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Top Dog Tips - Sustainability in the Pet IndustryGood Sunday morning, readers! I hope you enjoyed your week as much as I did. Hopefully you caught my column last week. I talked about the 9 dog blogs that I follow, and I think you’d love them too! This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the environment. Living in Maine, fall is a beautiful time of year with leaves changing colors, apple trees everywhere and pumpkin picking in full swing. You can’t help but enjoy the beauty of nature during the autumn months. 

I’ve been hearing a lot about sustainability in the pet industry, and I decided to do a little research on it this week. I found some great resources, and I want to share them with you. As everyone knows, our planet has suffered a lot of abuse at the hands of humans, and if we don’t do something about it, there won’t be much left for future generations.

The issue of sustainability stems from the huge growth the pet industry has seen in the past few years. Companies are having to create more pet food and pet products than ever before, and the number continues to grow every day. A lot of the resources used to make pet food and products are the same resources used in the human food and product industries. How can we continue to eat up these resources at a growing rate without running out of them?

A study published in the journal Advances in Nutrition explains how concern for sustainability in the pet industry grew so quickly. When pet food was first introduced, it was not nutritionally balanced, and many fillers were used in place of quality ingredients. Now, after years of research, pet food is being created with many of the same ingredients found in human food.

  • A unique aspect of the pet food industry is that the foods are typically formulated to be “complete and balanced,” meaning that the diet will meet all nutrient needs of the pet if the proper amount of food and water are consumed. Initial pet foods were not nutritionally complete and often resulted in gastrointestinal distress and nutrient deficiencies. Decades of research in dog and cat nutrition and manufacturing processes in the mid to late 1900s dramatically improved the quality of pet foods and the health and life span of pets that consumed them.

It’s not just the quality of the food that is affecting the sustainability of the pet industry either. Kelly Swanson, a University of Illinois animal sciences researcher, and scientists at natural pet food maker The Nutro Company studied the sustainability of pet ownership, and they came to some interesting conclusions.

  • However, pet owners also need to adopt sustainable feeding practices. Overfeeding and obesity of pets is a growing concern. Swanson stresses the importance of educating “consumers, veterinarians, pet food professionals, everybody.” “They’re being fed as much as 20 percent more than they need, so their health is poor, and you’re wasting all that food,” said Swanson. “Especially with cats, it’s very difficult.” Cats do not self-regulate their food intake well and have a decided preference for protein and fat.

Obesity is a huge problem with pets (and humans), and we’re always hearing about a new diet that will be better for our dog’s overall health and well being. These different diets play the largest role in the pet industry’s ability to sustain itself. Christine Lepisto wrote an interesting article for TreeHugger.com that questions these diets and their benefits for our pets.

  • For pet owners trying to make sustainable choices in their own lives, including pets in the equation may not be as easy as committing oneself to such choices. Animals do not have the same digestive enzymes and metabolic needs, so a diet that works for us may not be healthy for our animals – which kind of goes against the whole philosophy of trying to treat those creatures that depend on us humanely.

Brian Palmer wrote an article for the Washington Post that discusses his view on whether or not gourmet dog food is actually better for your pet. You may not agree with his views, but it certainly is an interesting read.

  • One thing is indisputable, though: As long as we produce animals for human food and refuse to eat nontraditional body parts, we have to do something with the byproducts. Many of them are rich in proteins and useful fats, but some require processing before they can be eaten. Feeding these parts to companion animals is a good idea from an environmental perspective. This is where your environmental values may diverge from your instincts for wholesome, “natural” living. Many humans not only turn up their noses at animal byproducts, they also decline to feed such things to their pets.

Using animal by-products is a hot-button issue when talking about the sustainability of the pet food industry. Experts are pretty evenly split when it comes to the topic. Some believe that human-grade food is the healthiest option while others believe that by-products provide the same nutritional value to companion animals. The Pet Food Institute weighs in on this topic on their website.

