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Sustainability of pet food: How to feed your dog in an eco-friendly way

Sustainability of pet food: How to feed your dog in an eco-friendly way

“Being green is more than just buying ‘eco’. It is an unshakable commitment to a sustainable lifestyle.” - Jennifer Nini, Editor in Chief of sustainability blog Eco Warrior Princess. 

This is a quote that we feel not only applies to humans but our doggos as well. While maybe not as significant as humans, dogs also have an impact on the environment. This is largely due to what they eat. Feeding your dog in an eco-friendly way is not only good for the environment but also promotes the overall well-being of your pet. The pet food industry has a significant environmental impact, from the production and transportation of ingredients to packaging waste. Since it is humans who make the food and purchase it for the pups of the world, it is up to us as pet owners and manufacturers to help dogs reduce their environmental paw print!

eco friendly planet design image dog natural leaves eco friendly vector illustration dog recycle stock illustrations

Pet food consumption

Last year it was estimated that the retail sales of pet food in Canada was upwards of 1 billion dollars, with annual feed intake estimated at 211 kg per dog in the United States. With the high consumption of food by pets, there has been a significant environmental impact as a result. A 2017 survey of U.S. pet owners conducted by Packaged Facts showed only 2% of dog and cat owners selected sustainable/eco-friendly formulation as a product claim drawing them to purchase. 

The environmental impact of pet food production

There are a number of ways in which pet food manufacturing impacts the environment. Below are the major issues related to sustainability in the pet food industry and what can be done to make pet food more eco friendly.

Animal agriculture

Similar to the production of human foods, pet food is a major contributor to the production of greenhouse gas emission. Dog food can contain animal protein between 18-50%. Livestock used to make this protein are one of the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases. The production of pet food is the source of approximately 25% of carbon emissions from animal agriculture, which is the equivalent of 64 million tons of carbon-dioxide. Dogs themselves produce much less gas emission than livestock, contributing annual CO₂ emissions of 840 kg.

Livestock also contribute to significant land usage and deforestation. 26% of terrestrial land on earth is used for animal agriculture. Meanwhile 80% of arable/pasture land is dedicated to crop feed for livestock. Arable land required for the production of feed for dogs varies between 10 and 20% of the land resources. Land allocation for agriculture is contributing to great losses in biodiversity of wildlife, as well as plant loss that would otherwise contribute to ecosystem health and removal of greenhouse gases. For example, 80% of deforestation in the Amazon is solely for livestock agriculture, with overall global forests shrinking 94,000 square kilometres per year. In a 2018 study, it was reported that land use for feed production was about 2000 m² per dog.

Hereford Cow & Dog on a Hill "Photo of a herding dog looking at a grazing Hereford on top of a hill, with a cloudy blue sky in the background." dog cows stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

A massive amount of energy and water is also required for the production of livestock. On average, it takes about 10 kcal of fossil energy to produce one kcal of plant protein for livestock.  A 2011 study estimated that the total feed energy requirement of one human equals the requirement of 3 dogs, which is 33% and 10 % respectively. However, since many dogs and cats are overfed, data on feed consumption may be underestimated. In contrast, livestock also require an exceptional amount of water to produce. It is estimated that it takes 1,799 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef and 1 pound of pork takes 576 gallons of water. 

How pet food companies can be more eco-friendly when it comes to animal agriculture

Since dogs are omnivores with a high protein requirement, they need to eat animal meat regardless of the environmental impact that livestock have on the environment. Pet food companies have several options to help remedy this obstacle:

Limiting the use of animal protein in pet food

There is a myth among pet owners that “more protein equals a better pet food”. This is simply untrue. According to AAFCO, adult dogs need minimum 18% protein in their diet and adult cats require minimum 26% protein. With some companies adding >30% protein in dog food and >40% protein in cat food, much of that protein is not being utilized by the animal and is just being excreted/wasted. Lowing protein inclusion closer to the minimum required amount reduces undigested waste products and lowers the overall meat required to make the diet. 

