Fido and Fluffy and the Meat Conundrum

Sharon November 4th, 2009

Two interesting reports came out this week, both controversial, but both, I think, usefully pushing us to think hard about aspects of our lives that many of us take as a given.

The first was a World Bank Report that claimed that meat was responsible for 50% of all world emissions.  This is probably overstated, and the solutions (more industrial farming and vat-raised meat…yum!) problematic.  But it usefully points out that meat has a staggeringly high impact on the climate and our situation, and that we cannot go on eating meat the way we do.

The second was an article in New Scientist that argues that the environmental impact of Pets is vastly higher than most people credit, in large part because the animals eat so much meat.  It take 1 1/2 New Zealands, in terms of land use, to produce the meat eaten by only the cats in the US. 

The latter study does not take the former into consideration, so it is probable that the impact of our pets’ meat eating habits is even greater than the article suggests.  Which means we need to put the question of what our animals eat on the table – and fast.  This is a tough subject – we’re deeply attached to our animals. 

Now IMHO, there are compelling reasons to have domestic animals as pets.  First of all, there’s a reason cats and dogs hang out with us – they have uses for human beings.  Many of us will have rodent problems over the years – and these are somewhat increased by the addition of food storage or or a barn full of garden produce.  Cats and small dogs, bred to kill rodents have an important role in many households – they are not a luxury item.  Dogs provide a measure of safety – they alert to noises, and do work as guardians, shepherds, guide and assistive animals, etc…Moreover, for many people, animals provide unconditional love and physical contact – in a world where many  industrial people simply don’t get those things, pets are enormously valuable. 

And yet, in a world that will struggle to feed the human population, where 1 billion people are hungry and that hunger is tied to rising prices for grain, it is tough to make a case sometimes for feeding animals better food than billions of people get.  So what to do?

I am particularly happy to see this discussion beginning to open up because in my research, I’ve come to believe that in many ways, the Pet Food industry is *the* deciding factor for what makes industrial meat production profitable.  In the US, slaughterhouses reject 1 out of every 7 cows in CAFO feedlots.  These are animals that do not meet the US’s rather minimal standards for slaughter, that are sufficiently diseased that the feedlot (which in many cases caused the cow’s sickness) could not sell them – except that there’s a pet market. 

Fully 1/7 of all cows are used to provide the protein in animal feeds, largely for cats and dogs.  In addition, cull chickens (ie, ones that died horribly in confinement, often from disease) and pigs are used in the same way.  Were it not possible for confinement operations to get some of their money back from this extremely high percentage of lost animals, there are real questions about whether they would be profitable.  Addressing the pet food question does more than simply reduce industrial meat production directly – it potentially calls the whole feedlot system into question.

Moreover, one of the feed ingredients in many industrially produced pet foods is euthanized cats and dogs.  That is, there’s considerable evidence that pet food manufacturers are willing to put just about anything into the animal food stream, including the corpses of our excess kittens and puppies.  My concern about this (besides the fact that it isn’t very aesthetically pleasing), is that we live in extremely close quarters with our cats and dogs, and every biologist I’ve ever mentioned this to observed that these are precisely the right conditions for inventing new and horrible diseases.

Now it would seem that choosing organic, grassfed and free range products for feeding your animals was the best of all possible options.  And this does somewhat reduce the impact of one’s animals – most importantly, it reduces the pressure on the world’s poor if you are feeding your animals on entirely grass-fed meats.  Whenever possible, it is absolutely necessary that we not eat meat produced with grains – because otherwise, it places the rich (and their pets) in competition with the world’s poor for food – and the rich and their pets always win. 

That would mean buying beef, lamb or other ruminant based-food products whenever possible, ensuring that they are wholly grass-fed.  This is not easy – finding all grassfed commercial pet food is difficult, and will be cost prohibitive for many people.  Organic itself is better than nothing – it reduces the emissions on the land in general by a small amount – but doesn’t make a substantial reduction.  Free range chickens are still fed an enormous amount of grain, for their body weight, so don’t help nearly as much as you’d think.

So what is the answer?  Well, first of all, pets are a serious business.  They should not be gotten trivially, should not be encouraged to reproduce (unless you are breeding working animals of some sort) by most people, and for those who are just sort of accustomed to having a cat or a dog, it might be worth asking – do you really want and need one. 

