Should your dog go vegan? It’s one of the ways to reduce your pet’s carbon footprint

Pets consume a staggering 20 per cent of the world’s meat and fish, and an area double the size of the UK is used to produce dry pet food for cats and dogs each year

In Ireland, certain statements of fact about climate are still controversial. The EPA got itself into hot water for deleting a tweet advocating a reduction in meat following objections from the IFA. Almost a year later, Ireland still has no official agency communicating the urgent need to shift to sustainable diets, for the sake of our health, and for the sake of the planet. In fact, a new body is planned by the agri-food sector in conjunction with An Bord Bia to counter a “negative mainstream narrative” about the livestock sector in the media. It seems that we are a long way off yet from confronting the reality about the Irish agricultural model and its environmental impact, much less the impact of the average Irish diet.

But whenever we do get around to having the conversation about sustainable diets, we shouldn’t overlook the climate impact of what our pets eat.

Ireland has very high rates of dog ownership, and roughly 60 per cent of households include a dog or a cat, according to a 2016 study conducted for the pet food industry. Dogs and cats are regarded by most owners as part of the family, providing company in an increasingly lonely world. The increase in pet ownership seems to be a multifaceted phenomenon influenced by changing social dynamics, marketing by pet food companies, lifestyle factors and evolving cultural norms. Despite the undoubted joy and companionship they provide, the climate impact of pets cannot be ignored.

Most of this impact comes from the food they eat. According to Gregory Okin, whose 2017 journal article on the environmental impact of dog and cat diets caused a furore, pet ownership compounds the environmental impacts of human dietary choices. Depending on their size, a dog will eat somewhere between a quarter of a pound and two pounds of meat per day. A 2023 study by Andrew Knight found that the associated climate impact of pets’ diets represents between 10 and 20 per cent of the impact of the livestock sector globally. The damage includes the consumption and use of land for grazing animals and fodder, water, fossil fuels, fertilisers and pesticides, along with the resultant production of greenhouse gases, acidifying emissions such as sulphur dioxide and eutrophying emissions that affect water quality. Pets consume a staggering 20 per cent of the world’s meat and fish, and an area double the size of the UK is used to produce dry pet food for cats and dogs each year. The study concluded that “a sizeable and rapidly-growing body of evidence has now shown that both dogs and cats can thrive on nutritionally-sound vegan diets”.

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Switching your dog to a vegan diet might be too drastic a step for many pet owners – food choices and diet are no doubt as specific to each pet as they are to each owner. And dogs and cats can’t help that they are omnivores and carnivores, respectively. But the sheer number of pets and the climate impact of beef production alone should give pause for thought.

Each kilogram of beef is responsible for up to 27kg of carbon dioxide equivalent, which means that a dog’s diet that heavy in beef (even offcuts and products unfit for human consumption) has a significant climate impact. Okin claims that if pets formed their own country, it would rank fifth in global meat consumption behind China, the US, Brazil and Russia. According to another researcher Peter Alexander, owning even a small dog is roughly equivalent to one-fifth of a car when it comes to the amount of emissions each year. And growing global food demand for livestock products would require clearing up to 100 billion hectares of land for agriculture, which will spell ecological disaster.

The good news is that much progress has been made into developing plant-based and sustainable pet foods that are nutritionally balanced

Current and projected future livestock consumption levels are unsustainable. We have just one planet and a finite amount of suitable land on which to grow food for direct consumption. There is an urgent need to reduce both methane emissions and deforestation and to make more efficient use of land. For this reason, it makes sense to call for a reduction in meat products in human diets, along with reductions in food waste and overconsumption, and to apply the principles to pets also.

The good news is that much progress has been made into developing plant-based and sustainable pet foods that are nutritionally balanced. These alternatives offer much promise in mitigating the impacts of pet diets.

Pet owners should reduce overfeeding and the amount of prime-cut meats. If you don’t already have a pet and want one, adopt rather than going to a breeder – or enjoy the companionship of animals by volunteering with shelters and charities.

And finally, is it too much to ask of dog owners that they pick up their dog’s waste and dispose of it properly? Plastic poop bags strewn around the countryside are a scourge.

Sadhbh O’Neill is a climate and environmental policy researcher

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