1. Use plant protein to subsidize protein

The cultivation of plant crops also contributes to the overall production of greenhouse gases but it is significantly less than that of animal agriculture. Even with machinery emissions expelled for crop production, plant protein is still a “cleaner” alternative to animal protein. However, plant protein is not nearly as digestible as animal protein (where apparent animal DM protein is ~91% and apparent plant DM protein is ~41% digestible, according to a 1991 study in ileally cannulated dogs). This means that plant protein cannot completely replace animal protein in pet food but it may be able to subsidize some of the protein. Using ingredients like soybean meal or pea protein to boost protein content, while accounting for losses in digestibility, can help to reduce carbon emissions from livestock.

Dog Siberian Husky eating a pumpkin Dog Siberian Husky eating a pumpkin dog plants stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

2. Alternative or “novel” proteins

Animal protein production is hugely damaging to the environment but there are meat products with a substantially smaller carbon footprint. Insect protein from sources like mealworms and crickets are a viable alternative for dogs. The table below portrays the carbon dioxide emissions from insects relative to traditional livestock.

Cricket powder insect for eating as food items made of cooked insect meat in bowl and wood spoon on white background it is good source of protein edible for future. Entomophagy concept. Cricket powder insect for eating as food items made of cooked insect meat in bowl and wood spoon on white background it is good source of protein edible for future. Entomophagy concept. insect protein stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

With >80% digestibility, they are not quite as digestible as animal proteins but they are still quite high and a completely suitable protein source. Unfortunately, insect protein is not approved under Canadian regulations at this time. Alternatively, cultured meats (lab grown protein) provide the same nutritional qualities and palatability that traditional animal cultivation does. This method is more expensive however, with limited regulations as it is a fairly new protein alternative. Both insect protein and cultured meats provide environmental benefits as they require less land space for production, less carbon emission and energy requirements than traditional animal agriculture.

3. Usage of by-products

The term “by-product” is disliked by many pet owners. This is likely born from a place of misunderstanding. By-products are any animal product not suitable for human consumption. This does not mean that by-products are unhealthy. Liver, heart, tripe and kidney are often classified as “by-products”. A 2014 study examined the differences in digestibility of by-product meal versus poultry meal in dogs. It was found that the by-product meal was only 23% lower than poultry meal.

Another 2010 study showed that while by-product meals did have lower digestibility than traditional whole meat meals, it was only lower by 4-7%. By-products like cartilage, feathers and bone can greatly reduce the digestibility of a by-product meal so organ by-products are a better option. When by-products from livestock preparation are utilized in pet food, it reduces the overall wastage of food and also reduces the carbon emissions and the energy/water needed to produce the next group of food animals.

Transportation and shipping pet food

Many people consider agriculture to have the greatest impact on carbon emissions but in actuality, transportation expels the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The EPA estimates that commercial transportation of goods accounts for approximately 7% of the total human GHG emissions, with industry and agriculture transportation producing 22% and 10% respectively.

A report by Generation Investment Management found that e-commerce companies produce less GHG emissions than traditional retail companies. However, they also stated “In our model, e-commerce achieves this advantage through the efficiencies achieved at global scale. In fact, when we model a smaller scale e-commerce company, it comes out slightly more emissions-intensive than our base case for retail — due in large part to less efficient last mile delivery.”

Flat delivery truck with man is carrying parcels on points. Flat delivery truck with man is carrying parcels on points. Concept online map, tracking, service. Vector illustration. transport truck stock illustrations

How pet food companies can be more eco-friendly when it comes to transportation and shipping

Shipping and transportation is a difficult obstacle to overcome for any company as it is the only way to send and receive goods. There are a few ways to reduce carbon emissions during shipping:

1. Usage of electric vehicles during the last lag/mile of transportation

Electric cars still produce some GHGs during production and electricity but they are still overall much less harmful in terms of carbon emissions. One study found that emissions from EVs have emissions up to 43% lower than diesel vehicles.

