Organisation - April 26, 2018

Fido is bad for the environment

Tessa Louwerens

Perhaps you are cutting down on meat and cycling a bit more instead of going by car. Doing your best to reduce your ecological footprint. But have you thought about your pet’s ecological paw print? That is certainly not to be sneezed at.

text Tessa Louwerens  photos Shutterstock

If you want to be eco-friendly, you’d better not keep a pet, concluded Robert and Brenda Vale in their book Time to Eat the Dog? The real guide to sustainable living. The scientist couple from New Zeeland calculated the environmental impact of pets. If you must have an Alsatian dog, they claim, you’d better get rid of your car: its footprint is comparable.

Burden on land
Researcher Ferry Leenstra at Wageningen Livestock Research agrees that we shouldn’t forget pets when we aim at an eco-friendly lifestyle. ‘A vegetarian with a cat and a horse probably has a bigger ecological footprint than a meat-eater without these pets.’ Leenstra and her colleague Theun Vellinga calculated the ecological footprint of dogs, cats and horses in the Netherlands. ‘These pets are not normally eaten, unlike farm animals. But they place a burden on land and food, some of which is suitable for human consumption too.’ As an example: with the calories and protein required to feed all the world’s dogs and cats you could feed the entire population of Germany (about 80 million people).

The environmental burden of pets will only increase because their numbers are going up with
rising wealth. According to the last count by research bureau TNS NIPO, in 2015, there were about 2.6 million cats in the Netherlands, 1.5 million dogs and 450,000 horses. For comparison: in the same year, the Netherlands was home to nearly 4 million cows and more than 12 million pigs. Leenstra: ‘If you compare the ecological paw print of pets with that of farm animals, it is relatively small, but by no means negligible.’ Feed is the biggest factor in the paw print, says Leenstra. ‘Scientists are racking their brains to answer the question of how we can feed the growing world population in future. At the moment, pets are rarely brought into the discussion.’

1.5 million soccer fields
Leenstra calculated how much land is needed for pet food production. This amounts to about 1000 m2 per cat and twice that per dog. The average horse comes out at 3500 m2. By way of comparison: in wealthy countries, about 12,500 m2 of land is needed per person per year.

About 820,000 hectares of farmland is needed to feed all the dogs, cats and horses in the
Netherlands. That is almost half the two million hectares of farmland in the country. Leenstra: ‘We based this calculation for dogs and cats on average pet food contents and no food waste. And we also looked at meat and fish, products which can be eaten by people. If we had only included by-products, the land use would have come out lower.’

It is better to have a small pet like a hamster, that eats the waste from your vegetables’

This is because the calculation must take into account the extent to which the ingredients in pet food are considered by-products or as products suitable for human consumption too. By-products such as bones and innards have a lower footprint than products such as meat, which can be eaten by people and are therefore more valuable economically. The ecological paw print of dogs and cats is therefore partly determined by the contents of their feed.

Pet-lovers often argue that pets eat mainly slaughterhouse waste products that would otherwise be thrown out. There is some truth in this, says Leenstra. ‘But our analysis
also shows that many ingredients in commercial pet food could also be consumed by farm animals and possibly by people too.’

Chicken feet
Two thirds of the ‘by-products’ in tinned food belong to ‘category 3’, products that are suitable
for human consumption. Examples are tripe, offal or chicken feet. Leenstra: ‘We might not be very keen on all that in the Netherlands, but in many parts of the world these products are seen as delicacies. You can export chicken feet to China, where they are a delicacy. But with the prices we are prepared to pay for dog and cat food, it can be profitable for the meat industry to supply pet food producers.’ In the Netherlands, moreover, more animal by-products are needed than are produced by the meat industry.

There is also the fact, says Leenstra, that horses graze in meadows, and stables occupy land on which no food can be produced, but which would be suitable for the purpose. ‘Horses have a big impact, thanks to their numbers and their size; they need a lot of food and space. In the past, horses provided traction and transport, and then food. But that is not so popular nowadays.’

Pets not only compete with us for food and land, but their faeces and urine also contribute
to emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane, and therefore to our ecological footprint. ‘Precise figures are not known,’ says Leenstra. ‘But the contribution of pets is probably insignificant compared with that of farm animals.’ Horse manure is used to grow mushrooms on, but dog and cat poop doesn’t usually go in the compost bin but directly into the environment.

