I’m going to come right out and ask, even though I know the issue is too emotive for many: Are pets a luxury the planet cannot afford?
Erik Assadourian, Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, thinks so. He foresees a time, as the global population continues to increase and more pressure is put on food production, when pets end up being abandoned, perhaps even eaten, due to rocketing food prices and scarcity of resources.
They do consume an ever-increasing amount of resources. Apparently, two German Shepherd Dogs require more for their annual food needs alone than the average Bangladeshi.
Just to make you a little more uneasy, that’s Bangladesh, where 80,000 small photovoltaic solar systems are being installed each month and, over the past decade, the number of solar systems has increased from 25,000 to 2.8 million. (47 per cent of households in Bangladesh had access to electricity in 2009. Thanks to solar energy, this is expected to rise to 65 per cent next year.)
While I fully agree we need to make sacrifices today for the sake of tomorrow, and of course accept that the most dramatic lifestyle changes need to be made by the wealthiest, not the poorest, I find it more than just slightly annoying that numbers of pets seems to matter more than numbers of people when collectively fretting over a sustainable future. Let’s not deny the fact that pets have a lower environmental impact than children.
Ah yes, but pet gerbils won’t pay our pensions, I hear someone cry from the back. Indeed they won’t.
The UN predicts that, by 2067, the world’s population is set to reach around 9.5 billion. That’ll be an extra three billion mouths to feed.
A good way to start would be by wasting less food. Between 30 and 50 per cent of perishable foodstuffs purchased in developed countries gets thrown away. Supermarkets reject entire crops of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables because their size or shape fails to conform to cosmetic criteria (instead of selling it at a discount). As much as 30 per cent of the UK’s vegetable crop is never harvested as a result. India wastes 21 million tonnes of wheat each year due to inadequate storage and distribution systems. Seems to me there’s a better use of money than, let’s say, military spending right there.
Disgracefully, UK households throw away some seven million tonnes of food – worth about £10.2 billion – every year. This is estimated to cost the average household £480 a year. The food that’s still ‘in date’ is worth £1 billion. The saving in energy consumed were it not wasted by the buyer – in production, packaging, transport, etc. – would be equivalent to taking 20 per cent of cars off UK roads.
That’s just what we throw away, never mind what we give our pets.
Those uncomfortable figures and more in the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ January 2013 Global Food Report, by the way. It makes difficult but fascinating reading.
That said, I despise wasteful consumption and can see a lot of it is pet-related. I confess, I once bought my dogs a bubble machine that creates bacon-flavoured bubbles that they never really liked as much as, well, me. How essential bubbles are to a dog’s diet, I’m unsure. It’s made of plastic, requires electricity, was probably made in China (in my haste to recycle the box, as if that makes it acceptable to have purchased something so indulgent, I didn’t stop to check) and is taking up valuable space in my shed. They also have a plastic paddling pool which they won’t go in, no matter how much I try to coax them. Many toys have proved anything but durable and swiftly ended up in the bin. I shudder to think how many and where they are now.
They have sensible, sophisticated, not very fashionable coats that they rarely wear. Maybe they don’t like wearing them because they don’t have hoods and amusing words on the sides, but really I think it’s because they don’t mind getting wet and it actually does them good.
The pet industry is worth billions and cleverly exploits our selfish consumer habits created and manipulated by marketers. For many, sadly, pets are must-have, disposable fashion accessories. We dress them up and carry them around in handbags. We over-feed them, this is clear by how many obese pets we see waddling about, and we over-indulge them with toys and treats. We fill their aquariums and cages with brightly coloured junk and pretend it’s for their benefit.
The results of a Guardian poll which asked the same question I did to begin with are quite predictable, but in a good way. Thankfully, seventy per cent of those polled think we buy too much for our pets and 72 per cent believe we ought to stop making/selling/marketing unnecessary clothes, toys and other pet products.
In 2013, a whopping $55.7 billion was spent across the United States on pets, so claim the American Pet Products Association, sponsors of the three-day Global Pet Expo at which almost a thousand exhibitors of pet products congregated at the Orange County Convention Center recently to flog their wares. The figure for this year is expected to rise to $58.5 billion. It was $17 billion in 1994.
