t stop there. It’s been proven that time spent with animals can have a therapeutic effect on old and young alike – helping children with learning and social difficulties, and bringing comfort to the terminally-ill. Pets have even been a source of inspiration for many famous people, such as Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, Winston Churchill and Florence Nightingale.
Our animal friends are certainly good for our well-being. But we need to be aware that how we’re feeding and caring for them is endangering the environment. Their carbon footprint is in our hands.
What is the carbon footprint of my pet?
Mike Berners-Lee’s entertaining, yet scientifically-precise book, “How Bad Are Bananas?”, reveals the carbon footprint of just about everything – including:
Goldfish – 25kg of CO2e1 per year
Average-size cat – 310kg of CO2e per year
Average-size dog – 770 kg of CO2e per year
Large dog – 2,500kg of CO2e per year
But, as a dog owner himself, he also understands the many plus-points of man’s best friend. And although the facts are stark, there are ways we can reduce that carbon pawprint.
The biggest contributor to the “pawprint” is what we put in our pet’s bowl every day. In an eye-opening US report2, UCLA professor Gregory Okin explains how America’s cats’ and dogs’ eating habits are responsible for releasing as many as 64 million tons of greenhouse gases every year. That’s roughly the equivalent of driving over 13 million cars. Meaning your average canine’s carbon footprint is twice that of a 4x4 car. Crazy but true.
How are pet’s diets bad for the environment?
Pets need feeding. And cats and dogs are primarily meat-eaters. In fact, pets eat about a fifth of the world’s meat and fish. If you’re trying to lead an eco-friendly life and own a pet, there’s something you should know...
It’s common knowledge that eating meat is bad for the environment, because of the land, energy and water it uses. The farming of cattle has a disastrous global impact – it causes deforestation, and mass loss of biodiversity. It also creates huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, and is a major contributor to global warming. To produce just one kilo of beef creates 1,000 kilos of carbon dioxide.
In a recent University-led study – the first to focus on the global environmental impact of pet food production – it was found that:
49 million hectares of agricultural land – an area double the size of the UK – is used to make dry pet food for cats and dogs each year.
The pet food industry also creates annual greenhouse gas emissions of 106 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. A country producing the same levels would be the world’s sixtieth-highest emitter.
The industry creates more greenhouse gases each year than countries like Mozambique and the Philippines.
The full environmental impact of the industry is actually much higher, as the study only looked at dry pet food production.
Dr Peter Alexander of the School of GeoSciences and Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security says, “The feeding of companion animals plays a role in environmental change... we have shown that pets and how they are fed should be considered, alongside other actions to reduce climate change and biodiversity loss.”
Who knew little Fido and Kitty could have such a devastating impact just through their daily bowl of kibble? Read on to find out how to address these issues and reduce that pawprint!
How can I reduce the carbon footprint of my pet’s food?
As with our own carbon footprint, we can reduce our pets’ by being aware, and taking a few simple steps:
No more podgy pooches – it’s been reported that over half the nation’s dogs are obese – so cut down on the treats and don’t overfeed. It’s unhealthy for Fido, and it’s unhealthy for the environment.
Opt for a bag of chicken or fish dry food instead of beef – farming these animals creates far fewer carbon emissions.
Bulk-buy to cut down on packaging.
Buying locally-made food is far more sustainable than imported varieties, which produce more emissions through transport.
Avoid “posh” human-grade pet food – food made up from byproducts of the meat we eat is fine for Fido or Fifi. Let them eat what we don’t want, rather than creating more emissions through farming more animals for posh dog food. Find out what to feed your beloved mutt from well-researched sources.
Find out which brands are the most sustainable. These are ranked according to environmental and ethical factors3.
Make your own food – DIY recipes are all the rage, and your dogs and cats will lap it up. But be sure to chat with your vet beforehand, to make sure you’re including all the right ingredients and nutrients.
Other ways we can reduce our pets carbon footprint
It’s not only our pets’ food that makes up their carbon footprint. Here are some other ways we can easily change patterns of behaviour, to reduce the environmental impact of our pets.
2.7 million unwanted cats and dogs are euthanized each year. Why not give one of them a home instead? Buying or ordering pets from breeders is only adding to the overpopulation problem. And this in turn creates more carbon emissions. Also, (you may want to cover Fido’s ears for this one) spaying or neutering helps reduce the problem of strays.
Eco-friendly and DIY pet toys
The pet entertainment industry is huge. But there’s no need to splash out on some fancy plastic novelty that your cat will be bored of in a day or two. Instead:
Swap cat toys with other local owners when Kitty gets bored
Check out Freecycle, Gumtree and social media for unwanted second hand toys and pet accessories
If you must buy something new, buy eco-friendly toys
Switch your cat litter
A lot of regular cat litter today is full of mineral-based products that are strip-mined4 – this is environmentally destructive. The Environmental Working Group recommends greener, plant-based cat litter products made from wheat, corn, ground-up corn-cobs, alfalfa pellets, and recycled newspaper pellets.
And remember, cat poop can contain a toxic parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which is dangerous to animals and humans. So never flush cat poop. Instead, tie it up in a bag, and throw it in the bin.
Buy biodegradable dog poop bags
We all know we must clean up responsibly after our dogs. And using biodegradable bags is part of that responsibility. So next time you take your dog for a walk to the pet shop, pick some up. That’s a better option than ordering online, which only increases carbon emissions. Or if you have a garden, you could have a go at composting your doggie do-do. Marigolds on!
Choose eco-friendly bedding
Go for bedding made with natural fibres, that haven’t been processed with harsh chemicals and dyes. Opt for plastic and polyester-free fabrics. These are better for your dog, as well as better for the environment.
Petting and preening your pooch is all part of the fun – but be aware of the products you’re using. Check the labels, and choose the ones without non-biodegradable, toxic chemicals. These can be harmful to your pet, and the planet, when you flush it away. Instead, go for organic and natural shampoos, which are free from nasties.
Conclusion: are pets bad for the environment?
In his thorough report on the “Environmental impacts of food consumption by dogs and cats”, Gregory Okin notes, "I like dogs and cats, and I'm definitely not recommending that people get rid of their pets...but I do think we should consider all the impacts that pets have, so we can have an honest conversation about them.”
And there you have it. We just need to paws for thought (sorry, pet pun alert). There are so many benefits that come with pet ownership – we just need to be more mindful and responsible in our daily habits. And remember, your pet can help you reduce your carbon footprint too – take Fido a walk to the shops instead of getting in the car!
For more ideas on reducing your carbon footprint, join OVO today. We offer:
100% renewable electricity as standard5
A tree planted in your name every single year you are with us6
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A £50 gift card every time an OVO member introduces a friend to us
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And, if you ever feel overwhelmed or over-anxious about climate change, it might help to read our insightful guide to find ways to alleviate your eco-anxiety.
Sources and references:
1CO2e means “carbon dioxide equivalent”. It’s a shorthand way of describing an amount of carbon dioxide or any of the other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.
5 The renewable electricity we sell is backed by renewable certificates (Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates (REGOs)). See here for details on REGO certificates and how these work.
6 Each year, OVO plants 1 tree for every member in partnership with the Woodland Trust. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so tree-planting helps to slow down climate change.
7 Interest Rewards are paid on credit balances of customers paying by monthly Direct Debit. It is calculated at 3% in your first year, 4% in your second year and 5% in your third year (and every year thereafter) if you pay by Direct Debit. Interest Rewards are paid monthly based on the number of days you’re in credit and the amount left in your account after you’ve paid your bill. Full terms apply