Do your pets contribute to climate change? One UCLA professor says yes
Dogs and cats no doubt provide love and companionship, but their carbon "pawprint" is bigger than you might think.
A new study from UCLA shows that feeding pets a meat-based diet in the U.S. creates 64 million tons of carbon dioxide a year — the equivalent driving 13.6 million cars.
"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," said UCLA geography professor Gregory Okin, whose study appeared Wednesday in the journal PLOS One. "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. "
The U.S. has an estimated 163 million dogs and cats. Okin said if they made up their own country, it would rank fifth in global meat consumption -- after Russia, Brazil, the U.S. and China.
Meat consumption among pets has accelerated, Okin said, as consumers turn to higher quality pet food with fewer fillers. And it's not just an issue in the U.S., he said. As populations in emerging economies like Brazil and China become more affluent, they too are likely to acquire and spend more on pets.
Still, pet food consumption creates just a fraction of the climate footprint left by humans in the U.S. The EPA reported that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions topped 6,500 million metric tons in 2015.
But feeding pets adds up to a surprisingly large impact, Okin said.
"I think we as a society need to just be able to have a conversation about these -- are these costs we're willing to bear and are there ways to minimize the costs and make things better for everybody," he told KPCC.
Okin found that dogs and cats chow down on only 19 percent as many calories as people in the U.S. - which makes sense owing to their smaller size.
But Okin found that total meat consumption by pets makes up about 25 percent of the total calories derived from animals in the U.S.
Overall, cats and dogs contribute 25 to 30 percent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the United States.
Pet feces is also an issue. America's pets produce about 5.1 million tons a year - as much as 90 million Americans.
Okin says if it was all thrown into the trash, it'd be on par with the total trash production of the state of Massachusetts.
This project is far from Okin's normal expertise. He's a member of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, where he researches climate indicators like dust bowls and dryland ecosystems.
But like many good ideas, the idea for researching pets came to him at night.
"I had insomnia one evening, thinking about how increasingly in places like LA, people are getting urban chickens," he told KPCC.
Chickens are vegetarian, he said, but also they're unique in that they also make animal protein that we consume - in contrast to dogs and cats.
“And that got me thinking — how much meat do our pets eat?,” he said in a release.
Okin says one solution to fewer carbon emissions from pet food is simple: look at meat alternatives. It's no secret that eating less meat is becoming more popular nationwide as a way to reduce our environmental footprint.
While only about five percent of American adults are vegetarian, a study from the Vegetarian Resource Group shows about 37 percent of Americans always or sometimes eat vegetarian when eating out.
But he recognizes that dogs and cats have higher protein needs than humans and wouldn't thrive on a vegetarian diet.
"We need to honor their biology," he told KPCC. "Fundamentally, they're carnivores. I don't think any veterinarian would suggest that you should move them onto a vegetarian diet."
He hopes the study will prompt people in the pet food industry to look critically at the climate impacts of man's best friend.
There's a lot of meat in pet food products that is actually safe for human to eat, Okin explains.
And if we just took 25 percent of the meat in dog and cat food and put it into the American food system, it would feed five million people -- or the population of Colorado.
"People love their dogs and cats," he said, stressing that he doesn't advocate getting rid of our beloved family members in light of this research.
"But I think there's lots of interesting questions about how we can take what's in the American food system and actually produce foods that are both good for animals, good for humans, and hopefully limit the overall impact of everybody," he said.