At Europe’s largest pet show, Pet Index, onlookers gather around as Henrietta Morrison places a spoonful of dog food in her mouth. She has a point to prove; her company sells the most expensive pet food on the UK market, with the promise that the contents are ‘proper food’. The UK pet food industry has been the recipient of unkind remarks and rumours as to the true origin of its ingredients for decades but the market continues to be dominated by products containing delights such as ‘animal derivatives’. However, despite the economic recession, there is now a significant move towards using only ‘premium’ products.
Now the industry faces another source of criticism as a new book triggers a debate about the environmental impact of owning a well-fed pet. The New Scientist magazine, in a recent editorial, largely agreed with the book’s findings that some pets, due to the food they eat, have a surprisingly high ‘ecological footprint’, which is a way of quantifying human demand on the planet’s ecosystems using a measure called ‘global hectares’. According to the authors of the book, ‘it takes 0.84 hectares of land to keep a medium-sized dog fed, which is twice that needed to run a large car. An even more shocking comparison is that in 2004, the average citizen of Vietnam had an ecological footprint of 0.76 hectares. Dogs are not the only environmental sinners: the eco-footprint of a cat equates to about 0.15 hectares, almost the equivalent of a small car. In a world where scarce resources are already hogged by the rich, can people really justify keeping pets that require more than some people?’
The authors of the book say they were ‘genuinely surprised’ when calculating the environmental impact of pets. And some of the ideas they put forward to alleviate this are likely to shock some pet owners. For example, the book suggests catching pests such as rats and processing them into a ‘natural’ cat food, getting a pet which serves a dual purpose such as keeping chickens and eating the eggs or keeping a pair of rabbits and eating their offspring. When feeding a pet, however, the advice is to ‘think feathers and long ears’. In other words, favour pet foods made from rabbit and chicken meat, which is less damaging to the environment than red meat and fish.
As you might expect, the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association puts up a spirited defence, arguing that the vast majority of meat and fish used in pet foods is of adequate quality for human consumption but surplus to requirements. ‘If we didn’t recycle animal by-products to sell, they might otherwise be disposed of via landfill, which is not very green,’ says the chief executive. In addition, he points out that pets should not be viewed just on their ‘carbon pawprint’. ‘Our environment is greatly enriched by the part they play in our lives. Pets in the home instil responsibility, encourage social awareness and have positive health benefits.’
That people greatly benefit from pets isn’t really disputed. But of course, it’s not just the food they eat that’s the problem. Conservationists have long been saying that cats, as opportunistic predators, are having a detrimental effect on small mammals. One UK university report points out that in the US, animal welfare groups recommend keeping only ‘indoor cats’, while some Australian states are contemplating ‘feline-free zones’ as well as compulsory neutering to cut down on the cat population. It concludes that, realistically, education rather than legislation is the answer for the UK, urging people to take measures such as putting bells on cats’ collars and keeping them in during their natural hunting time, which is between dusk and dawn.
The authors of the book do not – as some of their critics seem to assume – advocate a mass killing of all the world’s pets. ‘All we are arguing in the book is that we should be making sensible informed choices. So it’s not going to be that much of a problem if you have a big dog but take the bus everywhere, don’t fly, live in a small home and have a small family. We can’t go blind into this debate. If we are to examine the way we live,’ the authors argue, ‘nothing should be off limits, no matter how uncomfortable it is to discuss. We have to recognise that we live in a world of finite resources where pets are an extravagance rather than a right.’