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What is your carbon pawprint?

We all love our pets. Our furry companions provide us with abundant social and emotional benefits. As of 2018, globally, we owned some 470 million dogs and 370 million cats, and that number has only risen. But we seldom consider the environmental impact of the dogs and cats we live with.

Judith Polich / For the Journal

UCLA researcher Greg Okin states that meat eating by dogs is equivalent to 64 million tons of CO2 a year. He says that is the same as a year’s worth of driving 13.6 million cars. His findings were published in the journal PLOS One.

Here are some of his other findings: Our pets eat a fifth of the world’s fish and meat. In terms of calories, pet food uses the equivalent of the caloric consumption of the entire country of France. In terms of meat consumption, it is fifth globally, following Brazil, Russia, China and the United States. In the U.S., 30% of the environmental impact from eating meat is attributable to our pets.

A recent Edinburgh study published in the journal Global Environmental Change states that the agricultural land used to produce (dry) pet food is equivalent to the landmass of the United Kingdom, and that the production of dry pet food creates 106 million tons of annual greenhouse gases, making dry pet food the sixth-largest emitter of C02. Researcher Dr. Peter Alexander of the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security points out that the full environmental impact of the industry will be higher as the new study looked only at dry pet food production.

As Alexander states, “Even accounting for the use of by-products in pet food, the feeding of companion animals plays a role in environmental change. This is a topic that has been previously overlooked, but we have shown that pets and how they are fed should be considered alongside other actions to reduce climate change and help biodiversity.”

In the U.S., pet food is an $87 billion industry. The industry argues that most pet food contains bone meal and leftover meat processing items humans do not consume. That is true to a degree, but this same industry promotes high-protein, expensive food made from quality meats and spends millions trying to convince us that our pets need these expensive foods.

Sustainable pet practices could make a huge difference. Most of us feed our dogs diets that are high in protein, but dogs really don’t require that much meat. They do well on a diet that includes lots of vegetables, grains and other carbohydrates. But check with your vet before you make substantial changes in your pet’s diet.

Many of us consider our pets family members and pamper them with high-quality food and treats. “A dog doesn’t need to eat steak,” Okin says. “A dog can eat things a human sincerely can’t.”

I am a big culprit here. I have tended to think that, if I love my dog, I will feed her the most expensive dog food and treats I can afford, and supplement it with a lot of beef and chicken … because that seems to be what my dog wants. Of course she wants steak if I am willing to give it to her! I have learned that I am easily manipulated by both the pet industry and by my dog. What I have been feeding her is not the best diet for her, nor is it good for the environment.

Cats are another story. They require a high-protein diet, but many owners consistently over-feed their cats. Healthy cats are not fat. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimates that 59% of our cats and 54% of our dogs are overweight or obese.

In addition, our pets produce some 5.1 million tons of feces a year. And then there is the uncomfortable fact that most doggy-do and cat litter ends up in the landfill in non-degradable plastic bags. If you can, experts suggest, you should flush cat and dog feces down the toilet. If not, try to dispose of waste in biodegradable bags, and be sure to check and see if they are actually biodegradable as this industry can be prone to false claims.

Researcher Greg Okin clearly put it, “I do think we should consider the impacts that pets have so we can have an honest conversation about them. Pets have many benefits, but also a huge environmental impact.” It is a difficult conversation, but long overdue.

Judith Polich, a longtime New Mexico resident, is a retired attorney with a background in environmental studies and is a student of climate change. She can be reached at