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While many people are becoming increasingly concerned about the food they’re putting into their bodies and where it comes from, we largely forget about the food we feed our furry family members. It’s difficult to make the connection between the small, dry kibble we give to our pets and the forms in which humans consume meat, but the connection between factory farming and the pet food industry can have a big impact on our lives, our planet, and our pets.
Factory farming is defined by its most visible qualities: high rates of greenhouse gas emissions, huge numbers of animals living in cramped, dark quarters, and, inevitably, many slaughtered animals whose bodies often go to waste. An example of this, a “downer cow,” is a cow that cannot stand on its own due to illness, injury, or weakness. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, downer cattle are not fit to be consumed by humans because of the risk that they could carry mad cow disease. If it is deemed that a downer cow requires euthanasia, her body must be sent off to a rendering plant where she will be processed into either pet or poultry food.
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The US chicken industry provides another example. There is, on average, a five percent mortality rate for chickens who die in factory farms each year before reaching the slaughterhouse. These animals, who are not viewed as fit for human consumption, are then processed and turned into “meat meal,” which is a highly processed version of meat that is pressed to remove moisture and fat, leaving behind only a highly-nutrient dense but dry byproduct that is often added as a main ingredient into pet food.
Popular dog food company Purina writes on their website that when an ingredient in pet food is listed as “meat,” that means it is muscle tissue from cows, pigs, sheep, or goats. Poultry and fish are not mammals, and therefore must be listed as such and are not included as “meat.” Meat meal, however, contains only about 10 percent moisture as it has undergone significant processing and must be listed as a separate ingredient. The main issue with pet food containing meat meal is that because the meat does not have to be human-grade, many factory farms sell their downed cows or sick and injured animals to be processed into meat meal. This low-investment, high-profit strategy to earn money off of animals that would ordinarily not be profitable on farms creating food for humans can incentivize the mistreatment of animals, since animals that are processed into meat meal do not have to be up to the same health standards as human-grade meat does.
In 2017, Dr. Gregory Okin from UCLA conducted a study that found that between 25 percent and 30 percent of emissions from the consumption of meat came specifically from feeding domestic dogs and cats. Okin compared the 64 million tons of CO2 emissions from feeding pets to the emissions from 13 million diesel cars every year. However, the exact numbers have been debated. Kelly Swanson, a professor at the University of Illinois, argues that the emissions coming from processing meat for pet food are significantly less than the emissions from processing meat for human consumption because the meat in pet food is mainly the “undesirable” parts and byproducts of meat for human consumption. While the true climate cost of processing meat for pet food is unclear, what is known is that processing and consuming meat in any capacity has a significantly negative impact on the global climate, calling to attention the need for solutions and alternatives for both humans and pets.
Trendy feeding fads such as “raw feeding” have sprung up lately in response to pet owners becoming increasingly concerned with the ingredients in their pets’ food. However, since one of the main ingredients in many pet foods is “meat meal,” which is made from non-human grade “downer” animals, this desire for human-grade pet food actually requires more animals to be raised on factory farms. There is no easy solution to the pet food problem; some would argue that it helps reduce emissions because it acts as somewhat of a “leftover industry” and deals with the parts that humans don’t want to eat, thus reducing waste. But others argue that the processing, rendering, and transportation of downed animals and meat meal into pet food can have just as much of an environmental impact as factory farming of human-grade meat. Furthermore, because selling downed animals for meat meal allows factory farms to earn a profit off of what would ordinarily be a loss, it almost incentivizes the mistreatment of animals in factory farms because the consequences for the farmers if their animals are not healthy enough to be fit for human consumption are insufficient.
The good news is that dogs are naturally omnivorous, meaning that, in the wild, they can thrive off of both meat and plant matter. Researchers from the Centre for Animal Welfare write that feeding dogs a vegetarian diet is becoming more and more possible with growing amounts of research. With proper attention to ensuring that dogs on vegetarian or vegan diets receive adequate and complete nutrition compared to dogs on meat-based diets, conscientious dog owners can reasonably expect to be able to transition their pets to a diet that has a significantly smaller environmental and animal impact. A quick Google search for “vegetarian dog food” shows that there are, in fact, pre-made dog foods on the market that do not contain meat or in some cases, any animal products at all, so busy pet owners do not have to worry about spending too much time or money on preparing highly-involved raw feeding diets. While we are not able to ask our pets directly what they would prefer, it is worth noting that in our work to reduce the animal and environmental impacts of factory farming, there are alternatives for nearly everything, even down to our dog food.
Margaret Doyle is a college advocacy intern for FFAC studying Sociology and Communications at the University of San Diego.