Scene: An idyllic federally protected natural park on a cloudless April afternoon. Colorful and endangered birds chirp in the trees, rare flowers bloom along the barely-traveled path, and suddenly a crash sounds. A fluffy golden retriever leaps through the forest, breaking branches and stomping flowers in his excitement. No matter how much we love our pets, we need to be aware of their destructive environmental impact, especially the effects of their diet and their potential to become invasive species.
The friendly pup’s diet includes kibble, a mix of grains, meats and other ingredients, but the meat component is what causes a major problem. Feeding cats and dogs is expensive for the environment due to their high meat consumption and waste production. In fact, UCLA geography professor Gregory Okin, who has studied the contribution of pet food to climate change, found that “cats and dogs are responsible for 25-30% of the environmental impact meat consumption in the United States. If animals were a nation, they “would rank fifth in the world’s meat consumption.”
People often discuss the environmental impacts of human eating habits, arguing that meat consumption is correlated with climate change; the same reasoning should apply to pets. It is true that animals often consume meat scraps, mitigating the effects of their diet. Yet, despite our love for them, we should recognize that they actively contribute to climate change to some degree.
Ethics also come into play. Animals are slaughtered to create meat for humans, which is arguably unethical. Yet the fact that feeding meat to pets leads to the death of more animals is much less recognized. The injustice of the situation is glaring: certain animals are prioritized, especially the cute, cuddly and domesticated ones, while others are sent to the slaughterhouse because of their role as a source of meat.
Besides their diet, pets also have a negative impact on nature when released into the wild: they can become invasive species. In the lake near the nature park, where beautiful fish once swam, now live puffy goldfish that have more than doubled their usual size. Goldfish are a common example, but this problem especially affects owners of exotic pets.
People who wish to purchase an exotic pet may be unsure of the animal’s needs, so when they are unable to cope, they release the animal into the wild. A National Geographic article mentions that “the red lionfish, a highly venomous aquarium fish introduced to Florida waters in the late 1980s, has dramatically reduced the abundance and diversity of marine life on state’s coral reefs”. As a result, invasive species greatly harm the ecosystem, contributing to species and diversity loss.
All of this is not to say that people should stop buying pets. Pets also have many advantages, creating a difficult decision for those interested. According to the National Institutes of Health, pets provide mental health benefits, allow for increased physical activity, and can serve as support and guidance for animals.
It is certainly difficult to provide guidelines on whether or not to have pets, as they are so helpful yet so destructive. The effects also depend on the pet owner’s sense of responsibility and ability to manage their pet.
In terms of diet, one option is to transition the animals to a vegan diet. This is difficult and requires consultation with a professional. However, according to the BBC, some companies have started to attempt this effort to reduce environmental impacts.
For exotic pets, one possible solution, according to the National Geographic article, is for pet sellers to provide better information about the animal’s needs at the time of purchase. Buyers should also take the time to do research before choosing a pet. If they can’t meet their pet’s demands, they may want to talk to the store or a friend who can handle it instead.
It’s hard to balance our love for our pets with our desire to protect the environment. Clearly, a multi-faceted solution is needed, one we should all think about if we want to protect both our pets and our planet.