Did you hear the one about the luxury aviation CEO who claims pets cause as much carbon pollution as private jets?
That’s what the Luxaviation chief executive, Patrick Hansen, told the Business of Luxury summit in Monaco earlier this year, citing calculations that estimated an average-sized dog produces 770kg of CO2-equivalent emissions per year.
Hansen’s theory? One of his company’s customers produces about 2.1 tonnes of CO2 a year – the equivalent of owning three dogs.
While animal lovers were quick to denounce the high-flyer for using pets to defend his industry’s carbon emissions, his words shone a spotlight on a rarely spoken reality of pet ownership.
“Just about everything we do in life has an environmental footprint … [so] we need to be conscious of the impact pet ownership can have,” says veterinarian Dr Elise Anderson, a project lead with Vets for Climate Action. “That will vary depending on the type and number of pets people have [but] it’s certainly something we need to take into consideration.”
Here are some expert tips for lessening the impact your pet has on the planet.
Size does matter
Anderson has a simple response for people who scoff at the notion that bigger pets take a bigger toll on the planet.
“It’s no different to the type of car you drive,” she says. Just as people might consider an electric vehicle or smaller car, they “should start to think similarly about the size of their pets”.
“I’m never going to say don’t have a pet – they bring so many amazing benefits to our lives – but I made a very deliberate choice to choose a pet that had a low carbon footprint.”
That pet is a budgerigar called Sunny, while Anderson also has a native turtle whose tank lights, heater and filter are powered by her home’s solar panels. She says there has also been a rise in the number of people opting for house rabbits that roam indoors as a cat would but with the environmental benefits of a vegetarian diet.
“People are understandably very attached to the pets they already have but the size of your pet might be something to consider when choosing a new one,” she says.
Food for thought
The bulk of a dog or cat’s carbon footprint is in the food it eats and that can add up to a major impact.
In 2017, UCLA geography professor Gregory Okin found dogs and cats were responsible for up to 30% of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the US. A theoretical nation of those 163 million canines and felines would rank fifth in global meat consumption behind only Russia, Brazil, the US and China.
“Just as our dietary choices can impact environmental sustainability, the same goes for the diet we feed our pets,” says Rebecca Linigen, the national director of animal welfare organisation Four Paws Australia.
The simplest way to start is by not overfeeding your pet, which has the added benefit of keeping it healthier too.
Then, it’s about following some eco-friendly hacks to reduce the emissions from their diet.
Throw a dog a bean
“As omnivores, dogs can enjoy the equivalent of two to three vegetarian meals per week,” Linigen says.
These could be eaten as standalone or by incorporating a larger proportion of plant food into meat-based meals.
And while some owners might spoil their pets with human-quality meat or mince, the reality is it’s worse for the planet and your pet doesn’t care.
“Both dogs and cats [which are obligate carnivores] will be no happier or healthier being fed high-quality meats suitable for human consumption that require the rearing of more farm animals and result in more greenhouse gases,” Linigen says.
As long as the nutrient ratio is balanced, pet food that contains scraps and slaughterhouse byproducts like tripe or tongue are perfectly adequate.
Another meat substitute might be a little less obvious – insect protein.
Anderson says emerging insect-based pet foods can be used as a 100% substitute for meat in a dog’s diet and can help reduce the meat intake of cats.
Another option is to step into the kitchen and create your own meals.
Less meat. Reduced packaging. Just don’t expect Anderson to share a recipe.
“Nutritional needs depend on so many factors – sizes, shapes, energy needs,” she says.
“A dog that sits on a couch all day needs a completely different diet to a working dog, so the best option is to chat with a vet or veterinary nutritionist to ensure the correct nutrient ratio.”
Waste not, want not
Anderson urges people to think twice before scooping their pet’s waste into a plastic bag and sending it straight to landfill.
“It may be a relatively minor consideration compared to the impact of fossil fuels but there are ways you can dispose of pet waste with a lower footprint,” she says.
These include purpose-designed composting or worm farming solutions for dealing with pet waste at home and using a biodegradable or compostable bag over a plastic one when on the move.
Use your money wisely
“Consumers have a lot of power to influence change and that is no different in the pet space,” Anderson says.
“There are some great innovators producing 100% post-consumer, recycled products like dog collars, leads or toys.”
It could also be about not spending money – do you need new bedding for your pet or can you use those old towels at the back of the cupboard?
Anderson also suggests pet owners leverage what are often long-standing relationships with their vet to ask what their clinic is doing about climate change.
One way is to ask if they’ve signed on for Vets for Climate Action’s Climate Care Program, which Anderson says can help clinics lower carbon emissions by about 50%.
“We hear a lot about the impact of climate change on people … but we don’t necessarily make that connection with the impact it is having on animals,” she says.
“So many of us are animal lovers and everything we can do to reduce the impact of climate change has benefits for the animals we all love.”