If you do want and need a pet, IMHO, you have a moral responsibility to reduce the impact of its food.  And that means finding the most ethical and appropriate (to the animal and to your place) way possible of feeding your animal. 

I’m keeping the focus on food here, but it goes without saying that you should also not spend a lot of money buying your cat or dog new toys (used are available), you should spay or neuter them, that you should euthanize them at the end of their lives, rather than giving Fluffy a 20,000 dollar liver transplant, that you should choose pets that can adapt to your climate rather than needing high energy resources to keep them comfortable – ie, no Newfies in Florida and no hairless cats in Vermont.  Also, it would be a lot better for the remaining wildlife on the planet if you didn’t let  your dogs run deer or your cats devour songbirds – responsible pet ownership means responsible.

For the very poorest, the elderly and disabled, the only choice may be the purchase of low cost industrial pet foods – disabled elderly people, living in apartments alone derive more benefit from their animals than they do harm, and they get a pass.  For the rest of us, just as we should do whatever it takes to avoid purchasing industrially produced meat, eggs and dairy, we should absolutely not buy those things for our pets.

Note that in the above, I said “purchase” and “buy” rather than “eat” or “feed.”  Because one option for feeding pets is to feed them at least in part on waste foods, particularly if you live in a densely populated area, where large quantities of animal-suited scraps are available.

Here we get into the difference between dogs and cats.  Cats are obligate carnivores – they have to eat meat.  Dogs are not – they do need some animal foods, but they don’t have to eat meat.  Dogs are fairly omnivorous, and at least part of their diet can be made up of *healthy* food scraps from human beings.  That means that if you have a bit of leftover stir-fry and brown rice, you can feed it to the dog and reduce their purchased food accordingly. 

Restaurant scraps carefully culled can be to supplement your dog’s diet too – think lean meats, green vegetables, small amounts of rice.  You may be able to feed your animal high quality produced pet foods by dumpster diving – split bags or damaged packing bags are generally thrown out.  Obviously, you should do some research into diets and food safety for your animals – but the reality is that all of us are facing a change in standard of care and it is only fair that our animals absorb some of that, rather than the poorest human beings. 

In some cases, it may be possible to get free offal – parts of animals that human beings do not consume, that are ordinarily discarded.  Ideally, this will come from sustainably raised animals – and your local farmer probably does have enough chicken feet (don’t feed them directly, make broth out of them)  and lamb livers that she would sell at low cost to keep your dog and cat fed.  Or you may be able to get some of this for free at your supermarket – but don’t pay for it if you have any other choice. 

In the case of cats, you probably should not try and replace 100% of their diet with homemade, unless you are willing to do considerable research and purchase supplements.  But dropping their dry or wet food consumption by half to 2/3 should be possible.  In the case of dogs, it should be possible to make their whole diets.

Or you could raise animals on scraps or wastes or grass to feed your pets.  A large portion of the impact of our animals comes from methane – methane from ruminant livestock, methane from badly handled manures, methane from organic materials in landfills (all that kitty litter in plastic bags is a nightmare).  You can reduce emissions at several levels if you small livestock for yourself and your animals on land that can’t support vegetables, or by using waste land or scrap foods.  Rabbits can be raised largely on grain scraps, grass and weeds, for example, and while rabbits do not have enough fat to support animals in the absence of any other fats, they can operate as the main meat source for both dogs and cats, with smaller amounts of supplements.

Raising rabbits, or pigeons, guinea pigs or other small livestock (or raising larger animals for human use sustainably and feeding pets the offal and scraps) can reduce the impact of a pet’s diet in a whole host of ways – for example, by spreading out livestock production across many people, rather than concentrating it, manures create a net benefit over time by enabling soils to hold carbon.  Raising animals on scraps and marginal weeds means reducing the industrial agricultural land needed.  And raising the animals that will feed your pets at home means that there are no transport emissions. 

What, you don’t want to raise butcher animals in order to feed Fluffy and Fido?  Well, I think that’s a useful measure of how much we do care about our pets – that is, if we love them only enough to open bags of convenience food for them, but not enough to work at feeding them, well that tells us something important right there.  The truth is that keeping those you love fed isn’t easy – whether animal or human – and it shouldn’t be.  We shouldn’t be able to eat thoughtlessly, nor should we be able to feed creatures thoughtlessly.  Whether you butcher your own or seek out better food, all of us need to be as involved with our pets’ diets as we are with our own.

