Sustainable Diets for Companion Animals

Masters of Sustainability student, Marina Antoniozzi examines the sustainability issues associated with the humanisation of pets and their food.

Image by Africa Studio via Shutterstock. Stock photo ID: 479587618

We often hear about the growing world population and the consequent increasing pressure on the environment, but hardly ever do we talk about the impact of increasing pet population. Given that the world pet population is also growing, and that the pet food industry often competes with human food industries for ingredients, it is important that we consider the use of land, water, and air, the management of waste and species biodiversity associated with the pet food industry.

Today, in Australia there are about 4.2 million pet dogs and 3.3 million pet cats, who almost entirely rely on their humans for food. In 2009, Australian dog owners spent an estimated 1.1 billion dollars on pet food, a trend consistent with growth in the US and the UK that mirrors pets movements into our hearts. In fact, people increasingly treat their pets as family members, giving rise to a recent tendency in the anthropomorphism (humanisation) of pets and their products. As standards of living increase so does meat consumption, and that also reflects on what we feed our pets. These trends, combined with clever advertising strategies from high-end pet food producers, have led to a remarkable increase in so-called ‘human-grade’ ingredients with higher than ever content of meat, organic produce and sometimes even ‘superfoods’. But the higher content of meat or more desirable cuts aren’t necessarily what pets need, neither are they environmentally sustainable.

Environmental issues

We all know that dietary choices greatly impact the environment, but did you know that a medium-size dog could have a similar footprint to a large SUV? This is because pets increasingly meat-based diet requires more energy, land and water than a plant-based diet and has greater environmental consequences in terms of soil erosion, fossil fuel use, greenhouse gas emissions and fertiliser and pesticide use.

In the US, cats and dogs consume as much dietary energy as one fifth of the population. Therefore, it is reasonable to also consider their food consumption when calculating the national food consumption, especially in those countries where dog and cat populations are high.

When feeding dogs, owners can choose between commercial food or homemade, which includes table scraps. In Australia, approximately 16% of household food waste is meat. Since over a third of Australian households have at least one pet, feeding food waste to dogs could save a potentially significant amount of food from reaching landfill. However, feeding your pets food waste may not provide the necessary nutrition for a healthy and balanced diet.

Nutritional issues

How we feed our pets can contribute to pet obesity, and in Australia, a staggering 41% of dogs are estimated to be overweight or obese. Sociological studies have examined the relationships between dog owners and their pets and determined that human pet-feeding practices are symbolic of relations of reciprocity, care and love and sometimes that love results in overfeeding. However, these relationships can have detrimental effects on a pet’s health. Indeed, one study found that owners who fed table scraps, particularly women and owners of medium size dogs, had overweight dogs.

Possible Solutions

While it is true that cats and dogs generally eat meat that is not fit for human consumption, some ingredients in premium pet food are edible after processing, and therefore in direct competition with the human food system. There will be a day when we simply won’t be able to produce enough meat for the growing human and pet population, so a reduction of dog and cat ownership may provide a solution. However, considering the vast range of health and emotional benefits they offer, this may prove unpopular.

With pet food, what matters is not the grade of the ingredients, but the balance of nutrients. Of course, pets need good quality food, but not necessarily the same meat cuts as their owners. The best way to feed our pets a meat-based diet whilst having a minimal environmental impact is to use by-products like organ trims and bones. These provide healthy, appetising and more sustainable nutrition while using animal parts that would otherwise end up in landfill and contribute to the emission of carbon dioxide and methane.

Reducing overfeeding and waste, while looking for alternative sources of protein certainly helps. However, to effectively tackle the issue of sustainability, there is a need for coordinated efforts across the industry, from ingredient buyers, formulators and nutritionists to product design, education and policy.

The bottom line is that what you choose to feed your pet can have considerable effects on both your pet’s health and the environment. You can reduce your impact by feeding your pet food that contains moderate amounts of meat derived from animal by-products and only in the quantity necessary to maintain a healthy lean body weight.

Marina Antoniozzi is a Master of Sustainability student mainly interested in protecting the environment and wildlife. She has recently started working at Keep Australia Beautiful as National Programs Manager, through which she hopes to reach a wide audience of young students who will contribute to shaping a greener and more sustainable future for Australia.