Is it time to bin the tins? How to reduce your pet's carbon pawprint
Given the environmental costs of cat and dog food, Lynne Caffrey asks if it's time to bin the tins, and considers the alternatives
Pets are good for us. They reduce stress, increase our exercise levels and, thanks to being a hive of dirt and bacteria, even boost our immune systems. But when it comes to the future of the planet, cats and dogs are a disaster.
Scientists have long been warning of domestic animals' impact on the environment, even coining the phrase 'carbon pawprint'. In 2009, authors Robert and Brenda Vale, in their book Time to Eat the Dog?, estimated a medium-sized pooch has the carbon pawprint of an SUV. Nine years later, the growing trend of treating pets as humans - with restaurant-quality menus to match - is accelerating the damage.
Horror stories have spread through the pet-owning community of mass-produced pet foods containing everything from ash, high-sugar fillers, slaughterhouse slurry (eyeballs, brains, hoofs) to wire and plastic from discarded ear tags. Dr Conor Brady, an animal nutritionist who runs the blog Dogsfirst, goes so far as to write: "If you buy cereal-based pet food product, your pets are eating pure garbage. Period."
High vet bills caused by allergies, stomach upsets and diet-based illnesses are other reasons owners give for trying to find alternatives to the big-brand foods.
HR manager Janice Ward, from Dublin, is one such owner. She spends one Sunday a month preparing a BARF mix (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food) for her two French bulldogs, Dexter (3) and Charlie (1).
"Our first Frenchie regurgitated his food no matter what we gave him," says Janice. "He had a deviated oesophagus and a sensitive stomach. I'd seen the stories about wire in feeds online and wanted to know more. After all, it's too late once the dog has eaten it. We started buying a pre-packed raw food that contained kelp, but we found that was causing problems so I started making my own.
"He used to turn his nose up after a few days on every other food I tried - now the dogs dance waiting to be fed, their coats look really healthy and the portioned feeds mean they aren't overweight."
Reducing the carbon footprint of her shop-bought feed wasn't her first priority, but she does offset the impact by using plenty of offal and organs in her mix as well as ground bone meal and whatever vegetables are in season. Janice supplements their diet with a shop-bought kibble for treats.
"The veg may be just to pad it out but at least I know they're getting all the vitamins and nutrients they need. All in all, it works out at about ¤43 for the month."
Janice buys her meat from wholesale butchers Carnivore Kellys in Clondalkin, which delivers in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It sells bulk quantities of minced chicken, duck, pork, beef, beef kidney, liver and hearts and a high-protein organ mix, all suitable for human consumption.
The meat isn't sold as pet food, but master butcher Seamus Kelly says more customers are shopping for their animals.
"It's a trend, we've seen an increase in people buying bulk from us for animal feed. It's their prerogative what they feed their animals," Seamus says. "I feed my own dogs on hearts and livers and that."
But by turning away from foods made largely from offal, trimmings and the scraps from meat processing, pet owners are rejecting what vet Pete Wedderburn says is already a pretty eco-friendly product that hasn't been proven to cause harm.
"If you're really concerned about your carbon footprint for your pet then don't use food that includes the best cuts of meat - they really don't need it," he says.
Advocates of the raw diet would argue pets don't need gluten-containing grains and fillers, but Wedderburn says it's harmless.
"That's all a complete fad. There's no evidence whatsoever those things cause any issues at all for 99.9pc of pets. There are some that have allergies, but they would be the exception. In practice, as a vet I don't see the big benefits to the raw food diet. I do see many who are thriving but I also see many dogs on the cheapest dried Pedigree food who are thriving.
"We know from studies of the dog genome that over 10,000 years ago, they evolved the enzyme needed to digest starch. Dogs have no problems with gluten or cereal, the fact that these messages are on bags as a new idea is driven by consumer sentiment rather than any logic or evidence," he says.
While there's no doubting the good intentions of owners, that sentiment is hastening the demise of our planet.
In 2010, Professor Marion Nestle from New York University estimated that supplying human-grade food to the then 170 million dogs and cats in the US was the same as feeding an extra 42 million humans. Last year, UCLA Professor Gregory S Okin, estimated pet food is responsible for a quarter of the environmental impacts of meat production, taking into account the water, land, fossil fuels, phosphates and pesticides used.
The answer could lie in vegetarian or even vegan brands (such as Benevo from plantgoodness24.ie), which produces a much smaller carbon footprint, however these diets are tricky to nutritionally balance and aren't widely recommended by most vets. It seems owners are stuck between doing what's best for the planet and what's best for their pets, but Wedderburn says before we give up and eat the dog, we should broaden our thinking.
"It's common for people to believe there's only one good way to feed an animal when there are many good ways to feed dogs and cats. What's important is what suits that animal. Choose a diet that your pet seems to enjoy, that's affordable and that's easily available. It takes six to eight weeks for the impact of a diet to kick in fully. If after that they're looking well-muscled, bright-eyed and with a good glossy coat, then that's a good diet for them.
"If, after that, you really care about the environment, then don't take your summer holiday to Spain or Greece!"