Australians are increasingly identifying their pets as family members and spending more and more on much-loved companion animals each year. The average dog now costs $1500 a year to feed, the average cat, $1000 a year.
Research tells us that dogs and cats are responsible for up to 30 percent of the environmental impact of red meat consumption in the United States. But is it ethical to kill one animal to feed another one? What should we feed our pets when food production generates millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases and millions of humans are undernourished? Can we reduce our pets’ eco paw-print and care for our animals ethically?
“Animal welfare, human wellbeing and environmental sustainability are inextricably linked,” said Dr Anne Fawcett, companion animal veterinarian and part-time lecturer within the School of Veterinary Science. “We know that companion animals are important to us but we can take steps to reduce their paw-print. We can also modify our own diets and lifestyle habits to reduce our carbon footprints – we have the choice.”
At the 9th annual Robert Dixon Memorial Animal Welfare Symposium, held on 28 August, in the School of Veterinary Science, a panel of experts offered some practical tips for animal lovers.
“Adopt animals from shelters, pounds and rescue organisations, and adopt from local sources where possible,” said Dr Fawcett. “And choose a breed that is appropriate for the climate. Some dogs can overheat and may need air-conditioning. Make sure your non-breeding animals, especially cats, are desexed at an early age to reduce the population of unwanted and stray animals.”
“Overfeeding your companion animal can lead to waste and obesity so don’t overfeed your pet,” said Professor David Raubenheimer, a nutritional ecologist at the University of Sydney “This is a win for the environment, the animal’s health and the family budget. Food production is the major contributor to environmental degradation on this planet. Choose foods that are by-products of the human food industry, rather than premium ingredients which expand the number of livestock killed for food.”
As humans attempt to reduce their meat consumption, it may be tempting to offer your dog or cat an exclusively vegan diet. Don’t do this. Cats are carnivores and need to eat meat. Dogs are omnivores and can eat some vegetables but cannot be exclusively vegan.
“We need to meet their nutritional needs and a vegan diet is just not appropriate for cats or dogs,” said Dr Andrea Harvey, veterinarian with specialist qualifications in feline medicine. “I think it's a potential welfare issue - and ethical issue - is it right for us to withhold meat from the diet of a natural carnivore?”
“It is impossible to make a blanket recommendation about what to feed companion animals,” said Dr Fawcett. “Ask your veterinarian about how you can provide a complete, balanced diet for your pet or seek advice from a specialist veterinary nutritionist. A balanced diet may include fresh meat, bones and or veggies for dogs, but not all individual pets can tolerate all foods so diets need to be tailored."
Consider choosing a pet that consumes less. This might be a smaller dog or a smaller animal such as a rabbit, rodent or lizard. “Feeding a rabbit, bird or reptile will have a much smaller impact on the environment than a dog,” said Dr Harvey. “Size is important, a 5kg dog will have much less impact than a 60kg dog. But we can’t just switch from carnivores to herbivores without learning how to care for them and handle them correctly.”
“A multi-species family is the norm now,” added Dr Fawcett. “But we are the ones with choice and power. Do we need to change their diets? Or do we need to change ours?”