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Why feeding your pet a low-protein diet may lower its carbon footprint

Ever wonder what your pet's carbon paw print is? Gregory Okin, a professor at the Geography Department at UCLA and the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability did and started to run the numbers.

Protein-rich pet food generates a substantial paw print, study finds

A new research study into the carbon paw print of pets found that American cats and dogs consume pet food that produces the equivalent of 64 million tonnes of CO2, which is about the same as driving 13.6 million cars. (Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press)

Ever wonder what your pet's carbon paw print is? Gregory Okin, a professor at the Geography Department at UCLA and the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability did and started to run the numbers.

He discovered that in the United States, people's pets consume the same amount of calories as each person in France.

The findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Okin spoke to Doug Dirks on CBC Calgary's The Homestretch. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What prompted you to investigate the carbon footprint of pet food?

A: One night, I had insomnia and was thinking about the trend of people having backyard chickens — it's a big deal in Southern California right now — and it occurred to me how cool it was that chickens produce their own protein for people to eat, whereas then it occurred that dogs and cats actually need a lot of protein. That got me thinking about how much meat they actually eat. A meatless diet has a lot of impacts on the climate, the land and water and other things — so I was curious about dogs' and cats' contribution to that.

A UCLA researcher analyzed the impact of pet food on the environment, and discovered that pets in America consume 19 per cent of the calories that humans do. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Q: What were some of your findings?

A:  The first one is just calculating how many calories they eat. If we do that — and these numbers are all for the United States — dogs and cats consume about 19 per cent of the calories that humans do. So to put that into context, that's equivalent  to the  amount of calories consumed by the people of France. It's a pretty big number. And when we think about animal drive calories, eaten by people in the U.S., what's eaten by dogs and cats is equivalent to about 33 per cent.

Q: When you extrapolate those numbers globally, are there concerns?

A: Well, the numbers are really huge. And globally, the question is really interesting. In the U.S. — and I assume in Canada — there's a trend towards more human-like food for animals, which frankly is not really necessary. And then globally, as countries become more developed, one thing people like to do is get more pets as companions. We don't have good numbers for other countries, but globally, the trend is pretty alarming. And the trends are such that this is something we should think more about in the future. They produce methane and nitrous oxides, equivalent to about 64 million tons of CO2, which is the about the same as driving 13.6 million cars. 

UCLA professor Greg Okin did some research and discovered that the carbon paw print of the pets of America is pretty significant: America's 86 million cats and 78 million dogs consume the same number of calories as everyone in France. (Greg Okin)

Q: What are you hoping people take away from this study?

A:  The main thing I'm hoping people take away is when we make choices about what we drive, or what we eat, or whether we put solar panels on our roof, the choice of having a pet is similar — and there are consequences to the decisions we make. I am not a veterinarian, and this work is not about telling people about what to do. Maybe if your listeners are interested in reducing their carbon footprint, they should talk to their vets about how best to feed their animal with a lower protein diet. I've found a lot of people who are pet owners who've said wow, I've never thought about this before — and I'm a vegetarian. My hope — and so far what I've heard — is people are at least perking up their ears a little bit and saying this is something I should at least have on my radar.


With files from The Homestretch

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