  • In addition to benefiting from increasingly efficient agricultural production, the use of plant and animal co-products (a.k.a., by-products) is a soundly sustainable practice. Animal co-products, for example, are defined by culture and are those meats and other portions of an animal generally not eaten by people within a particular geographic area. Co-products may be delicacies in one culture while they remain uneaten in another. These ingredients are important sources of good quality protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and essential amino and fatty acids that do not diminish the human food supply while providing other environmental benefits.

Dr. Tony Buffington, DVM, questions whether feeding human-grade food to our pets is ethical in one of his blog posts for vetSTREET.com. He claims that the pet food industry preys on the emotions of pet owners to get them to spend more money on higher-quality pet food.

  • But I cannot accept the notion, promoted by some pet food marketer, that animals should be eating “human-grade” foods. According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials, “a claim that something is ‘human-grade’ or ‘human-quality’ implies that the (pet food) being referred to is ‘edible’ for people in legally defined terms.” In reality, however, words like “human-grade” or “human-quality” on pet food labels have no legal definition; they are designed to mislead consumers into imagining that the pet food is somehow equivalent to human food. To be human food however, all ingredients must be human edible and the final product must be manufactured, packed and stored in accordance with federal regulations to ensure the use of good manufacturing practices for manufacturing, packing and holding human food.

Erik Assadourian wrote an article for The Guardian Sustainable Business blog that voiced some very strong opinions about pet ownership. The article triggered an amazing amount of outrage from readers, and Assadourian backed up his points in a second blog post. It’s rather harsh but still worth the read. It will show you the viewpoint from the other side of the fence.

  • Many suggested I hate pets or even all animals, or am incapable of love, which I found funny as I like pets–and have committed my life to sustainability to prevent the mass die off of life on Earth, including humans. Heck, I would even enjoy having a cat, but I don’t because what I know about how close to collapse we are, it’d be irresponsible to (the same reason why I feel compelled to have only one child). The irony is I actually tried to moderate my tone in the article to encourage constructive debate, for example, removing the paragraph where I suggested replacing some of the 51 million turkeys slaughtered each year with the 3-4 million dogs and cats euthanized each year to grace our Thanksgiving tables. After all it’d be a win-win, reducing ecological impacts of turkey factory farming and the cruel and wasteful practice of gassing and then disposing of dogs and cats

Whether you agree with the idea that the growing number of pets is detrimental to the environment or not, it is obvious that we all need to do something to reduce our carbon footprint (or pawprint as the case may be). This blog post on Rover.com explains numerous ways that dog owners can try to be more eco-friendly.

  • Find the right apartment for you and your dog. Apartments with locations near parks (dog parks in particular) that offer great walkability are dog-friendly options that allow you to spend more time on foot and less time in the car. In addition to dog food, there are plenty of green options you can buy to keep your dog occupied while minimizing unnecessary environmental waste. MoneyCrashers.com offers a lengthy list of 48 different eco-friendly products you can score for your dog.

Carol Bryant has some great tips for pet parents looking to become more eco-friendly too. She wrote this blog post for blogpaws.com to share some of the simple things that dog parents can do to help the environment.

  • Check out your pet’s bedding and toys: Steer clear of plastic and synthetic products. Instead look for products containing natural fibers such as organic cotton or hemp as well as products made from recycled goods. Clean Up Pet Waste: Leaving pet waste on the ground increases public health risks by allowing harmful bacteria and nutrients to wash into the storm drain and eventually into local waterbodies. Reusable Water Bowls: When traveling or just for a jaunt around the neighborhood, I carry a collapsable water bowl for my dog. Switch from store-bought chemical cleaners to allergy-friendly, non-toxic substitutes: If your pet has environmental allergies, those can be triggered even indoors by the allergens you and your pet bring inside.

You may not agree with all of these authors. I certainly don’t. But taking the time to read some of the information out there on the sustainability of the pet food market would be a great idea for every pet owner. You can read the facts and look at the research to make your own opinion.

Feel free to share it with us, and if you find any other great reads dealing with sustainability in the pet industry, I’d love to read them too! Post in the comments below and let me know what you find. Happy Sunday and enjoy your week!