2. Increasing the number of items shipped per order

This reduces the overall number of trips made and overall emissions for transportation, as the emissions of two items shipped separately are 35% higher than if the items shipped together.

3. Avoid split shipments and encourage customers to cluster their purchases.

This option has dual benefits as it reduces GHGs but also increases revenue for e-commerce businesses. By doubling the average number of items purchased per e-commerce transaction and avoiding split shipments, retailers can reduce average per-item emissions by 30%, and that effort cuts shipping costs by more than 50%.

Mature woman running online store Mature woman at online shop. She is owner of small online shop. Receiving orders and packing boxes for delivery. shipmens stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

Production and processing of pet food

The processing and production also contributes to the overall “carbon pawprint” of dogs. The production of pet food requires a large sum of energy while expelling a significant amount of emissions. Unfortunately, there are no statistics available on pet food production to put together a quantifiable environmental impact perspective.

Some ways that pet food companies can reduce their environmental impact through processing is by producing large batches at a time and opting for efficient or renewable energy sources. Using less energy overall, contributes to less greenhouse gas emissions and water wastage.

Study Session 11 Integrated Solid Waste Management: View as single page

Packaging of pet food

Sustainable packaging is a tricky factor for pet food companies to navigate. Ideally all pet food packaging would be made of renewable or recyclable materials but unfortunately this often compromises the integrity and safety of the food. Plastic packaging is most commonly used as it keeps food fresh and most importantly, keeps it safe from microbial contamination. 

Unfortunately, even though plastic packaging can be recyclable, over 99% of it still ends up in landfills. Consumers are concerned about these facts and a March 2019 poll revealed that 80% of U.S. consumers said they have heard at least a little information about bans on single-use plastics and 65% of respondents were more concerned about plastics in the ocean than about climate change. 58% of the consumers polled said they have a more positive view of brands using no plastic or limited amounts of plastic in their packaging.

Options for environmentally friendly pet food packaging

  • Upcycling: The collection of used pet food bags and then they are reused/refilled/repurposed.
  • Alternative reuse: Providing primary packaging with an alternative and ongoing reuse for consumers. (For example a dessert packed in a glass ramekin).
  • Lightweighting: Reducing packaging weight across all materials, using production improvements, finite element analysis and improved quality checking procedures.
  • Soy and/or water based inks for printing: Less concern for leaching of inks into soil and groundwater
  • Volumetric efficiency: Enabling units to be packed more compactly, thereby getting more onto a pallet, into a vehicle and onto shelves, generating significant cost and CO2 savings
  • Total packaging system reduction: Rationalising material use by considering primary, secondary and tertiary packaging as a system (including shelf ready packaging)
  • In-store merchandising fitments: Can be used to display and communicate product information, enabling primary packaging to be reduced where appropriate.
  • Self-dispensing: Offering loose product to the consumers, who can chose the quantity to buy and pack directly into their own reusable containers
  • Smart packaging: Developing smart packaging materials that can absorb oxygen, detect pathogens, and alert consumers to spoiled food. Many of these are expected to be commercially available within a few years.
  • Intelligent portioning: Any increase in packaging as a result of portioning features should generate a greater reduction in food waste.
  • Reclosable packaging: Any increase in packaging should be counterbalanced by a greater reduction in food waste due to the potential for there being higher embedded carbon and resources used in the product.
  • Primary packaging elements: Reusing packaging for its original purpose, with no reprocessing (ex. In the past, returnable primary packaging used to be more prevalent – i.e. doorstep delivery system for milk and refillable beer and soft drink bottles. Reusable packaging / in-store merchandising fixtures creates opportunities to enhance the brand experience, for example through a desirable and robust reusable pack.
  • Use of reusable secondary and tertiary packaging: e.g. pallets, roll-cages, beer kegs, crates, and trays for bread, vegetables and other products
  • Single material packaging: Makes for easier recycling.
Recycling in Daily Life Young Caucasian woman with long red hair  sitting on the kitchen floor, sorting out the recycling in to blue box. Brown brindle boxer dog makes her company. She is casually dressed with jeans and cream top. Sunny day interior. dog recycle stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

​​Take home message

Dogs are one of the most pure creatures on earth but they do unfortunately have a negative impact on the environment. In order to reduce their environmental “paw print”, pet owners can choose to purchase from pet food retailers and manufacturers who make sustainable choices in their production of pet food.