It is a difficult dilemma for environmentally aware animal-lovers. The answer may seem simple: no pets then. But that is a bit over the top, says Leenstra. Maybe we could look for a middle way, she suggests, in imitation of the growing number of flexitarians. ‘You could opt to have a pet on a timesharing basis. Or a small animal like a hamster or a rabbit, that doesn’t eat meat but the waste from your vegetables.’

What is meant by ecological footprint?

There is some confusion about the definition of ‘ecological footprint’. Simply put, a footprint is the amount of land needed to maintain a particular lifestyle. Ferry Leenstra of Wageningen Economic Research: ‘It is a way of indicating the effect of a product on the environment. A big part of it is the land or sea needed to produce the food. But other factors that are considered are the greenhouse gases emitted, the land used to live on and effects on air and water quality. All this is expressed in a hypothetical figure, representing a surface area, in square metres or hectares.’

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  • Bart

    Eh.... Er wordt niet gesproken over het wegdoen van honden, het is een wetenschappelijke weergave de milieubelasting van hond en kat.
    Jammer dat mensen dit belachelijk vinden. Kennis is nooit belachelijk, wat je er mee doet mag je gelukkig nog grotendeels zelf bepalen.
    Wees dankbaar voor de wetenschap, lief voor elkaar en doe je ding, je best, om het milieu te beschermen

  • N

    Wat is dit nu weer voor een belachelijke stelling? Moet ik je er even aan herrinneren dat dieren er eerder waren dan mensen? Ja, ook honden. Maar toen waren het nog wolven. De ENIGE die slecht is voor het milieu is DE MENS. Nou dan maar alle mensen wegdoen he?! Alle mensen 'opruimen'? Oh...wacht...dat kan niet. Ach ach de ergste oorzaak van milieu problemen kan niet worden aangepakt, tenzij die mensen wat beter op afval slingeren letten natuurlijk. Maar dat is uiteraard moeilijker dan dieren minderen, tja je zal maar moeite moeten doen. Wil je ECHT het milieu helpen? Ga naar buiten, de straat op. Help met het opruimen van zwerfafval, let zelf op wat jij doet en help eventueel met ideeen om uitlaatgassen te minderen. Nogmaals, de mens kwam NA de dieren en de mens veroorzaakt de grootste ECHTE milieu problemen. Huisafval, autos, vliegtuigen, spuitbussen enz.

  • Henry van Raaij

    Het huisdier is slecht voor het milieu, vliegen is slecht voor het milieu, auto's zijn slecht voor het milieu, de bio-industrie is slecht voor het milieu, het kappen van oerwoud is slecht voor het milieu, plastic soep is slecht voor het milieu Laat dit nou net allemaal activiteiten zijn van de mens.
    Eigenlijk is de mens heel slecht voor het milieu. Wil je echt iets goed doen voor het milieu neem dan ipv een kind een huisdier. Want immers is in rijke landen per mens ongeveer 12.500 m2 per jaar nodig, voor een hond 2000 m2.
    In het artikel van Wynes en Nicholas (The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions, Environmental Research Letters 12 2017) worden de 4 meest effectieve maatregelen genoemd die een individu kan nemen om CO2 uitstoot te beperken:
    1. have one fewer child
    2. living car-free
    3. avoiding airplane travel
    4. eating a plant-based diet

    Fikkie is slecht voor het mileu, maar zijn baasje is nog vele malen erger.

  • Piet Spoorenberg

    Piet Spoorenberg
    Zojuist ·
    Interessant dilemma. Om onze ecologische voetafdruk in het westen te verminderen, moeten we alle opties in beeld houden. Ga je met het vliegtuig op vakantie, of doe je je hond weg? Eet je vlees, of geef je jouw vlees aan jouw huisdier?

  • Eddy Teenstra

    Hele mooie analyse. Het bevestigt maar weer eens hoe hypocriet het gedrag van mensen kan zijn. Een beetje vergelijkbaar met de vegetarier die regelmatig voor een paar tientjes een citytrip boekt naar Praag, Rome, Barcelona...