climate in crisis

Filet for Fido: Pet Food's Growing Carbon Paw Print

A Bay Area environmental research center suggests our pets could be a significant contributor to climate change — and says the fix could be easier than we think

NBC Universal, Inc.

What to Know

  • Meat production in the U.S. has a significant carbon footprint, and a 2017 study suggests pet food could be responsible for up to a quarter of it
  • An article by The Breakthrough Institute in Oakland suggests pet food's carbon footprint may be increasing because of a consumer trend toward buying more expensive and meatier foods for dogs and cats
  • Despite a growing consumer preference for grain-free foods that are high in meat protein sources that appeal to humans, a U.C. Davis veterinary nutritionist says more conventional foods containing grains and animal byproducts are healthy for pets to eat

Three years ago, an adorable heaping hunk of fur and slobber came to live with Tatyana Vino at her home in San Francisco.

"He's just the sweetest creature in the world," she proclaimed.

She named him Chomsky.

But it wasn't long before her new best friend — a golden retriever pit bull mix — started having to make regular trips to the veterinarian. He had arrived at his new home with skin allergies, and was scratching himself constantly. The vet gave Chomsky a prescription for steroids, but Vino wanted to find a different solution, so she began looking into changing his diet.

"I started cooking for him, and he loves it, obviously," she said.

big dog eating from a bowl of fresh cooked food
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Chomsky arrived at his new home with health problems that included skin allergies. His new human has helped to solve those problems by cooking a special diet for him that includes freshly-chopped pork shoulder from the grocery store.

After adopting a second dog — a tiny chihuahua mix named Banksy — Vino has homemade dog food down to a science. She uses a pressure cooker for the meat, cooks vegetables on the stovetop, and adds eggs for extra protein.

"Most of the meat in this fridge is theirs," she said as she took out a massive whole pork shoulder, still wrapped from the supermarket, and began slicing it up.

Chomsky and Banksy are certainly among the world's luckiest dogs, but they're not alone. Though most canines don't get the pleasure of daily home-cooked meals, many American pets are eating more meat these days, according to an article from The Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland-based environmental research center.

"We're buying foods for our pets that have more meat," said Caroline Grunewald, the article's author. "More meat, and higher quality — by human standards — cuts of meat."

scoop of dry dog food
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
The Breakthrough Institute's research shows higher-priced dry dog foods like this one tend to have more protein than budget foods, and tend to have labels that claim more of that protein is from cuts of meat that humans would eat.

Grunewald focused her research on dry, bagged dog foods, and found that the more expensive ones contain a higher percentage of protein — and also make claims that the protein comes from human-edible meat sources, rather than so-called "pet grade" meat, which is often made from animals that aren't deemed fit for human consumption.

"What that ends up leading to is more livestock production, so that we can feed our pets," Grunewald said.

Livestock make up a significant portion of agriculture's carbon footprint, Grunewald said, and animals like cattle that produce a lot of methane are considered the worst offenders. In her article, she cites a 2017 study published by Gregory Okin that attempts to quantify the portion of that impact attributable to pet food.

Though Grunewald points out some of Okin's calculations may be overestimates, the study says pet food may be responsible for more than a quarter of the total carbon impact of U.S. livestock, or 64 million tons of carbon emissions per year. Okin's study goes on to estimate that the U.S. produces about 30% of the world's pet food, including a significant amount that's exported to Asian countries.

"Certainly, sustainability improvements in U.S. pet food production could have significant global impacts," Grunewald said.

Despite images of fine plated meals and lean muscle meats on pet food packaging, industry insiders suggest the reality is much different. They contend that what's actually in the bag is made up of meat that humans — at least, American humans — aren't interested in buying.

Workers in a pet food factory saw animal bones in half using a band saw
Courtesy: Primal Pet Foods
Pets can benefit from ingredients that humans don't typically eat. Here, workers at Primal Pet Foods in Fairfield slice up bones that will be ground up and put into dog and cat food as a source of calcium.

"It would be silly for them to be using the cuts of meat that we would be using in the human market," said Lindsay Meyers, who develops products at Fairfield-based Primal Pet Foods. "There's just not enough supply."

"You see a bag of kibble and you're seeing a filet or New York strip on the bag, it's simply straight marketing," added Primal Pet Foods founder Matt Koss. "We know definitively that the suppliers of those products are not selling those products into the pet food market."