Companies who are actively involved in sustainable production will most likely advertise it. Looking on the company’s website and social media gives great insight on their stance on sustainability. If you cannot find the information you’re looking for, you can also ask the company directly through customer service. It is also important for consumers to educate themselves, ask questions and navigate through misinformation.

Woman petting her husky out on the front porch while holding a cup of coffee
Woman petting her husky out on the front porch while holding a cup of coffee

View Sources

Bohrer,Timothy “Pet Food Packaging: Evolution, Revolution & Innovation” 2011. 

Forbes. “Dogs, Cats And Climate Change: What's Your Pet's Carbon Pawprint?” 2017. 

Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, 2016. Environmental and Socioeconomic Indicators for Measuring Outcomes of On Farm Agricultural Production in the United States (Third Edition). ISBN: 978-0-692-81902-9.

Neirinck, Karin & Istasse, Louis & Gabriel, Annick & Eenaeme, Christian & Bienfait, Jeremy. (1991). Amino Acid Composition and Digestibility of Four Protein Sources for Dogs. The Journal of nutrition. 121. S64-5. 10.1093/jn/121.suppl_11.S64.

Kilburn, Logan R., Anne T. Carlson, Elizabeth Lewis, and Mariana C. Rossoni Serao. "Cricket (Gryllodes sigillatus) meal fed to healthy adult dogs does not affect general health and minimally impacts apparent total tract digestibility." Journal of Animal Science 98, no. 3 (2020): skaa083.

Gross et al., 2010. Macronutrients: In Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 5th Edition. Topeka, Kansas: Mark Morris Institute, p. 49-105.

Williams, J. P., J. R. Williams, A. Kirabo, D. Chester, and M. Peterson. "Nutrient content and health benefits of insects." In Insects as sustainable food ingredients, pp. 61-84. Academic Press, 201

EMBO Reports (2019) 20: e47395

Kawauchi, Iris M., Nilva K. Sakomura, Cristiana FF Pontieri, Aline Rebelato, Thaila C. Putarov, Euclides B. Malheiros, Márcia de OS Gomes, Carlos Castrillo, and Aulus C. Carciofi. "Prediction of crude protein digestibility of animal by-product meals for dogs by the protein solubility in pepsin method." Journal of nutritional science 3 (2014).

FAO. “Cattle ranching and deforestation” 2008. 

Wait Rose Report “The mindful consumer” 2018. 

Statista. “Pet food market in Canada - Statistics & Facts” 2019. 

T. Vellinga and W. Bessei. “Environmental footprint of meat consumption of cats and dogs” 2018. 

Pimentel D. & Pimentel M. 2003. Sustainability of meat-based and plant –based diets and the environment. 

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78 (suppl) 660S-3S

Leenstra, F. and T. Vellinga (2011) Indication of the ecological footprint of companion animals First survey, focussed on cats, dogs and horses in The Netherland. Wageningen UR Livestock Research en Central Veterinary Institute. Wageningen (Rapport 509, ISSN 1570 - 8616). 

Generation Investment Management. “E-commerce vs Bricks & Mortar”. (2020) 

EPA. “Facts on transportation & GHGs” (2018) 

Bain and Surge. “Retailers' Challenge: How to Cut Carbon Emissions as E-Commerce Soars” (2017) 

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PetFood Forum. “Why sustainability in pet food protein matters” (2019). 

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February 20, 2024
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