A look at the environmental impact of pets

By Don “Doc” Sanders

An estimated 200 million dogs and cats live in the United States, along with 330 million humans. More than 60% of American households are home to at least one pet.

You’ve probably seen the information out there about how people impact the environment. But how much do our pets contribute to this effect?

Do they really have a significant environmental impact? You bet your sweet bippy they do! 

Pets’ impact on global warming was first studied in 2017, using a technique called life cycle analysis (LCA). An LCA of an animal species evaluates all of the inputs that go into supporting the animals, right down to the animals’ outputs. That is, their excrement.

LCAs have been completed numerous times over the past several years for food animals like cows and pigs. So, it’s logical that researchers would also evaluate our pets. Or at least you’d think so, if they had a chance to see how much food my boxer, Ruby, wolfs down. 

Greg Okin at UCLA conducted environmental impact analyses, similar to a bovine LCA, but for pets. He investigated the amount of food they ate, the chemicals used to protect them from pests like fleas and ticks, their housing. And, yes, the amount of waste they left on the lawn or in the litter box.

            Dogs and cats consume 19 to 21% of the energy requirements that humans do. It’s also been determined that pets produce about 30% of the feces that their owners do. (Now don’t ask me who had the job of measuring this. For good reason, nobody ever said research is glamorous.)

Pets’ environmental impact is about 25 to 30% of the total impact of animals that are raised for food production when you factor in the use of land, water, fossil fuel, phosphates, insecticides and herbicides.

Dogs’ and cats’ consumption of animal products appears responsible for the release of 64 million tons — give or take 16 tons — of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. That’s the equivalent of driving 13.6 million cars.  Unlike what’s been calculated for ruminants, such as cows, sheep and goats, no one has evaluated whether carbon release related to pets is in a stable, neutral cycle. 

It has been determined by Frank Mitloehner at UC-Davis that ruminant animals are on a 12-year neutral carbon cycle. That is, over this period cows and other ruminants in addition to urine and cow poo, belch methane and nitrous oxide, which breaks down to carbon dioxide that trees and other plants capture and store as carbon. This UC-Davis report is a well-researched LCA, despite Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s exaggerated claims that the major environmental global-warming problem is cow farts released into the environment. 

Unlike you livestock-owning readers out there, AOC doesn’t know that burping is the primary way ruminants excrete methane and nitrous oxide — not the other end. I also find it interesting that environmental activists like AOC aren’t on a rant about pets contributing to global warming. 

Pets have never been fully included in the environmental calculations, as the focus has been on farm animals and how they impact the environment. Yet, pets contribute significantly.

Research is underway to more completely evaluate American pets’ dietary profile as compared to that of the humans who fill their bowls. While human consumption of meat has waned, pet owners are stepping up and purchasing more premium pet foods, many of which are made with prime cuts of meat that raise pets’ carbon pawprint. 

You could say that our pets are eating higher on the hog than we are. 

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One comment

  1. “It has been determined by Frank Mitloehner at UC-Davis that ruminant animals are on a 12-year neutral carbon cycle. That is, over this period cows and other ruminants in addition to urine and cow poo, belch methane and nitrous oxide, which breaks down to carbon dioxide that trees and other plants capture and store as carbon.”

    That is not how that works. You are literally assuming that the main gas warming the climate (carbon dioxide) causes no warming. Also, you might want to point out that nitrous oxide hangs around for more than a century.

    Please talk to some reputable scientists (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/31/climate/frank-mitloehner-uc-davis.html) and stop spreading disinformation.

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