From meat-packed meals to plastic toys and packaging, the pet industry has a heavy environmental footprint. 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 says pets need 2.5 times more fresh food than they do dried food for their nutritional needs, so this trend increases transport-related emissions and 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 UK animal welfare charity the RSPCA, for instance, has not endorsed vegetarianism for 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 make sure pets get their nutritional requirements met. 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 adds that the evidence for workarounds such as reintroducing naturally occurring meat constituents like taurine, an amino acid critical for vision and digestion, or arachidonic acid, a fatty acid, is not robust 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 is 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 veterinary professor at the University of Winchester, claims vegan food can be healthy for both cats and dogs. He has also pointed out that ingredients like taurine are already degraded and artificially re-added in the highly industrialised mainstream pet food industry.
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 adds that meats contain cholesterol, steroids, hormones and antibiotics that can all be harmful for dogs, who are susceptible to many of the same cancers and chronic diseases as humans. Vegan advocates also call for a distinction between the risks of owners preparing their own vegetarian food for pets versus buying carefully formulated products.
Are insects the answer?
In between the war between plants and meat, some are exploring insects as a win-win solution offering high-quality protein with a light environmental footprint. They are already a mainstay in the aquaculture and poultry sector and consumers are interested in insect-based foods for their pets. 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 challenge for the sector is shifting consumer norms to view insects as 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.
Another challenge is cost; insects are several times pricier than conventional proteins, according to Haataja. At present, his company is absorbing that additional cost thanks to the lack of middlemen in its taut supply chain. It remains to be seen, however, whether the overall market will be affordable for the average consumer.
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 those in the food sector are looking at issues like packaging and supply chains. Alvar Pet, for instance, is pursuing a geographical expansion strategy based on their ability 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
Pet grooming products are another area of focus, given their use of plastics and animal products like beeswax or lanolin, a wax secreted by wool-bearing animals, which are used in products like serums. Hownd uses Candelilla wax, from a shrub grown in northeastern Mexico, as an alternative to beeswax, according to Hirschel.
His company is having a harder time swapping 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. When you get something super-sustainable it is very expensive, and we do not want to pass that on to our customers. We are in constant conversation with our manufacturers on this.”