The pet industry has a large environmental footprint, from meat-packed meals to plastic toys to packaging. Startups are tackling the challenge — but it’s not easy.
Start with pet food, the biggest problem for the sector given its reliance on meat — an industry that is driving deforestation and pumping huge quantities of emissions into the atmosphere.
“Having a pet is equivalent to owning a car in terms of emissions, and cats and dogs are responsible for 25% of global meat production,” says Pernilla Westergren, founder of Swedish insect-based pet food startup Petgood (previously known as Funcifur). “That is just crazy.”
“Having a pet is equivalent to owning a car in terms of emissions”
Owners’ love for their pets, who are often treated as members of the family, is worsening the problem. They are plying them with “super-premium” foods with higher meat content or meat similar to that consumed by humans. That is a problem because pets are perfectly happy with so-called “side-stream” meat — cuts which aren’t sold as human food but are nutritious for animals. These trends are “driven by marketing rather than pet needs,” argues Ilari Haataja, chief executive of Finland-based Alvar Pet, an eco-friendly direct-to-consumer (DTC) pet food company using sustainable ingredients like Baltic herring and insects.
Another consumer craze is “fresh” pet food, copying the kinds of door-delivered packages noshed on by humans. Haataja claims that pets require 2.5 times more fresh food than dried food to meet their nutritional needs. This trend also increases transport-related emissions as well as energy consumption for refrigeration.
A growing number of companies are developing plant-based and vegan alternatives — but these are a cause for concern for some. The RSPCA, a UK animal welfare charity, has published examples. not endorsed vegetarianismFor animals. The British Veterinary Association (BVA) does not endorse a vegetarian or vegan diet for cats, and while it doesn’t recommend the same for dogs either, it says that it is theoretically possible to feed a dog a vegetarian diet — but there are risks.
“With all of these diets, it is hard for members of the public to get the right information,” warns Justine Shotton, president of the BVA. “Some of these diets have science behind them and some do not. We need to ensure that pets have the proper nutrition. Owners should always speak to their vet and take expert advice before changing a pet’s diet to make sure they avoid dietary deficiencies and associated disease”.
Cats, Shotton says, are “obligate carnivores [need at least 70% meat in their diet] that need animal-sourced ingredients”. The evidence for dogs, she says, is inconclusive but it is “much easier to get nutritional balance wrong than right”.
“It is much easier to get nutritional balance wrong than right”
She also stated that the evidence supports workarounds such a reintroduction of naturally occurring meat constituents such as taurine, an amin acid. critical for vision and digestion,Arachidonic acid, which is a fatty acids, is not strong at the moment. These may not be “bioavailable” to the animal, meaning they cannot be metabolised or could interfere with the uptake of other nutrients. The same holds true for synthetic ingredients. “We need further research and a higher evidence base on this,” she says.
Others believe the industry is worrying unnecessarily — and slowing down the sustainability transition. Andrew Knight, a University of Winchester veterinary professor, claims that vegan food is safe for both cats as well as dogs. He also pointed out that ingredients such as taurine have been artificially re-added to pet food in highly industrialised pet food industries.
Mark Hirschel, cofounder of UK vegan pet-care company Hownd, rails against a “myth that dogs are carnivores — the science is clear, they are not. They are omnivores that are well capable of ingesting starches and other ingredients.”
He says that meats are high in cholesterol, steroids and hormones. These can all cause problems for dogs, who are also susceptible to many chronic diseases and cancers. Vegan advocates call for a distinction between the risk of owners making their pets vegetarian food and buying prepared products.
Are insects the solution?
Some are looking at insects as a win-win solution that offers high-quality protein and a low environmental footprint. They are a staple in the aquaculture and poultry sectors and consumers are keen to feed their pets insect-based food. Westergren of Pet Good says insects — in their case, black soldier flies — require far less water, land and feed than conventional proteins. “At the same time, it is a high-quality source of protein that comes with many health benefits for dogs, making it a real win-win both for the dog and the planet,” she says.
The sector’s challenge is changing consumer norms so that insects are considered safe and healthy. Westergren even ate some of her company’s products in a recorded video to give encouragement to potential customers. Other European insect pet food players include UK-based Yora and France’s Entoma.
Haataja says that insects are often more expensive than traditional proteins. His company is currently paying that extra cost because there are no middlemen in its supply chain. It remains to see if the overall market will be affordable.
More broadly, of course, the pet sector’s pawprint does not depend only on food ingredients. Shotton encourages pet owners to think about “the wider sustainability impact of pets, from the number of toys we give them and what they are made of, to flying them on holiday with us. We need to look at all of our behaviours and reduce our impact on the planet from all of our actions.”
Even food industry workers are becoming more aware of issues such as packaging and supply chain management. Alvar Pet, for example, is looking at a strategy to expand geographically based on their ability and willingness to implement local production. “If we have one warehouse in Finland and ship products to Portugal, that wouldn’t be aligned with our mission,” says Haataja.
“When you get something super-sustainable it is very expensive, and we do not want to pass that on to our customers”
The use of plastics and animal products in pet grooming products is another area of interest. Lanolin, a wax secreted naturally by wool-bearing mammals, is used in products such serums. Hirschel states that Hownd uses Candelilla Wax, a shrub from northeastern Mexico as an alternative to beeswax.
His company is having difficulty changing out the plastic. “We are in a better position than we were, but a couple of years from where we want to be,” he says. “We still have plastics in our packaging and our pet food bags are as recyclable as you can get but this depends on the local council and their recycling processes.”
He says Hownd has been “trying for years to find alternatives to plastics and we are struggling. It is very expensive to find something super-sustainable. We don’t want our customers to pay that. We are in constant conversation with our manufacturers on this.”
Adam Green is a London-based science and technology writer and editor. He tweets from @AdamPenWord