NEW YORK, Dec 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As pet owners from New York to London sit down to Christmas lunch this year, the family dog might be in for a surprise - a vegan meal.
As more people cut meat from their diets, one third of U.S. pet owners said they would be interested in feeding their animal a plant-based diet, according to a 2019 study by researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada.
With this rising interest, major brands like Mars Petcare as well as smaller, independent companies are developing meat-free pet food that is high in protein but plant based in response to growing concerns over the environmental impact of farming.
Cats and dogs account for up to 30% of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the United States, according to a 2017 study by University of California Los Angeles - and if they had their own country would rank fifth globally on meat consumption.
But the jury is divided on whether a vegan diet is the best option for cats and dogs, with many veterinarians and pet nutritionists recommending against the practice.
“Get yourself a rabbit or a guinea pig if you’re worried about that,” said British Veterinary Association’s President Daniella Santos, referring to climate change.
Cats, which are obligate carnivores - meaning they require certain nutrients only found in meat - should not be on an exclusively plant-based diet, vets say, while dogs, which are omnivores, could cut out meat but experts advise against it.
Nonetheless, more pet owners are opting for vegan diets.
Daniela Withaar, 22, a vegan college student, from Denver, Colorado, as been feeding her cat, Zola, vegan cat food for three years.
She said her cat has adjusted quite well to the plant-based diet but had suffered two urinary tract infections.
“She was uncomfortable with the UTIs for about five days, but she wasn’t in extreme pain or suffering a whole lot,” Withaar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that she had no plans to go back to a meaty diet for Zola.
The concept has attracted big name investors like PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who last year invested $450,000 into Wild Earth, a biotech startup developing vegan pet foods.
Mars Petcare, one of the world’s largest pet food manufacturers, has also invested in the Berkeley, California-based startup.
Wild Earth uses a Japanese fungus called koji in its food, saying it has the 10 essential amino acids dogs require.
Some companies, such as British brand Yora, are also promoting insects as an alternative protein source for pets, saying pellets made out of grubs will reduce your “global pawprint”.
The United Nations has repeatedly urged that global meat consumption must be reduced to lessen the burden on overused land and improve food security.
A drop in reliance on livestock would free up several million square kilometers of land by 2050 and cut 0.7-8.0 gigatonnes a year of carbon dioxide equivalent produced by livestock, the U.N. estimated in August.
As society grapples with how to help, some are pointing to meat-loving pets as part of the potential solution.
“If we consider that the only way to combat climate change is to mitigate livestock agriculture then we certainly need to do it,” said Professor Mick Bailey from the School of Veterinary Science at Britain’s University of Bristol.
But some scientists disputed the theory that pets’ contribution to climate change was noteworthy.
“The environmental impact of the consumption of traditional dog and cat foods is not as bad as one might think because they use byproducts,” said Professor Tilly Collins from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London.
Collins, who has researched the environmental impacts of meat consumption by pets, said the undesirable parts of calves, the hide, bones, digestive system and brain, were commonly found in pet food, much of which would have been waste anyway.
Bailey said like humans, cats and dogs required essential amino acids, nutrients that must be supplied through diet.
“What I recommend is exactly what I’d recommend to human, which is to reduce their dependence on meat, but not totally. Everything in moderation,” said Bailey. (Reporting by Matthew Lavietes; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)