The Environmental Impact of Dogs

dog out in the natural environment

There really is nothing quite as rewarding as having a dog – the unconditional love, companionship, and affection they give to humans creates a bond like no other. Dog owners value this relationship highly and want nothing more than for their canine companion to be happy and healthy.

But this relationship comes with it’s tradeoffs. What impact does this relationship have on our planet and the environment? Let’s read on.

Dog Products Are A Huge Industry

In recent years, the pet industry has boomed, with more of us owning pets than ever before. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reports that over 37% of American households now own a pet dog, estimating that there are over 76 million dogs in total in the US.

The American Pet Products Association (APPA) released a report stating that in 2018 American pet owners spent a record-breaking $72.56 billion on the care of their pets – a figure which continues to increase every year.

Manufacturers of pet products have tapped into the potential of the pet market by developing more and more ‘must-have’ products for our pets. Gone are the days when a pet dog just had a collar, leash, bed, and maybe a ball – nowadays most dogs would need their own suitcase for their belongings when going on holiday!

Walk into any pet store and you will see a huge range of products aimed at dogs – food, bowls, toys, beds, treats, and grooming products. The production of these products all comes at a cost to the environment, from the extraction of raw materials and the manufacturing process through to packaging and transportation.

Many pet products are made from plastic or contain components that are difficult or impossible to recycle, meaning these toys end up in landfill sites once they are no longer fit for use.

dog standing in the field

The Dog Waste Problem

As responsible pet owners, we all endeavor to pick up and dispose of our dog’s feces safely. Popping that poo into a plastic bag and dropping it in the nearest dog waste bin seems like the responsible thing to do, but what impact does this have on the environment?

Firstly, it is back to the plastic problem again – pet waste collected in plastic bags normally ends up in landfill sites, contributing to the ever-increasing trash problem on our planet. In the US, pets produce the same amount of feces each year as about 90 million humans – approximately 5.1 million tons altogether! Transporting and processing this waste creates a huge carbon dioxide (CO2) output.

Unfortunately, it is just as detrimental to the environment to not pick up your dog’s feces. If left to lie on the ground or pavement, dog feces wash into storm drains and rivers, creating an imbalance in delicate ecosystems such as coastal habitats. Dog feces also produce a high amount of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Environmental Impact Of Dog Food

Now we come to the biggest environmental impactor of all – pet food. A UCLA study by Professor Gregory Okin estimated that the meat fed to pet dogs is responsible for up to 30% of the environmental impact of meat consumption in America. In the US alone, it is believed that dogs now consume more than 32 billion pounds of meat protein each year. Sustainable dog food will be a key to reducing the impact of dogs on the Earth.

Pet food consumption is now estimated to be responsible for the release of up to 64 million tons of CO2 each year – a figure described by scientists as an environmental disaster.

The Meat Used In Dog Food

Traditionally, dog food was made from by-products from the human food industry, utilizing the parts of meat that are not normally consumed by humans for pet food. In modern times pet dogs are viewed more as family members, with dog owners preferring to feed ‘premium’ brands of dog food.

These types of food tend to use cuts of meat which would normally enter the human food chain, creating an increase in overall meat production.

Experts all acknowledge that our dogs need a healthy source of protein to build and maintain muscle. Traditionally this protein in pet foods has come from beef cattle and poultry such as chickens. Raising these types of animals as a protein source takes a lot of land, food, and water, creating an exceptionally large ecological footprint.

How Does Dog Food Hurt The Environment?

So, why is feeding meat so harmful to the environment? The production of meat raises three big environmental issues – feed sourcing, manure processing, and climate change. Raising animals for meat requires vast quantities of feed production, which is not an efficient use of plant-based nutrients.

A University of Edinburgh study has calculated that around 49 million hectares of land are needed to produce dried food for cats and dogs worldwide. Huge areas of land are cleared to make way for cattle farms, leading to widespread habitat loss and endangering the survival of many species of mammals, birds, and insects. Converting natural habitats to agricultural fields also releases carbon pollution, contributing to climate change.

The production of beef is of particular concern, as red meat production is highly inefficient. To produce one pound of beef requires 25 pounds of feed in the form of grain. Cattle are also the highest methane-producing animal on the planet. Although CO2 is talked about most often when we discuss climate change, methane is also a big problem, making up over 9% of the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Climate-destroying emissions are released during the processing and transportation of animals for meat production. Livestock farming creates 18% of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide – more than all emissions from cars, trucks, planes, ships, and all other transport put together.

Industrial meat farming is now considered to be the single biggest cause of deforestation globally. In South America, areas of the Amazon rainforest are deliberately set on fire to clear space for cattle farming and to grow animal feed for use elsewhere in the world. When forests are destroyed in this way, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.

It is believed that the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is so extensive that it may soon reach a ‘tipping point’, where it cannot sustain itself as a rainforest any longer. When this occurs, the effects may be far-reaching and irreversible, with reduced rainfall and changes in climate patterns.

So, How Can We Change?

The key to minimizing your dog’s impact on the environment lies in trying to be a responsible consumer. We all want our dogs to be happy, healthy, and loved, and buying what they need is an important part of fulfilling this relationship. Becoming a responsible consumer simply means that we take accountability for our purchases, becoming more actively aware of the environmental impact of the decisions we make. As a consumer, we can also drive change within the manufacturing industry by opting for sustainable and environmentally friendly choices whenever possible.

Currently, most pet food marketing is focused on convincing us to feed our pets much the same foods that humans eat. The market is being increasingly flooded with deluxe meat-based foods, such as chunks of premium beef in gravy, rather than the meat byproducts which were traditionally used for animal feed. Unfortunately, feeding our dogs with meat that would normally enter the human food chain is not environmentally friendly.

Luckily, as consumers, we do have an increasing range of environmentally sustainable pet products available to us. It is now possible to source pet toys that are recyclable or biodegradable, and even some made from recycled materials. Biodegradable dog poo bags are now widely available. Driven by consumer demand, some pet food manufacturers have begun to take steps to reduce the environmental impact of pet food by looking for alternative protein sources such as insects.

One example of this is Jiminy’s, a pet food manufacturer who has developed a dog kibble that combines insect proteins with plant-based ingredients. This has enabled them to create a complete balanced dog food with a hugely reduced impact on the environment compared to beef products. Jiminy’s use crickets as the source of high-quality protein, which have impressive environmental credentials.

One acre of land can be used to produce over three thousand times the amount of protein through cricket production compared to beef. The greenhouse gases produced in cricket farming are a fraction of those produced in traditional beef and poultry farming.

Water usage is also drastically reduced – 1 gallon of water is required to produce 1 pound of cricket protein, compared to 2900 gallons required to produce the same amount of beef protein. Insect farming may well become the future of sustainable dog foods and manufacturers such as Jiminy’s are leading the way with research and product development in this field.

Although it can be terrifying to comprehend the detrimental impact of something so simple as buying a bag of dog kibble from the pet store, it is reassuring to know that some manufacturers are leading the way with innovative technologies and ideas to help us reduce the environmental impact of our beloved dogs. As consumers, we all have a responsibility to make the most sustainable choices on behalf of our dogs to protect our planet and the environment.

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