The uncomfortable truths of pet ownership

Our obsession with cats and dogs is killing billions of animals every year

Writer: George Blake
Editor: Andrey Chau
Artist: Stephanie Chang

As lockdowns were implemented across the world last spring, there was a sudden surge in demand for pets (mainly cats and dogs), as loneliness pushed people towards acquiring an animal companion. The Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association found that 11% of all UK households acquired a new pet during lockdown, and in London this figure was as high as 18%. Puppies sold on pets4home, Britain’s largest online advertising site for pets, have doubled since before the lockdown, with many puppies now costing thousands of pounds.

Pets have no doubt helped their owners to cope better emotionally during the lockdown, but the cause of these benefits and the broader mental health implications of pet ownership are still debated.

Is the conversation surrounding pet ownership flawed? Should we view and think about pet ownership solely from a self-centred perspective, or do we need to consider their wellbeing too? And something many of us might not think much about: what about the environmental impacts?

Although still niche, the environmental cost of pets is the subject of increasing research, and the results are rather harrowing.

Pet owners are likely familiar with the sight of their beloved canine or feline friend bringing home a dead rabbit or bird, nature’s prize kill, but the sheer scale of the ecological costs of pets may come as a surprise. In the UK, pet cats are estimated to kill at least 275 million animals annually, the majority of which are native species, while a study in the USA determined that free-ranging domestic cats (both pets and feral) are the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for birds and mammals. The study estimated that between 7.6 and 26.3 billion birds and mammals are killed annually, and roughly a third of these are due to pet cats. Overall, cats have proven themselves worthy predators, driving 63 species to extinction (40 birds, 21 mammals, and 2 reptiles).

Dogs are not that much better; they constitute the third worst human introduced predator, just behind cats and rodents, and have led to the extinction of 11 species. Today, they threaten close to 200 species, 30 of which are critically endangered, 71 endangered, and 87 vulnerable under the IUCN red list.

While a common response to these concerns may sound something like “my dog/ cat would never kill anything, so surely I can still let them outside?”, this fails to acknowledge that the mere presence of domestic pets can alter the behaviour of ‘native species’, resulting in sub-lethal effects. The presence of dogs can reduce the parental care of adult birds towards their young, drive deleterious effects on the breeding success of ungulates, and even brief appearances of cats can lead to increased egg and young bird predation by third party animals.

A further concern is that diseases can be spread via domestic animals. Remember that brief period when we all feared our pets were spreading COVID-19? Well, dogs actually do act as vehicles for the spread of rabies and canine distemper virus, repeated outbreaks of which have occurred in endangered Ethiopian wolves and even led to population declines of the threatened Lake Baikal seal. Cats meanwhile spread a pathogen known as Toxoplasma gondii, which only occurs in the intestine of felines. Infected cats excrete the pathogen, which then moves like plastic or pesticides into waterways and often results in the deaths of iconic marine mammals, such as beluga whales or California sea otters.

Many still resolutely feel it is their right to allow their pets to roam freely, but the academics at the centre of many of the aforementioned studies say this must change. If they had things their way, there’d be no more kicking open the door to let your cat roam unsupervised, and no more letting your dog run freely along the beach or through the woods.

However, a clamp down on the freedoms pets currently enjoy raises serious issues itself. What quality of life would we be providing our pets with were we to follow these instructions? Keeping them trapped inside or solely walking them on leads would reduce mental enrichment and would arguably take way from the joy of pet ownership. A possible compromise could be to exclude pets from any ecologically sensitive areas, although such exclusions would need to be legislated for and must follow the precautionary principle: if the importance/ sensitivity of a habitat is unknown, pets must be excluded.

The situation is further complicated when one considers the carbon footprint of pets. Cats and dogs are primarily carnivorous, and although there is growing demand for vegan pet food, most cats and dogs still consume large amounts of meat. Professor Gregory Okin, a member of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, found the USA’s 163 million cats and dogs accounted for 25-30% of national meat consumption. If these cats and dogs constituted a country, the nation would rank 5th in global meat consumption. When combined with the faecal matter they produce, pets in the USA produce 64 million tonnes of greenhouse gases annually, roughly equivalent to Austria’s total annual emissions. To reduce the carbon costs of pet food, there needs to be a commitment to using all parts of animal meat, so-called snout-to-tail consumption, but in reality, there is a growing trend towards premium pet food, which often contain cuts that would be suitable for human consumption.   

The carbon footprint and direct impacts on native wildlife of domestic pets provides a strong argument for a fundamental shift in the way we care for them. Although for some, like Pete Marra the author of Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, this does not go far enough. He has called for a cull of feral domestic animals, which may seem abhorrent to many, but really this depends on whether you believe it is right to prioritise native species over feral animals. At the very least, it seems there is a decent argument for a dramatic increase in funding towards sterilisation services of feral animals.

The ecological and environmental costs of pet ownership are considerable and diverse, and it is essential we begin to take these issues seriously. Some may argue it is time to start rethinking the habit of owning pets entirely, particularly given that global pet ownership is projected to rise even further in the coming decades. 

But, solely looking at the cold hard facts and statistics of pet ownership overlooks the numerous small joys they bring to us everyday, and quantifying their benefits towards our mental health is far more challenging than determining an ecological footprint. 

Therefore, this piece is not advocating that people shouldn’t have pets, only stressing that there are measures we can all take. If you do decide to get a pet, perhaps stick to just one, and look to adopt rather than buy. Over 100,000 dogs and cats are without homes at any given time, and roughly 20,000 dogs in shelters are euthanised each year.

Most importantly, this piece is bringing to the forefront that the compassion and love we give our pets should be extended to all species. Our pets are not unique and all animals are complex, fascinating, and amazing. Perhaps it’s time we started treating them all as equals.  

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