Carbon Pawprints: Analyzing the Environmental Impact of our Furry Friends

Carbon Pawprints Photo
Image: Getty Images

There has been an effort in the past decade or so to reduce our individual carbon footprints. Whether taking shorter showers or biking to work, it has become a form of competition to see who can be the most eco-friendly. Some ways of reducing our energy consumption, however, are not so obvious. A recently published study suggests that one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint may be to reduce your pet’s carbon pawprints first.

The study conducted at the University of California – Los Angeles analyzed the effects that the over 163 million dogs and cats in the United States have on the environment. In order to do this, Gregory Orkin, the author of the study, measured the impact of the pets focusing mainly on their animal-product derived diets. The study concluded that the dietary footprint of dogs and cats in the United States is responsible for up to 64 million tons of CO2–equivalent greenhouse gas emissions.

While our pets only consume about 19% of the dietary energy that we do, they account for around 33% of the animal-derived energy consumption. This means that dogs and cats are eating a significantly higher percentage of animal-based food in their diet relative to humans. Furthermore, with the growing trend towards “premium” pet food with fewer additives, the amount of meat in pet food is increasing. If this trend continues, the related greenhouse gas emissions will increase dramatically.

Even though there are far fewer pets than humans in the U.S. and pets demand less energy consumption, the dietary energy our pets use is staggering. The study went on to suggest that the dietary energy consumed by dogs and cats in the United States would be able to meet the dietary needs of around 62 million Americans — one-fifth of the U.S. population. This discrepancy between size/number of pets and energy consumption is in part due to overfeeding and the high animal-based content of pet food.

Orkin suggests multiple solutions throughout the paper. Switching our pets to a plant-based diet would save enough dietary energy to feed around 139 million people (assuming they are on a plant-based diet as well). Furthermore, having pets that consume less meat, such as reptiles, would drastically reduce the overall environmental impact of our pets.

This study was the first to conclude the environmental impacts of our pets — and the results were startling. There is no denying the benefits that dogs and cats have in our lives; anyone who has ever held a puppy can attest to that. But as the number of pets continues to increase around the world and pet food is trending towards higher meat content the impact that pets have must be considered. After all, it is their planet we are trying to save too.


Author: Skylar Knight

Skylar is currently in the MSc Science Communication program at Imperial College London. He has years of experience working in science museums, academic publishing, writing, filmmaking, and science education.