This year the Oxford-based author Chris Goodall wrote that the impact of a dog’s diet was several tonnes of greenhouse gases a year. Multiplying by the 7 million dogs in the UK this totaled about 3% of total UK emissions. That doesn’t even include cats and every other kind of domestic pet. This adds up to a “significant element of the UK’s national footprint” writes Chris. He based these numbers on a controversial book “Time to Eat the Dog?: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living by Robert and Brenda Vale (published by Thames and Hudson, London, 2009). Can it be true?
The book’s authors say the bad news is because of what goes in to a dog’s food bowl. The New Zealand-based authors reckon a medium-sized dog eats around 164 kilos of meat and 95 kilos of cereal every year. They claim it takes just over 43sq miles of land to generate just one kilo of cereal for your dog. This means the annual carbon footprint for your pet pooch is 0.84 hectares, according to the couples’ calculations.
Compare that with the amount of land needed to provide enough energy to build a Toyota Landcruiser and run it for 6,000 miles – that is 0.41 hectares, less than half that of a dog. Of course, the average driver travels closer to 12,000 miles a year making the totals for a dog and a 4×4 almost the same. A cat’s carbon footprint is slightly less than a VW Golf, whilst two hamsters are equal to a medium-sized plasma TV. The footprint of a goldfish has the same impact as two mobile phones.
Now the authors of “Time to Eat the Dog?” don’t actually say it is time to eat the dog. “We’re just saying that we need to think about and know the (ecological) impact of some of the things we do and that we take for granted.” Sustainability requires us to make choices which are “as difficult as eating your dog”. On the plus side if you are willing to eat your pets then a pair of rabbits can produce 36 young annually, which would provide 72kg of meat and help decrease the owner’s carbon footprint.
Somehow this all rather reminds me of the debacle in the Bucks Free Press about pigeon extermination. For those of us born and raised on a Suffolk farm (I was) then such a debate seems odd. We were raised on pigeon stew. It was a cheap and plentiful wild food. Tasty too!
Of course our pets have other advantages even if you can’t bring yourself to eat little Fido. Pets in the home instill responsibility, encourage social as well as environmental awareness and are claimed to have positive health benefits on children. Furthermore, children from households with pets are found to have stronger immune systems and take fewer days off school. People with pets make fewer visits to the doctor – 21% less for elderly people. What large polluting car improves your health and gets you out for a walk every day?
In the final analysis this sort of study only goes to prove that if you look for trouble you usually find it. Anyone who subscribed to the old print copy of “The Ecologist” magazine (it is now online only) will recall the series of articles “Behind the Label”. Someone would regularly look at the ingredients to common household items such as deodorant or energy drinks and discover (shock horror!) that they are chock full of distilled evil. In reality it was largely innuendo. It was quite easy to find some old piece of research that “linked” an ingredient to an elevated risk of cancer, heart disease or hyper-activity. Of course you would have to eat an awful lot of those ingredients for you to be ever exposed to risk. It was rather lazy journalism and pampered to The Ecologist’s readership paranoid about the modern world.
Whether one owns a pet or not will probably decide which side of the debate you are on. If you don’t like them you will find satisfaction in your new-found ethical stance. Meanwhile those who love their cats and dogs will stand indignant at the suggestion that they are worse for our future than an SUV. I suggest none of us worry about it too much. Purchasing a pet is ALWAYS an important life-long decision. This is just one more thing to think about.
And they are always for life.