Editorial Feature

The Carbon Footprint of a Dog: How Green Are Our Pets?

Introduction
What is an Ecological Footprint?
A Dog’s Dinner
Other Pets
Roll Over Beethoven?
Sources and Further Reading

Introduction

This may not come as a surprise, but people love pets. As a conservative estimate, there are 8 million dogs and 8 million cats in the UK alone, and a staggering 78 million dogs and 86 million cats in USA. The benefits of owning a pet are numerous, as any pet owner will attest to. Our pets keep us company, guard our homes, play with our children and become loved members of the family. However, recently it has been suggested that we need to take a closer look at the sustainability of owning a pet.

The environmental impact of pets, and dogs particularly, was first raised as an issue in 2009 when the book ‘Time to Eat the Dog? The Real Guide to Sustainable Living’ was published. This divisive guide to being eco-friendly, co-authored by Robert and Brenda Vale, claims that that owning a dog is equatable to driving a SUV in terms of environmental impact. As our pooches are generally not taking long haul flights or driving to and from work every day, how is it possible that our pets can have such a large carbon footprint? This article aims to explore how man’s best friend could be affecting the environment.

What is an Ecological Footprint?

The term ‘carbon footprint’ is used regularly in modern society and in general terms is a measure of the impact of an activity on the environment by measuring the CO2 emitted. It is of course a complex process and a true carbon footprint also must take into account other greenhouse gases as well as many other parameters, so carbon footprints are always best estimations rather than true figures.

In this instance, rather than measuring the ‘carbon footprint’ of keeping a pet, it is the ‘ecological footprint’ that is measured, which is the amount of land needed for a given activity, with units of ‘global hectares (gha)’. However, both methods of measurements are comparable.

A Dog’s Dinner

Pet food is the primary cause of dogs having a high ecological footprint. The pet food industry in the UK is now worth an estimated £2bn a year and in recent years, despite the financial difficulties, there has been an increasing demand for ‘boutique’ pet foods – pet foods that contain real, natural ingredients that even most people wouldn’t turn their nose up at, such as lamb, spinach and blueberries. The amount of manufacturing, production and air miles that go into dog food means that it is very carbon intensive.

According to the authors of ‘Time to Eat the Dog?’, it takes around 0.84 hectares of land to feed a medium-sized dog, whereas the running of an average SUV equates to the use of around 0.41 hectares, assuming it covers around 10,000km. For a bit of perspective, the average ecological footprint of a Vietnamese citizen is around 0.76 hectares.

An article in New Scientist, also published in 2009, largely agrees with the book that the environmental impact of pet food should be closely monitored.

However in some ways the pet food industry is relatively environmentally sound. The industry often uses surplus stock from the human food market, which would otherwise be disposed of in landfill or burned, so pet food reduces waste and the environmental impact of the human food market. Furthermore, there is very little household waste from pet food-only 1% of pet food is thrown away, compared to 30% of human food waste.

Dogs can amass a large ecological footprint over their lifetime, mainly due to the import of food. Image Source: www.ct.gov

Other Pets

Of course, it is not just dogs that have an ecological footprint and in general the larger the animal, the higher its impact on the environment. A cat has a footprint of 0.15 gha, which is about the same as a small car.

Smaller pets, such as hamsters (0.014gha), canaries (0.007 gha) and goldfish (a tiny 0.00034) have a negligible impact on the environment.

An eco-friendly pet: hamsters have an ecological footprint of just 0.014gha. Image Source: www.photos.com

Roll Over Beethoven?

Pets are a part of the family and the Vales are not for one second suggesting that eating a beloved pet will solve climate change. The environmental impact of a pet is very small in the grand scheme of things. However, it is an eye-opening exploration of the origin of carbon emissions and how every aspect of our life can affect the environment.

As many eco-conscious families already take great care in reducing the carbon footprint of their own shopping basket, it may be worth taking the same attitude with regards to our pet’s food. An alternative could be to make your own dog food-this can be rewarding and extremely beneficial for the planet.

Lastly, it must be remembered that your entire carbon footprint must be taken into account before you decide to part ways with your pooch. For example, the carbon footprint of owning a large dog is more than offset if you live in a small house, take the bus to work or fly infrequently.

Sources and Further Reading

Authors Claim Pets Are More Damaging to Environment Than SUVs ABC News, 23/12/2009

Time to eat the pets? BBC News, 15/11/2009

Study says dogs have larger carbon footprint than SUV, phys.org, 04/11/2009

Britain's problem with pets: they're bad for the planet, The Guardian, 13/11/2009

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