LOS ANGELES — In recent years, Americans have learned how their eating-habits directly impact the environment: meat requires more energy, land, and water and causes more erosion, pesticides and waste. Now, it’s time to consider the bowls of food we are feeding our pets.
A new study conducted by researchers at UCLA finds that dogs and cats are responsible for 25 to 30 percent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the United States from their bowls full of meaty food. That’s equal to about 64 million tons of carbon dioxide — which is what 13.6 million cars would produce over a year’s worth of road time.
The pet study was sparked by Okin’s curiosity.
“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,” says Okin in a university press release. “And that got me thinking — how much meat do our pets eat?”
Okin puts it in perspective: If 163 million of Americans’ dogs and cats were transplanted onto their own country, they would rank fifth in global meat consumption. Okin also noted that pets lead to about 5.1 million tons of feces each year – which is almost equal to the total trash production of Massachusetts.
“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,” says Okin. “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.”
Okin conducted this research with complicated equations that began from calculations with information such as the population of dogs and cats in the country and the ingredients in the most popular pet foods on the market.
To determine how many tons of greenhouse gases are linked to the consumption of meaty pet food, Okin had to gather the amount of meat eaten by 163 million cats and dogs eat as well as 321 million Americans.
According to the study, the U.S. has the largest population of pet dogs and cats, with 77.8 million dogs and 85.6 million cats estimated in 2015.
Okin concluded that dogs and cats eat about 25 percent of animal-derived foods in the United States — nearly 19 percent as many calories as Americans, and equivalent to the calories consumed by the population of France (67 million) in a year.
As society has grown to treat our pets more like family, companies have also been following that trend by putting more and more premium pet food out on the market with high-quality meat, which Okin suggests could be edible for humans. This theory sounds plausible when Okin estimates that if we consumed even a quarter of the meat in pet food, it would equal to the amount of meat 26 million Americans eat.
Okin notes that pet-owners can also consider pets who feed on a plant-based diet, like birds or hamsters. The pet food industry is starting to consider sustainability and alternative sources of protein – such as vegan formula pet food.
The full study is published in the journal PLOS One, on August 2.