Food consumption by dogs and cats is responsible for releasing millions of tons of greenhouse gases. Fake meat could reduce that. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Food consumption by dogs and cats is responsible for releasing millions of tons of greenhouse gases. Fake meat could reduce that. Picture: BLOOMBERG

New York — As pet owners from New York to London sit down to Christmas lunch this year, the family dog might be in for a surprise — a vegan meal. As more people cut meat from their diets, one third of US pet owners said they would be interested in feeding their animal a plant-based diet, according to a 2019 study by researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada.

With this rising interest, major brands such as Mars Petcare, as well as smaller, independent companies, are developing meat-free pet food that is high in protein but plant-based in response to growing concern over the environmental impact of farming. Cats and dogs account for up to 30% of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the US, according to a 2017 study by University of California Los Angeles — and if they had their own country would rank fifth globally on meat consumption.

But the jury is divided whether a vegan diet is the best option for cats and dogs, with many veterinarians and pet nutritionists warning against the practice. “Get yourself a rabbit or a guinea pig if you’re worried about that,” said British Veterinary Association president Daniella Santos, referring to climate change.

Cats, which are obligate carnivores — meaning they require certain nutrients only found in meat — should not be on an exclusively plant-based diet, vets say, while dogs, which are omnivores, could cut out meat, although experts advise against it.

Get yourself a rabbit or a guinea pig if you’re worried about [climate change]
British Veterinary Association president Daniella Santos

Nonetheless, more pet owners are opting for vegan diets. Daniela Withaar, 22, a vegan college student, from Denver, Colorado, has been feeding her cat, Zola, vegan cat food for three years. Zola has adjusted quite well to the plant-based diet but has suffered two urinary tract infections (UTIs), she said.

“She was uncomfortable with the UTIs for about five days, but she wasn’t in extreme pain or suffering a whole lot,” Withaar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that she had no plans to go back to a meaty diet for Zola.

The concept has attracted big name investors such as PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who in 2018 invested $450,000 into Wild Earth, a biotech firm developing vegan pet foods. Mars Petcare, one of the world’s largest pet food manufacturers, has also invested in the Berkeley, California-based start-up.

Wild Earth uses a Japanese fungus called koji in its food, saying it has the 10 essential amino acids that dogs require. Some companies, such as British brand Yora, are also promoting insects as an alternative protein source for pets, saying pellets made out of grubs will reduce your “global pawprint”.

The UN has repeatedly urged people to reduce global meat consumption in order to lessen the burden on overused land and improve food security. A drop in reliance on livestock would free up several million square kilometres of land by 2050 and cut 0.7-8.0 gigatonnes a year of carbon dioxide equivalent produced by livestock, the UN estimated in August.

As society grapples with how to help, some are pointing to meat-loving pets as part of the potential solution. “If we consider that the only way to combat climate change is to mitigate livestock agriculture then we certainly need to do it,” said Prof Mick Bailey from the School of Veterinary Science at Britain's University of Bristol.

But some scientists dispute the theory that pets’ contribution to climate change is noteworthy.“The environmental impact of the consumption of traditional dog and cat foods is not as bad as one might think because they use byproducts,” says Prof Tilly Collins from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London.

Collins, who has researched the environmental effects of meat consumption by pets, says the undesirable parts of calves, the hide, bones, digestive system and brain, are commonly found in pet food, much of which would have been waste anyway.

Bailey says like humans, cats and dogs required essential amino acids, nutrients that must be supplied through diet. “What I recommend is exactly what I’d recommend to humans, which is to reduce their dependence on meat, but not totally. Everything in moderation,” said Bailey.

Thomson Reuters Foundation