Last reviewed 11 March 2022

One of the biggest environmental impacts linked to owning pets is the production of meat-based pet food. Caroline Hand explores the effects and how businesses can explore more environmentally-friendly methods of feeding our animal companions.

For thousands of years, humanity has been cheered and comforted by the presence of pets; archaeological evidence indicates that dogs and people were living together 14,700 years ago. This trend has grown exponentially in recent years, with over 470 million dogs and 370 million cats registered as pets globally in 2018, and 3.2 million UK households obtaining a pet during lockdown.

Unfortunately, the increase in pet numbers could have serious consequences for our planet, particularly with regard to their diets. Scientists at UCLA discovered that in the USA alone, cats’ and dogs’ eating habits are responsible for releasing as many as 64 million tonnes of greenhouse gases every year, roughly the equivalent of driving over 13 million cars.

While pets may have subsisted on scraps or vermin in the past, there is now a huge pet food industry dedicated to providing for them. About 33% of the food eaten by dogs and cats consists of meat. Livestock farming has consequences for deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and pollution. In fact, 14.5% of all human-induced emissions originate from the livestock sector. As up to 20% of the world’s meat and fish is consumed by pets, it’s clear that our love of furry and fluffy companionship is contributing to the planet’s plight.

However, this does not necessarily mean, as some rather harsh commentators have suggested, that we should banish our beloved pets from our lives for the greater good. To do so would be to overlook the numerous benefits involved with keeping a pet, such as reducing loneliness, improving mental health, and strengthening the immune system. Spending time with pets can also increase environmental awareness, particularly through outdoor activities such as dog walking. Furthermore, it should be noted that a vast amount of pet food is made from leftovers in the global meat supply chain, including meat that couldn’t be sold for human consumption. Since this meat would have otherwise gone to waste, the impact of pet food on the environment may have been somewhat exaggerated.

Nevertheless, there is still a clear environmental problem with pet food, with an increasing number of owners starting to unnecessarily feed their pets luxury human-grade meals, which involve the farming of additional animals instead of the use of byproducts. To make matters worse, many pets are being given far more food than they need by doting owners; over half of the UK’s dogs are obese. This harms not only the planet but also the health of the overfed animals.

The business response

Fortunately, several businesses are exploring more environmentally-friendly methods of feeding the world’s pets. For instance, Wild Earth, a company based in the US, has developed a vegan dog food made with ingredients such as dried yeast, oats and chickpeas. As dogs are omnivores, and therefore can survive without meat, vegan meals for mutts are a genuine possibility. Wild Earth have stated that their food is just as nutritious for dogs as meat, and have also developed a dog treat made with a fungi called koji. Let’s hope there will be a mushrooming trend towards innovative and sustainable dog foods!

The situation with cat food is more complicated. Cats are obligate carnivores, requiring meat to survive. Vegan foods are therefore not an option for them. However, there are several eco-friendly possibilities for feeding felines that businesses are exploring. One of these is the use of insects. In March 2021, Mars Petcare announced Lovebug, a dry cat food made from insect meal derived from black soldier fly larvae. Insects are a far more efficient source of energy than meat, and farming them requires 1000 times less water than conventional meat farming. Furthermore, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has claimed that insects have the same nutritional value as other meat sources such as pork, beef and fish.

While maggot-flavoured Mars Bars are unlikely to hit the shelves any time soon, the confectionery giant’s move towards sustainable pet food looks promising, especially as the grubs are sourced from a farm entirely powered by renewable energy, and are fed on surplus vegetables and plants. Nestlé has also been exploring this idea, having introduced a pet food containing black soldier fly larvae (in addition to animal and plant protein) in November 2020. The fact that such notable corporations have started to produce pet foods with insects indicates that the concept is well on the way to becoming mainstream.

Dogs needn’t miss out on this new kind of grub. Yora Pet Foods, a British start-up established in 2019, developed a dog food made from black soldier fly larvae, and has encountered considerable success. Yora expects to have shipped more than 200 million tonnes of product to over 200 countries, and generate more than $2.8 million in sales. The black soldier fly isn’t the only insect with potential for pooches.

Chippin, an eco-friendly pet food company based in the US, has developed a dog food using crickets, demonstrating that many different insects could be used to feed the world’s pets in a more sustainable way. It’s worth pointing out that insect based foods need to be introduced gradually into a pet’s diet, as the manufacturers recommend.

Another possibility for eco-friendly pet food is the use of lab-grown clean meat. Because Animals, a start-up based in the US, has developed cat treats containing mouse tissue grown from stem cells. The cells were taken from the ears of donor mice, all of which survived the process and have since been adopted. Although there are concerns about the practicalities of scaling up lab-grown meat production to viable levels (the first beefburger produced from cultured stem cells cost £200,000 to create), Because Animals has a distinct advantage in this area. It only requires enough cultured mouse tissue to give its food a flavour that pets will respond positively to, instead of having to create products that consist entirely of meat (the cat treats also contain ingredients such as pumpkin and tempeh). The fact that the formulation developed by the company doesn’t contain fetal bovine serum, an expensive product derived from animal blood, gives it another advantage over other clean meat enterprises. Because Animals’ potential to change the pet food industry is highlighted by the $6.7 million it has raised in investment from companies such as SOSV, Orkla, and Draper Associates.

While there are some very promising possibilities with regards to planet-friendly pet food, a lot of work remains to be done before these alternative sources of sustenance for cats and dogs become mainstream. A more sustainable way of packaging pet food would also be good news, given that 7.6 billion containers are manufactured every year in the UK alone. Furthermore, there are several other environmental problems related to pets that require addressing, such as their unfortunate tendency to hunt endangered wildlife, and the waste they produce. The need to clean up after the nation’s dogs involves the use of 3.6 billion plastic bags annually, and most ‘clumping’ cat litter is made from bentonite clay. Not only is this mineral unrecyclable, it’s also obtained through open-cast strip mining, which involves the removal of soils and trees. Any businesses contributing towards reducing the carbon pawprint of pet adoption would be fulfilling a vital role, and would have the support of the numerous owners seeking to make a difference for the planet.