It’s no secret that the consumption of meat contributes to the climate crisis. Animal agriculture is responsible for at least 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But new research from the University of Winchester estimates cats’ and dogs’ meat-eating is a bigger contribution to this than we might realize.
The study, published in the Plos One scientific journal, states that nine percent of animal-based food is consumed by cats and dogs. That’s around seven billion animals annually, not including fish and other marine life.
It found that if all the dogs in the world moved to a plant-based diet, this would save more greenhouse gas emissions than those produced by the UK alone. While if all cats went vegan, it would cut back on more emissions than those produced by New Zealand.
Veterinary academic Professor Andrew Knight, who was behind the study, emphasized the importance of looking at the diets of our companion animals, as well as our own. “We’ve long known that plant-based diets are better for the planet but have not seriously considered the impacts of pet food,” Prof Knight said. And “studies of feeding behavior have demonstrated that average dogs and cats enjoy vegan pet foods as much as those made from meat.”
The study advocates for plant-based dog and cat food, with diets requiring less land and water usage. This could instead be used for creating greener spaces, rewilding the land and allowing ecosystems to recover. The study suggests that the land mass saved by dogs going vegan would be larger than Mexico. With the water supply being more than all the renewable freshwater in Denmark. This in turn could feed more than 450 million extra people (larger than the population of the EU).
Can cats and dogs go vegan?
Long-standing beliefs about companion animals needing meat-based diets have been challenged by a number of recent studies. One piece of research on dogs released last year stated that plant-based diets could actually benefit their health, as long as they’re fed specially formulated food that’s nutritionally sound. Fewer dogs on a vegan diet were put on non-routine medication and took fewer trips to the vets compared to the meat-eating dogs studied. A similar study on cats published last month found that plant-based cats tended to be healthier than those who ate meat. Authors stated that meat-free cat foods needed to be formulated with the right nutrients, including taurine.
According to Knight: “Pet owners who care about the environment or their animals’ health should consider nutritionally-sound vegan pet food. However, to safeguard health, it is important that people feed only commercial diets labelled as nutritionally complete, produced by reputable companies with good standards.”
Dogs and cats typically have a much higher concentration of animal sources in their diets compared to humans. But many companies are opting for plant-based ingredients, supplemented with amino acids, vitamins and minerals to provide pets with a healthy alternative diet. Interest in plant-based products for companion animals has been steadily increasing over the years, with producers reporting big increases in sales.
Last year, UK brand OMNI released figures showing that it had a 600 percent surge in sales over six months. According to data from an assessment from Climate Partners, an average sized dog on an Omni diet would have a 73 percent lower carbon footprint than a dog on a traditional meat-based diet.
The British Veterinary Association does not recommend vegan or vegetarian diets for cats. It previously had a similar stance for dogs (though it acknowledged meat-free diets were theoretically possible for them), but it recently confirmed it would be reviewing its stance on vegan diets for dogs in light of recent research.
Where do we go from here?
Many vegans are already choosing to feed their dogs and cats vegan diets over ethical concerns. And this new research may also sway environmentally minded humans with companion animals. Knight concluded that “it is clear that substantial proportions of the impacts of the livestock sector globally, are due to conventional meat-based dog and cat food. The impacts of pet food should not be discounted, when considering environmental impacts of diets. Conversely, great benefits for environmental sustainability can be realized through the use of nutritionally-sound vegan diets for dogs and cats, as well as for people.”
Knight emphasized the importance of more data and studies into this, believing that due to slightly older data, his results might underestimate the real environmental benefits of vegan diets for dogs and cats. Watch this space, and we might just find out that the benefits of vegan diets for cats and dogs are even greater than we think.