University of Illinois animal sciences researcher, Kelly Swanson, in cooperation with scientists at natural petfood maker, the Nutro Co., raised a number of important questions on the sustainability of pet ownership in new research.
Sustainability is defined as meeting the needs of the present while not compromising the future. Swanson said that although the carbon footprint aspect of sustainability receives the most attention, nutritional aspects are also important. “If you just change the diet a little, the financial and environmental costs associated with it are quite different,” he explained.
Since dietary ingredient selection and nutrient composition affect the sustainability of the petfood system, and because protein is costly financially and to the environment, protein source and amount of protein in the diet are especially important.
Swanson's research shows that dogs and cats require specific nutrients, not specific ingredients, making it possible to meet nutrient requirements with a variety of nutrient sources. For example, animal protein can be replaced by plant protein, which requires less water and energy to produce. Soy-based proteins are a common petfood ingredient, and their production is estimated to be 6 to 20 times more efficient in terms of fossil fuel requirements, Swanson said.
Petfood manufacturers also make heavy use of the secondary products from the human food chain. “That’s great from a sustainability standpoint because we’re using the products that would otherwise not be used,” he said.
Swanson's research shows there are strategies to make petfood manufacturing more sustainable while still meeting the animals' nutritional needs and keeping products affordable.
“Advancement in areas of nutritional sustainability will help us develop innovative products to improve pet health and nutrition and produce quality and safe petfood,” said Rebecca Carter, research scientist at The Nutro Company. “Nutritional sustainability is part of a wider sustainability platform to improve the sustainability of our products and promote the sustainability of pet ownership and the petfood industry.”
Swanson stresses the importance of educating consumers and veterinarians, as well as the petfood industry , about sustainable feeding practices.
“[Pets are] 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.”
Swanson said it would be helpful to develop a model that would estimate the environmental impact of petfoods and serve as a basis for strategies to increase the sustainability of petfoods in the future. Researchers concluded that there are no “good” or “bad” feeding practices, but just some that are more or less sustainable. They hope the findings highlight areas where changes could be made to current practices and stimulate discussion within the industry so that the overall sustainability of petfoods may be improved in the future.
"Nutritional Sustainability of Pet Foods" by Kelly S. Swanson, Rebecca A. Carter, Tracy P. Yount, Jan Aretz and Preston R. Buff was recently published in Advances in Nutrition and can be viewed online.
New shelter data casts doubt on whether the pet population and pet ownership are truly growing.
While the pandemic caused unprecedented suffering worldwide in 2020, the disruptions to dogs, cats and other pets adoption numbers may normalize in 2021.