The truth is that our coming ecological crisis is not going to be good for the pets we say we love.  There will be more diseases as the world gets warmer, and lower quality of life for them, and more abandoned pets as we get poorer.  There will be more pets being chopped up to feed the fortunate pets of rich people.  There will be plenty of animal suffering in the storms and droughts, heat waves and floods to go with the human suffering.  It is in everyone’s interest, including our pets, to find ways of feeding and caring for them which dramatically minimize their impact. 


61 Responses to “Fido and Fluffy and the Meat Conundrum”

  1. dewey says:

    Only a small percentage of cats are actually successful bird hunters, although those that get good at it tend to be “bird specialists.” Your average barn cat will catch far more mice than birds, and will prefer to chase mice; their innate hunting behavior is tailored to a prey organism that stays on the ground where it belongs.

  2. Ave says:

    My mother’s dogs seldom ate dog food (typically only biscuits). She fed them leftovers and the meat that was too fatty for the family.

    My own border collie has kept lots of rice cereal, toast crusts, oatmeal, raw carrots, and meat rejected by children from going to the landfill or composter. Tonight she will finish off the chicken soup (no onions) that the rest of the family refuses to eat after three meals.

    She is a first rate alarm system and a wonderful friend to a child with a speech disorder. Not to mention her Zen attitude towards children helps me keep my cool when children get too loud and bouncy. One day, she napped with her head near her water dish while the children flew toy airplanes and helicopters around her.

    I have a homemade dog biscuit recipe that tastes so good that my grandmother used to eat them. She thought they were crackers and we did not both telling her otherwise since they were whole grain. :-)


  3. Mark N says:

    “Only a small percentage of cats are actually successful bird hunters, although those that get good at it tend to be “bird specialists”

    Cats are opportunistic carnivores. You are right that some cats are much better at bird hunting than others, but it is still a cat. Put a mouser cat and a hopping-on-the-ground baby bird together and you have a successful bird hunter.

  4. Sonrisa says:

    There are a lot of social food taboos. It varies from area to area. I was born and raised in Honolulu and pigeons are thought of as dirty pests. Tilapia fish were also thought of as not worthy of eating (only those that are “fresh off the boat” eat tilapia). Here in the mountain west the idea of eating jackrabbit is intolerable (we eat it all the time). All over the US carp and goat are taboos, but they are common food everywhere else. Most people are appalled when we say that we eat rabbit. I think some of it is the “cute and cuddly” factor and the rest is the “only hillbillies and poor people eat that” mentality.

    I do have to say, I’ve never been a cat person, but I recently got one. I lost all my beans and about 25% of my wheat crop this year. They got half of my tomatoes etc. I was skeptical that a cat would get the job done, but I was desperate. So we got a 10 week old kitten hoping that she would be ready to catch mice by spring. Two weeks later there was a half eaten mouse on the back porch. The next morning there were three. One time we woke up to 13 mice. We live in the middle of the desert. There’s nothing for miles, so we are an oasis out here. She gets mice as well as the butchering scraps, but we do feed some commercial food. We don’t take on pets anymore, everybody has to work around here. Needless to say, this little lady is here to stay! (she’s also spoiled rotten)

  5. kestrel says:

    As a veterinarian, I’m a big advocate of people having pets, but I am also a believer in LIMITING how many we have: a home with 25 cats isn’t healthy for anybody involved. I support our local prohibition against more than 3 dogs or cats in a home (unless you have a kennel license).

    On the personal side, I have 2 cats at home, strictly indoors. I figure the meat I DON’T eat makes up for the meat in the cat food they DO eat, so it evens out.

  6. Anna Marie says:


    I disagree. If you have a grassy space not suitable for agriculture, how about letting it go wild rather then to feed cattle? Why must we conceive of every inch of land to be for human use or the use of our domesticated animals? Wild Critters need habitat too. So many species are going extinct at such a rapid rate, and we really don’t have a clue how that is going to affect the ecosystem. Those critters may be necessary for our survival (bees anyone?), and it may well be in our own self interest to have as many wild areas as we possibly can.

