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What’s in your dog's food?

Ingredients in dog and cat foods now include some pretty exotic sounding meats.  Salmon is common in pet treats. Bison, deer and elk can all be found in different dog foods.  Even alligator, rabbit, and quail have found their way into dog bowls in the US. Many of these foods capitalize on the idealized image of a wolf and seem to use the idea that you’re feeding wildness in your canine companion.  One potential dog food ingredient goes a bit further, as the government of Botswana has proposed using elephant meat in pet foods.

Botswana currently has the world’s largest population of wild African Elephants.  The Telegraph reports that the nation has long been considered a refuge amidst the poaching in other African nations.  Today, Botswana boasts elephant populations as large as 130,000 individuals. President Mokgweetsi Masisi tasked a government subcommittee with reviewing a potential lift on an elephant trophy hunting ban put into place by the previous president in 2014.  Recently, the subcommittee advised lifting the ban. Included in the proposal is one to establish a facility to process and can elephant meat, including to use for pet food.

The proposal suggests the lift of the hunting ban as a way to jump start Botswana’s safari industry.  The ban didn’t cover hunting inside of private and registered game ranches where hunting is instead carefully regulated.  It seems the use of elephant meat as pet food and potentially other products is only a suggestion to justify the waste of killing animals for mere sport.  The idea is that if elephants are made into food products, they’re killed for a greater purpose than a mere trophy. Easy justifications like this one all too often allow consumers to ignore the impact of their own actions.  It turns out that elephant meat is just one of several potentially questionable ingredients in pet foods on the market today.

PetFoodIndustry reported in August of last year on the growing premiumization of pet foods in the United States.  Dry dog food is still the largest portion of food sold in the US and abroad, but refrigerated and frozen foods are growing in popularity.  In the US, dry pet foods make up 31% of total packaging sales, while wet and treat packaging each make up 28 and 27%. This trend is in contrast to much of the rest of the world, where dry pet foods are much more popular.  

A report in Smithsonian notes that pet food sales have doubled since 2000.  PetFoodIndustry suggests that this trend is part of a humanization of pets.  People seem to be more empathetic towards their pets than ever, which can’t be entirely bad.  However, buying high end foods for dogs and cats does have its consequences.

A study published in PLOS One by researcher Gregory Okin in 2017 showed that of the more than 163 million cats and dogs in the US, meat consumption creates a real impact.  Animals raised for food create greenhouse gases and often create conflicts between ranchers and wild animals like bison or wolves. Grains and other foods used to feed livestock further increase the environmental impact of animal consumption whether you’re a human eating a steak or a dog with a bowl of kibble.  

Some experts have calculated that a medium sized dog can have the same annual environmental impact as an SUV.  Gregory Okin’s research shows that consumption of dog and cat food products are annually responsible for the creation of 64 ± 16 tons of CO2-equivalent methane and nitrous oxide, both greenhouse gases in the US.  

Smithsonian points to the growing trend of foods and treats to use prime cuts of meat instead of organ meats or other by-products of livestock production.  Americans are generally more particular about the food they consume than their animals are – don’t believe it? When’s the last time you saw a dog getting into a trash can?  By insisting on buying premium meat for our furred companions, we’re inadvertently contributing to more livestock being slaughtered for food while morsels like organs are perfectly acceptable for cats and dogs.  Some pet food producers are even trying out vegan pet foods as a solution.

The Guardian reported in June 2018 on a new vegan pet food called Wild Earth then undergoing tests.  Wild Earth uses koji, a fungi the company claims contains a full protein and has a 3,000 year history of consumption by humans.  The company is also developing lab created meat that would culture animal cells for consumption without the need for slaughter. The same process is being researched for humans, but Wild Earth anticipates their lab cultured mouse meat for cats to reach the market first because of less-restrictions on animal foods.  Some pet nutritionists are suspicious of the vegan pet food, pointing out that although it’s possible to feed a dog vegetarian, it must be done very carefully.

Cats on the other hand are obligate carnivores, eating very little besides meat.  A vegetarian diet for a feline might be very dangerous, indeed. With lab cultured meat, we enter uncharted territory and it’s extremely hard to anticipate the long reaching impacts at all.  Environmental impact of pets is largely a systematic one.

The Guardian reported last year that Americans waste 15,000 tons of food each day. In 2014, The Guardian was more specific, stating that households are wasting 570,000 tonnes [Sic] of fresh meat each year.  Globally this number equates to the meat of almost 12 billion animals wasted. These numbers make it clear that we don’t need another source of protein for our cats and dogs, whether it’s elephant meat or ancient fungi.  

In order to lessen the environmental impact of pet ownership, what we need is a system to use meat we already produce more effectively.  Whole categories of meat such as bone meal, organs, and other undesirable animal parts are eaten by people but would be eaten with few complaints by dogs and cats.  The problem is that often the meats are sourced in unethical and dangerous ways. As late as this month, WebMD reported on FDA warnings that drugs used to euthanize animals have shown up in several brands of dog food.  Obviously meats with poisons in them are unacceptable as any type of food.

The way we consume food is ever more complicated and the same is true for our pets.  The way forward is murky but it seems we already produce enough food; it’s a matter of making that system efficient at redirecting good food that’s less desirable to western consumers to animal food bowls.  There should be enough room for our companion animals as well as wild creatures if we work hard for it.

By Zach Fitzner, Contributing Writer           

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