Here’s how that breaks down:
$22.62 billion – Food
$13.72 billion – Supplies, including over-the-counter medicine
$15.25 billion – Vet care
$ 2.19 billion – Live animal purchases
$ 4.73 billion – Pet services, such as grooming and boarding
Many of the products on sale, let’s not pretend otherwise, are for lazy and impatient people who can’t be bothered to play with their pets and feel guilty about leaving them home alone all day. Such as the videophone that dispenses treats so the dog can hear your voice, possibly see you, and you can see his head mournfully shifting from side to side as he now misses you even more than he did before he heard your voice calling to him. Then you can give him a treat for doing nothing and add to his girth. Or the battery-operated ball launcher. We’ve all wanted one when our arms have tired, I know this. Dog drops ball into the opening on the top, machine shoots it out of another opening for your dog to chase after, so your dog can eventually feel as isolated as you do surrounded by gadgets designed to take the place of human interaction. If you buy both of these, maybe you can shout encouragement and praise as you watch your dog playing alone. If he bothers to, that is. He probably won’t.
Here are some more of the American Pet Products Association’s statistics, for the US only, including the types of pets owned.
And here, for fun, are 12 Extremely Useful Pet Products. Like your cat doesn’t look evil enough already without wearing a wig. And I’m sorry, but no amount of quirky rat clothing would stop my skin from crawling at the sight of that long tail and twitching nose (forgive me, rat lovers).
Another question was: With people starving around the globe, is it immoral to spend so much of our resources on pets instead of feeding the poor? This prompted an almost equal split.
It does take between 20 and 50 times the amount of water to produce one kilogram of meat than it does one kilogram of vegetables.
My dogs eat nearly as much rice, pasta and vegetables as they do meat, but they probably eat better than many of my neighbours, filling their supermarket trolleys, as they do, with pre-packed ready meals of convenience, never mind those less affluent Bangladeshis who don’t have such choice. That does make me feel uncomfortable.
Much pet food, particularly but not exclusively the inexpensive and processed variety, contains animal derivatives and meat by-products – the organs, trimmings, bones and goodness knows what that is not fit for human consumption. Many people feed table scraps (not that there would be table scraps if you only cooked what you needed, of course). Setting aside health concerns and cost considerations, surely this further reduces human food waste, important when you consider that, in the UK alone, almost 15 million tonnes of food waste is generated each year, around 40 per cent of which ends up in landfill.
Then you factor in how much energy goes into rearing cattle for slaughter, the methane gas produced, the added burden on fish stocks, that most pet snakes want to eat chicks and mice, etc.
Not only do pets use up a huge amount of resources by way of food production and transportation, they also wreak devastation on the planet in other ways, disrupting whole eco-systems as they prey on birds and other small mammals and reptiles.
Then there’s the small matter of taking animals from their natural environment so that we can have them all to ourselves. Ornamental and tropical fishkeeping, for one, can never be sustainable. After Finding Nemo, in 2004, the popularity of clown fish rose drastically. At least these are among the few tropical fish bred in captivity; the other 1,500 or more species commonly sold are caught live and an estimated 70 to 90 per cent die before they ever make it to a tank. An incredible 99 per cent of those collected from fragile coral reefs off the Philippines and Indonesia die within a year, not least due to how they are caught (cyanide is sometimes used to stun the fish first).
In the 1990s, following the Teenage Mutant Ninja/Hero Turtles craze, it was red-eared terrapins, native to the swamps of the USA, that children were nagging their parents for. Trouble is, they get big and are prone to nipping and carry Salmonella and basically live too long to stay interesting (up to 40 years in the wild), so many were deliberately and illegally released into waterways everywhere to fend for themselves, where they preyed on native species. Please note this headline. Those bloody terrapins probably played a part in the death of Princess Diana, too. Monsters, the lot of them.
Back to being serious, there is much that could be said of pets in addition to how much they consume and the toll on native wildlife: health concerns surrounding the dogs’ mess left in parks and on beaches; the considerable amount of non-biodegradable kitty litter and gritty sandpaper lining from bird cages routinely discarded and sent to landfill; the cost to public services when pets attack and injure; the moral arguments against keeping birds in cages, fish in tanks, etc.
(I’m sorry, but nobody should keep tigers and monkeys as pets.)
I’ll get back to the poll.
Are pets part of the family? 87 per cent think so. Curiously, there is a case to be made here about pets acting as a substitute for children, suppressing the desire to procreate (‘More young women choosing dogs over motherhood’), which might be quite a good thing…
Next question: Would you time-share your dog or cat, or visit a cat café instead of owning your own pet? Only 29 per cent would consider this. I wonder how many of the 71 per cent unimpressed by the suggestion of booking a play-date with a favourite furry friend stopped to consider how many animals are languishing in shelters right now, their date of execution edging nearer. I’m sure they’d eagerly welcome some love and affection. 2.7 million healthy cats and dogs are euthanised every year in shelters in the US, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
Not that 71 per cent of people unwilling to share are at fault for their plight. That would be breeders and a refusal to spay or neuter. Assadourian’s proposal of a tax on pets, trebled if they aren’t spayed or neutered, seems perfectly sensible if only in the short term.
