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Pets and Our Planet

Updated: Feb 7

How can we feed more sustainably?

If there are two things people are passionate about these days, it’s their pets, and the planet. UK Pet Food’s 2023 pet population report estimates that there are 12 million dogs and 11 million cats owned by UK households (1). The pet products industry is booming, including toys, apparel, pet-friendly travel and luxury daycare options, and of course, pet food. Pet food sales worldwide have been rising steadily, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. 2022 saw an estimated $133 billion (USD) in global commercial pet food sales (2)

Likewise, expecting sustainability in all things is becoming increasingly normalised. Independent insights from Google reveal that climate change is one of the most important issues to UK citizens, second only to the NHS (3). Consumers are increasingly making purchasing decisions based on the perceived sustainability cred of retailers and manufacturers. 

In many ways, however, today’s flavour of pet ownership is in stark conflict with true sustainability. As much as we all love our pets like family members, they often come with an array of additional consumer goods, everything from plastic toys to beds to pajamas, often made overseas and shipped around the world. 

Even more potentially problematic is how to feed (and dispose of the waste of) the domestic carnivores and omnivores that we share our homes with. Pet owners are attempting to mitigate the carbon footprint of their pet’s food - in 2020, the top “ethical” pet food claims made by manufacturers in response to consumer demand included “organic”, “environmentally friendly”, and “vegan/vegetarian/plant-based”, among others (4). Pet owners also understandably place emphasis on the recyclability of their pet food packaging, as no one likes the feeling of tossing sachets in the bin every day. However, data presented at the 2023 American Feed Industry Association’s Pet Food Conference showed that packaging accounts for only 12% of the total sustainability of pet food. By far the biggest contributor to pet food’s carbon footprint is the ingredient list (5).

Unfortunately, popular ingredient trends in pet food are some of the least sustainable. “High-protein” was the most common claim made by pet food brands in 2022, with “grain-free” also in the top five (6). While the picture is somewhat complicated based on which parts of animal and plant ingredients are utilised and how they are grown, land-based animal proteins are responsible for far higher greenhouse gas emissions than fish and plant proteins. Fish farming can also contribute to significant water pollution and habitat degradation (7,8).

So, do we all need to give up our beloved pets in order to live a more sustainable life? Fortunately, we do not! There are several ways we can feed our dog and cat companions more sustainably, many of which will positively impact the pocketbook as well.

Sustainable Pet Feeding Tip #1: Don’t succumb to marketing trends

There is no scientific justification for disparaging non-animal-based ingredients in balanced pet food. Grains and other plants are efficient, sustainable sources of proteins and other nutrients like fibre, vitamins, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids. Excess dietary protein can have negative impacts on the gut microbiome, and on the kidney function of pets with underlying issues (which may go undiagnosed early on). Dogs and cats have been proven to be able to digest and utilise the carbohydrates provided in a variety of grains, as long as they are properly processed. Using a balance of plant and animal ingredients allows for the most optimal blend of ingredients in the most sustainable and affordable way. Likewise, utilising parts of farmed animals that are nutritious but unattractive to the Western human palate, like organ meats and inconveniently small bits of muscle meat is the most sustainable way to include animal ingredients, thus trends to avoid “by-products” and “meat meals” should be ignored.

Sustainable Pet Feeding Tip #2: Keep Your Pet at a Healthy Weight

Every bag, sachet and tin you open and feed contributes to the carbon footprint of your pet and of the pet food industry. Adding unnecessary titbits from your own plate on top of your pet’s complete and balanced diet contributes even more. Up to half of all dogs and cats in the UK are overweight according to their veterinarians (9). Simply feeding pets for their true ideal weight could dramatically slash the environmental impact of feeding them. Less food consumed means not only fewer ingredients farmed and utilised, but also less production waste, less packaging, fewer transportation miles, and potentially even less pet waste going into the environment. Companies like Hill’s Pet Nutrition are achieving incredible goals like True Zero Waste and responsible sourcing, and sensible feeding regimens are the perfect counterpart. You can determine if your pet is overweight using the Hill’s L.O.V.E. Test and by talking with your veterinary team. If you’re used to showing your pet how much you care using extra food, you can transition all of that love to extra quality time with them out in the natural environment that you’re helping to preserve by keeping your pet at a healthy weight!

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