    As an example, farmers here in the UK are being encouraged to let field boundaries and even entire fields go wild again, because it attracts birds, ballooning spiders, and then they find they don’t need pesticides on the land they do cultivate. Legislature is now being proposed that if they don’t comply, they won’t get as much farm subsidy.

    What if meat were taxed at the same rate as alcohol or cigarettes? How about the same for pet food? What if we paid people money not to reproduce? What if we taxed people if they wanted a green lawn, and gave them money to turn their lawns into vegetable gardens? How about exorbitant road taxes that would subsidize decent public transport..this encourages people to work at home or work nearer home. Put a tax on every bag of rubbish they throw out, and encourage folks to have composters and a wormery in every garden. These may sound like radical ideas, but it often seems the only way to get people to think outside their own self-interest is to hit them in the pocketbook. If you make certain products and social behaviors super expensive, people adapt and social norms change. Until that happens, folks rationalize their decisions and choices and watch Rome burn.

  7. Anna Marie says:

    Food for thought…this is an article in 1996, which already reports honeybee decline in the US, well ahead of the catastrophe we have seen recently in 2007. Note what it says about the important of wild areas for pollination. A few isolated areas of wild habitat won’t do it. If the bees die, we die. And it is that simple.

  8. Sharon says:

    Anna Marie – The point about pasture land is that it isn’t an either/or situation – well managed, diverse pasture makes excellent habitat for bees and wild creatures. Given the enormous challenge of feeding the world population, pasture land which can sequester as much carbon as a similarly sized forest, support as many wild creatures, including pollinators, as a similarly sized unmanaged area, etc…is one of the better compromise areas. How do you think, for example, that prairie soils supported so many wildflowers and their polliinators in the western US and Canada? They were grazed and manured by ruminant animals.

    The reality is that there are large chunks of the planet that can produce human food only by grazing – steep, wet, rocky soils aren’t suitable for tillage. Prairie soils lead to disaster if you till them, as do other dryland soils. And lots of people live in these areas – we’re not talking about a marginal strip in the suburbs, but the larger question of how you feed people in climates and ecologies where grazing is the only decent option.

    I’m fine with taxing meat and waste and children – I think we should tax those things. But the reality is that while you can come up with some simple rules of thumb for people who don’t want to think about the complexities, the complexities matter – saying “let’s treat all meat as equally bad” doesn’t make sense.


  9. Anna Marie says:

    Depends which kinds of ruminants or grazers. Buffalo graze a lot differently than sheep, than do cattle. Do you remember the history of the wars between sheep farmers and cattle ranchers in the western United States in the 19th century? This is a really interesting sit on grazing abuse.

    Wild grazers also move on and let the fields to heal…domesticated ones tend to stay put and overgraze. So, you aren’t convincing me that domesticated animals are great for prairie land or for pollinators. And, yes, I do think it pretty irresponsible to eat much meat when other parts of the world starve and when domesticated grazers make a lot of CO2. When you are trying to institute change, and I think in this case, we can say emergency change as our planet is in big trouble, simple rules make more sense than a lot of “yeah, buts.” But again, we can fiddle while Rome burns if we choose.

  10. Sharon says:

    I’m afraid I simply don’t think we’re ever going to get it down to six simple rules for saving the planet. The link you posted is about a specific kind of grazing, not on prairie lands, but in actual high desert. That’s hardly an indictment of grazing animals on prairies, using rotational grazing and careful management – I certainly wasn’t proposing large scale ranging of cattle in land too sensitive for them. I’d certainly prefer to see sheep rather than cattle on much of the high desert and some of the prairies, and the reintroduction of the buffalo (and thus the judicious addition of buffalo to the diets of people who live there), along with *managed* grazing. Do some research into grass farming and managed grazing.

    It is irresponsible for most people to eat a lot of meat. That said, there are complexities that simply can’t be erased simply by wanting them to go away – northern grasslands and drylands are never going to be tillable – so if we have to relocalize, those people are going to have to eat what grows there. Wet mountain highlands are never going to be tillable – but they can be grazed – the people of the Alps, for example, will be eating a local diet based on milk, not soy. The fact is that we can’t uncomplicate life with wanting to.


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