His suggestion that certain veterinary care should only be available to service dogs similarly provoked disapproval. Bet the vets ($15.25 billion in the US in 2013, don’t forget) would love that massive dent to their profits. I should think, in reality, at least half of those with pets are not able to consider the most costly surgical procedures anyway and, finances aside, a good percentage would deem it unfair to put their likely elderly pets through such an ordeal in the first place.
Some argue that if we made more effort to strengthen our community ties – with more book groups, youth clubs, coffee mornings, things like that – we wouldn’t need a dog to get out and meet people. It’s not as though our pets will be much help to us when it feels that the end is nigh, and it’s people we need to help us eke out a miserable existence amidst the chaos. Not unless we eat them, anyway.
I don’t know how companion animals can be blamed for a weak society. I have sympathy for those who say they prefer the company of animals and greater sympathy still for the elderly, in particular, who usually have to part with their beloved pets when they move to residential care homes, which is wrong. There are many positives to pet ownership and we shouldn’t forget why animals became domesticated in the first place: because they guard and protect us, assist us with farming, hunt and kill vermin. I don’t know about you, but I want the rat population minimised (don’t mention those giant ones, please). I feel society would be poorer without pets. Maybe it’s coincidence, maybe it’s just me, but generally speaking, most of the people I meet who are out with their dogs are friendly and show civility toward others with dogs irrespective of age, race, gender or disability. It’s the joggers and cyclists and mothers pushing babies who don’t bother speaking to anybody else and hurry along rudely.
As the population gradually rises, more people will live in more crowded conditions and many pets are already unsuited for city living. Will they be discarded? We have all seen the harrowing footage of stray dogs scavenging for food, of neglected horses, abandoned, “fly-grazing” they now call it. Driven by the recession, people wail, as though that makes neglect OK, yet the number of pet horses in Britain has risen sharply to more than 1.2 million in the past decade.
Are pets ‘luxuries’ we don’t really need, like meat every day, air-conditioning, trips abroad and a thousand other things?
Personally, I absolutely support making simple sacrifices for the sake of the planet, to ameliorate the effects of climate change and overpopulation if future global crisis cannot be averted. I would never object if governments started forcing people to make them through a system of taxes and fines. As with the muddled outrage in the UK at present over halal meat, which is naturally being exploited for political ends, animal welfare should be the chief concern and for that there should be strict regulations about breeding animals for profit, harsher penalties for abuse and neglect of animals, and every possible step taken to make people take the responsibility of pet ownership much more seriously, all of which would have a positive effect on domestic animal overpopulation.
There should be a distinction between adopting an animal from a rescue shelter and paying a considerable sum to a breeder. That could be reflected in the cost of everything from licensing to vet fees in order to encourage adoption, spaying and neutering and to discourage adding to the numbers of pets we already have. But perhaps the same should apply to unwanted children in orphanages.
If every pet were to disappear tomorrow, after getting over the shock and clumsily expressing my confusion and sense of deep loss in 140 characters, I’d wager that the poor and starving in developing countries would be no better off. That’s capitalism for you. Gross inequality, unfair distribution of resources and all that.
Erik Assadourian has blogged in response to the more ignorant and boorish comments, and it turns out that he did acknowledge just how many cats and dogs are euthanised each year but chose to remove a paragraph where he suggested replacing some of the 51 million turkeys slaughtered each year for Thanksgiving with the three to four million unwanted dogs and cats put to sleep over the same period. Not the nicest suggestion I ever heard, to be fair. Of course, several countries already eat ‘pets’: horses, dogs, cats, guinea pigs… Even Princess Anne was urging Britons to consider eating horsemeat not long ago, on the principle that if people could sell their horses for meat at the end of their lives, they might take better care of them.
Maybe pets are luxuries we could do without. The eternally outraged seem to think so; they become all too aware of the cost of keeping pets whenever they see the reality-television evidence showing that people living on benefits have them as well as iPhones. But if you really think about it, are any luxuries sustainable? Surely we just need to choose our luxuries more carefully and not have quite so many of them. I like to think I can further reduce my carbon footprint in order to offset my pets’ carbon pawprints. There are plenty of ways to attempt this and it only takes a bit of thought and the will to try, after all.
What do you think?
By the way, I accept that some abhor the ‘owner’ label and reject this term, considering it demeaning to the animal, and favour ‘guardian’ instead. I don’t view my pets as objects that I own, yet as much as I acknowledge the symbiotic relationship that exists, we are responsible for our pets just as we are responsible for our children and their environmental impact, so in that sense I feel ‘owner’ is acceptable. We certainly own the responsibility that comes with any pet.