Fact-check: Do pets pollute as much as cars?

The most polluting part of owning a pet is their meat-heavy diet
The most polluting part of owning a pet is their meat-heavy diet Copyright Carolyn Kaster/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Sophia Khatsenkova
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Is man’s best friend the planet’s enemy? There's been an ongoing debate about whether owning a pet is as polluting as owning a car.

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Is your adorable puppy or kitten as bad for the planet as a petrol-guzzling car?

While the precise carbon pawprint of our furry friends is still a source of debate, one thing is clear: cats and dogs do have an impact on the planet. 

How? Their diet is the biggest contributor to their carbon footprint, which requires energy, land, and water to produce.

One of the most often cited studies was conducted by Gregory Okin, a geography professor at UCLA. 

According to his 2017 study, feeding dogs and cats creates the equivalent of around 64 million tons of carbon dioxide in the US each year. That’s roughly the same impact as 13.6 million cars on the road.

Okin also claims that if our pets formed their own country, it would rank 5th in global meat consumption behind China, the US, Brazil, and Russia. 

However, multiple scientists have expressed doubts these findings are accurate.

The argument: a lot of pet food comes from animal byproducts such as lungs, kidneys, and tripe.

The 2017 study, on the other hand, counts the greenhouse gas emissions as if cows and chicken were raised for the sole purpose of being turned into pet food, which is very rarely the case, explains Peleter Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Global Food Security at the University of Edinburgh. 

“I think that's very hard to justify, partly because it double counts. These lifecycle assessments that are calculating emission factors for meat, are based on how much meat is produced, not how much meat and byproducts are produced. So effectively, if you added everything up in that way, you would end up with more emissions than occurred," he told Euronews. 

According to his research, Peter Alexander estimates that roughly 1% to 3% of food system emissions were associated with the production of pets foods, much less than the oft-cited 2017 study. 

In Europe, cats were the most popular pets in 2022 with more than 127 million cats residing in 26% of households.

However, dogs were only lower by one percentage point with 25% of European households having a pet dog.

Owning a small dog is "roughly equivalent to a fifth of a car"

But does owning a pet pollute more than owning a car? Not according to Peter Alexander's calculations.

“I would suggest for an average UK petrol car, you could add the equivalent of owning a  ten-kilogramme dog for a year would be to drive about 1,400 miles or 2,000 kilometres. That's roughly 20% of the average distance that people drive in the UK." 

According to the researcher, owning a small dog is roughly equivalent to a fifth of a car when it comes to the amount of emissions each year. 

So not to worry, no one is saying you have to ditch your pet. Having a pet has many positive side effects on our physical health and mental well-being.

Interacting with animals has been shown to decrease stress levels and lower blood pressure. 

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Other studies have found that animals can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost your mood.

What should you do if you want to lower your pet’s carbon footprint?

According to multiple studies, you can reduce the amount of meat you feed certain pets and also adopt smaller or fewer animals to limit the amount of pet food needed to be produced. 

One solution would be to diversify the protein in their diet. Peter Alexander suggests reducing the amount of prime-cut meats that are given to animals such as dogs, which are one of the major drivers of greenhouse gas emissions.

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