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Environmental impact of pets estimated

UCLA researcher finds that feeding pets creates equivalent of 64 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.

With many Americans choosing to eat less meat in recent years, often to help reduce the environmental effect of meat production, University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) geography professor Gregory Okin began to wonder how much feeding pets contributes to issues like climate change.

Okin calculated that meat eaten by dogs and cats creates the equivalent of about 64 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, which has about the same climate impact as driving 13.6 million cars for a year's time.

"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," Okin said. "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."

In a paper published Aug. 2 in the journal PLOS One, Okin said he found that cats and dogs are responsible for 25-30% of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the U.S. If Americans' 163 million pets comprised a separate country, Okin calculated that their nation would rank fifth in global meat consumption, behind Russia, Brazil, the U.S. and China.

America's pets produce about 5.1 million tons of feces in a year, as much as 90 million Americans. If all that were thrown in the trash, it would rival the total trash production of Massachusetts' residents.

Compared to a plant-based diet, meat requires more energy, land and water to produce, and has greater environmental consequences in terms of erosion, pesticides and waste, Okin noted. Previous studies have found that the American diet generates the equivalent of 260 million tons of carbon dioxide related to livestock production. By calculating and comparing how much meat 163 million cats and dogs eat compared to 321 million Americans, Okin determined how many tons of greenhouse gases are tied to pet food.

His calculations start with publicly available information, like the number of dogs and cats in the country and the ingredients in market-leading pet foods. He then produces estimates that create a starting point for the conversion.

He found that U.S. dogs and cats eat about 19% as many calories as the nation's people, on par with all the calories consumed by the population of France in a year. Because dog and cat food tends to have more meat than the average human diet, this means that dogs and cats consume about 25% of the total calories derived from animals in the U.S.

Okin, a member of UCLA's Institute of the Environment & Sustainability, usually researches dust bowls, desert landscape dynamics and wind erosion and how those things can affect individual ecosystems and the global climate. Pinning down the environmental impact of canine and feline companions was more of a side project that occurred to him while he was thinking about the growing trend of raising backyard chickens.

"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," he said. "That got me thinking: How much meat do our pets eat?"

Okin said he recognizes that some of the products in pet food aren't something people should or would eat, but some of it is. In his research, he confirmed his hunch that premium pet foods usually contain more animal products than other brands, and premium pet food purchases are increasing. As growing numbers of people consider pets less as animals and more as family members, Okin said pampering has increased, and the options for pet food with high-quality meat has kept pace. This means pets are increasingly eating cuts of meat suitable for people.

"A dog doesn't need to eat steak," Okin said. "A dog can eat things a human sincerely can't. So, what if we could turn some of that pet food into people chow?"

"I'm not a vegetarian, but eating meat does come at a cost," he continued. "Those of us in favor of eating or serving meat need to be able to have an informed conversation about our choices, and that includes the choices we make for our pets."

He doesn't see a simple solution. Pets provide friendship and other social, health and emotional benefits that can't be discounted, Okin said. People concerned about meat intake could consider vegetarian pets, like birds or hamsters, he suggested. The pet food industry, he noted, is also beginning to take steps toward sustainability and could work to reduce overfeeding plus consider alternative sources of protein.

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