Still, Primal Pet Foods, which makes high-end frozen and freeze-dried food for dogs and cats, sticks to meat that's deemed edible for humans by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They're simply using cuts you won't find on the menu at a steakhouse.

"You can use all parts of the animal," Meyers said. "For dogs and cats the, difference between a filet mignon and a heart ... The heart is more nutritious."

Primal is a member of the Pet Sustainability Coalition, which is looking at ways to reduce the industry's impact on the climate. Minimizing transportation emissions by using meat close to where it's sourced is another topic of discussion for them, as is moving toward more eco-friendly packaging.

But just as important as the packaging materials is what's printed on the outside of that package.

image of a wolf on a bag of pet food
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
In her research for The Breakthrough Institute, Caroline Grunewald found two distinct pet food marketing trends: Packages that cast your pet as wild inside (images of wolves and wildcats), and those that suggest your pet is just like a furry human (images of fine plated meals). Either way, the result is the same: more protein, and more claims that the protein comes from human-grade meat.

"It's gotten more complex and crazy and expensive," Michelle Newburgh said of the dog food selections at her local pet store.

"One bag has a picture of a farm on it, the other has a pack of wolves on it," said Alex Newburgh, her husband.

Grunewald found the marketing of higher-priced bagged pet food falls into two basic categories: the bags with wolves and wild lynxes on them, and those with images of fine plated meals, or the ingredients that make them.

"It kind of depends on how we perceive our pets: are they wild, or are they fur babies?" she said.

Whatever's on the outside, she found, the contents of the pricier bags are largely the same: more meat than budget-priced foods, and more claims that the foods don't contain such ingredients as grains or animal byproducts.

"There's a lot of fear and misunderstanding about what byproducts are," said Jennifer Larsen, a clinical nutritionist at the U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. "Often, they're organs and such, and probably most people don't eat liver and onions for dinner anymore the way they used to 50 years ago."

two cats examining a small dish of raw chicken liver
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
While dogs are omnivores, cats are obligate carnivores and require a higher density of protein in their food. Here, Neo and Trinity examine a plate of raw chicken liver — a cut of meat that's less popular with American humans these days, but often a hit with their furry friends.

Larsen added that consumers began shying away from byproducts and grains after a 2007 recall of pet foods found to be contaminated with melamine. In the internet-fueled panic that followed, she said, grains and byproducts emerged as the enemy, though they're not actually bad for pets.

"Maybe the consumer perception of them is that they're less desirable," she said. "And any time you have any kind of consumer preference, you're gonna have companies that are gonna fill that need."

In the interest of saving the planet, Grunewald's first recommendation is a simple one, though perhaps a bit counterintuitive: Buy cheaper pet foods — including those that contain grains, byproducts, and less meat overall. Larsen recommends sticking to big, well-established brands.

"Every pet owner can really reduce their pet's carbon footprint just by changing the type of mass-produced pet food that they're buying at the grocery store," Grunewald said.

And though some pets have a strong preference for the kind of protein they eat, she suggests that if it's possible to switch, chicken-based foods tend to have a much lower environmental impact than those made with beef or lamb.

She also suggested the pet food industry could do its part by developing clearer labeling around sustainability, perhaps with a "seal" or certification as other industries have done.

small dog sniffing a plate of food
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Some dogs will eat anything, but not Banksy. In almost every multi-pet household, there's one animal that's the picky one — and in those cases, among the people we interviewed, humans are so concerned with finding a food the pet likes, they rarely stop to think about the food's climate impact.

For those who cook for their pets, Larsen recommends not overloading them with meat, and also adding eggs as a more economical and eco-friendly protein source. She often works with clients looking to design a nutrition program for their pets — a phenomenon she says is more common here in California than in many other parts of the country.

Tatyana Vino says there's no turning back for her now: Chomsky's allergies have gotten much better, and Banksy won't even look at dry food anymore.

But for her neighbors who just want to get their dogs excited about kibble again, she's launched a new business, Gourmet Pet Kitchen. She's making her favorite pet recipes into gravy that can be poured over dry pet food — and, occasionally, enjoyed by humans too.

"I taste everything they eat," she said. "Sometimes, it's better than my dinner!"

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