Reality Check: Your Dog Is Terrible For The Environment

And so is your cat.
Dmitry Kopylets via Getty Images

Lyla is a pug, a very popular type of dog. She’s also a vegan. Her owner has stopped feeding her meat, a decision becoming more common among pet owners in the U.S. as people’s rising interest in meatless diets spreads to their pets.

Lyla belongs to Myron Lyskanycz, CEO of the pet food company Halo. The business has sold both meat and vegan ranges of pet food for six years, and its meat-free products now account for 20 percent of dog food sales. Lyskanycz predicts vegan sales will grow quickly over the next decade.

Around 8 percent of Americans describe themselves as vegetarian or vegan, according to one poll, and an additional 31 percent say they actively reduce their meat consumption, according to another. As people move away from meat, said Lyskanycz, “they are going to begin to see it is suitable for their pets too. It’s inevitable.”

Lyla the vegan pug.
Lyla the vegan pug.
Halo Pets

A plant-based diet for dogs is not as ridiculous as it might seem. In the U.S., the 70 million dogs kept as companions largely eat meat-based diets. If you put all the American dogs, cats and other pets on their own island, they would rank fifth in global meat consumption, behind Russia, Brazil, the U.S. and China.

This has started worrying environmentalists, with global meat and dairy production representing 14.5 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions ― slightly more than the emissions produced by every car, train, aircraft and ship on the planet. Pet dogs and cats are responsible for up to 30 percent of the environmental impact of animal agriculture in the U.S.

Without cutting the overconsumption of meat ― in pets, as well as humans ― it will be almost impossible to prevent global warming from passing the danger level of a 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

Free-ranging dogs in other countries that survive by scavenging have been found to consume a diet rich in carbohydrates (biscuits, bread, rice) and relatively low in protein (scraps of meat or remains of carcasses).

Domestic dogs are reported to be better adapted to a diet that is higher in carbohydrates than their wolf-like ancestors because of changes in foraging behavior and a better ability to digest starch. This is supported by a Swedish study that found dogs were five times better at digesting starch ― found in grains, beans and potatoes ― than wolves, and had a digestive enzyme similar to one found in herbivores such as cows and rabbits.

While dogs like the smell and taste of meat, the study says, the diet given to them as puppies is likely to strongly influence their taste preferences as an adult dog.

“Most people who own a dog have never thought a dog could survive on a plant-based diet. As more information comes out, that will change,” said Lyskanycz.

Much of the pet food available today includes bone meal and other leftovers of animals less popular in human diets. But Greg Okin, a professor at the University of California and author of a study on the environmental impact of pet food, said there is a move by some pet food companies to persuade pet owners to buy food made from higher quality meat.

“Marketers are attempting to convince consumers that their dogs are wolves and that their cats are lions and, therefore, must have high-animal content diets,” Okin said. “Dogs aren’t wolves and cats aren’t lions. But people are suckers. In my opinion, they’re being duped into spending more money on products their animal doesn’t need and that, from an environmental perspective, is worse than the cheaper grain-filled brands.”

That said, there are limits to switching pets away from a meat-based diet. While dogs can live on a diet of vegetables, cats are carnivores and need certain nutrients within meat in their diet.

Cats are carnivores and need nutrients in their diet which they get from meat.
Cats are carnivores and need nutrients in their diet which they get from meat.
OlyaSolodenko via Getty Images

Dogs “are omnivores and even their wild ancestors had vegetables in their diet. They have since become more suited with evolution for a plant-based diet,” said Dr. Sarah Dodd, a veterinary consultant to companies including Halo who is studying plant-based pet diets. ”With cats, it’s different. On paper you can get all the nutrients in a plant-based diet with formulation, but we do not yet have enough evidence to know if the products currently on offer meet those needs.”

Dodd said large pet food companies should support further research about products for cats. One such company, Mars Petcare, whose brands include Pedigree, Iams, Nutro and Eukanuba, has doubts about consumer interest in vegan pet food.

“While a vegan diet for cats and dogs is possible, it can be difficult to develop,” Dr. Tiffany Bierer, scientific affairs manager at Mars Petcare, said. “For example, dogs and cats require Vitamin D in their diets to maintain proper calcium levels in their body. Unlike humans, they can’t produce it on their own, and Vitamin D is only found in animal-based foods. There are also some nutrients that have limited vegetable or grain sources, like amino acids.”

Another pet food company is addressing the cat problem with slaughter-free meat. California-based Wild Earth, whose backers include billionaire Peter Thiel, says it wants to reinvent pet food with slaughter-free or lab-grown meat, as well as plant-based food.

“We’re using plants and fungi, which is very high in protein, as a first step in replacing meat,” said CEO Ryan Bethencourt. But we don’t advertise ourselves as a vegan company. Our purpose is to create sustainable protein, which could include slaughter-free.”

Wild Earth has already made a slaughter-free mouse meat for cats, though it’s not yet available for sale. Bethencourt said a commercial meat product for humans is likely to come first, to avoid creating an image of lab-grown meat as a substandard human food option.

“We could do it today or within a few months, but it’s a regulatory and price question,” Bethencourt said, adding that Wild Earth hopes to begin selling a lab meat product by 2020.

For the time being, Okin said pet owners shouldn’t change companion’s diet without guidance.

“Much as we make decisions about what car to drive ― some of us based on considerations of carbon emissions ― we also might choose what kind of animal to keep based on its need for animal-derived products,” Okin said. “For people who have animals, I encourage them to talk to their vet about this if they have questions.”

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