Concerned about climate change? Worried about environmental degradation? Want to protect local wildlife? Then you should think twice before purchasing a pet.

Image by wayhomestudio on Freepik

In a previous post, I suggested that despite our love for pets the practice of pet-keeping is deeply problematic. I don’t expect to have moved many people: the desire to keep animals as pets runs deep and many people really do love their pets. Yet even if one finds my earlier argument unconvincing, there are further reasons to think that buying a pet is morally wrong.

How Many Pets Are There?

Exact figures are hard to come by but in 2018 it was estimated that there were 471 million pet dogs and 373 million pet cats worldwide. Since these estimates are five years old, there are likely to be considerably more cats and dogs now – especially because in many countries pet ownership significantly increased during the pandemic. And there are no global estimates for other pets such as rodents, rabbits, birds, and reptiles. To give you some sense of exactly how many dogs there are, a recent report estimates that domestic dogs have a total biomass of around twenty million tonnes, which is almost as much as all wild terrestrial mammals combined.

And the global pet care market is expected to grow from 225 billion USD in 2019 to 358 billion by 2027, which suggests that ever-increasing rates of pet ownership show no signs of slowing.

Image by Freepik

All Pets Need Feeding

Pets need feeding and many (if not most) pets are fed other animals (including animals that others keep as pets, such as pigs, chickens, and fish). This is not only bad for the animals killed for food, who are similarly thinking and feeling creatures, but it is bad for the environment. Several studies have shown that cats and dogs have a significant dietary footprint. For example, in 2017 it was calculated that dogs and cats in the US consume as much dietary energy as approximately one-fifth of the American population, or about 62 million humans (greater than the population of most nations). Another analysis in 2020 showed that global pet food production accounts for average greenhouse gas emissions of 106 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per year. If the pet food industry were a country, it would be the sixtieth-highest emitter! Moreover, scientists of that study estimate that around 49 million hectares of agricultural land – about twice the size of the UK – are used annually to make dry cat and dog food, which accounts for 95 per cent of pet food sales.

Image by wirestock on Freepik

Predators, Pollution, and Pests

Pets can be bad for local wildlife. Outdoor cats are obvious offenders. In the UK alone, it was estimated that cats kill up to 100 million prey animals (27 million of which are birds) between spring and summer – and that survey was conducted in 1997 when there were 2 million fewer cats! Moreover, these estimates were based on prey animals that were brought home by domestic cats and do not include animals killed but not brought home. (For a sobering illustration of this problem see photographer Jack Wonderly’s work “Killed By Cats”).

Another indirect harm associated with pet-keeping comes from insecticide-based flea treatments for cats and dogs. In 2020, The Guardian reported that “one flea treatment of a medium-sized dog with [the insecticide] imidacloprid contains enough pesticide to kill 60 million bees”. These insecticides have polluted our waterways and are wreaking havoc in aquatic ecosystems because people treat their animals for fleas then wash them or allow them to swim in rivers.

Burmese python
This Burmese python was captured in Everglades National Park in Florida, where the invasive snakes have established a large breeding population.
(Susan Jewell/US Fish and Wildlife Services)

Lastly, the desire for “exotic” pets often creates problems when those animals escape or are deliberately released. This is not a marginal issue. The exotic pet trade has resulted in the establishment of thousands of non-native species across the world. These non-native animals often represent a serious threat to native species, which may in turn compromise biodiversity and entire ecosystems.

Say No to Pets

People are rightfully concerned about climate change and environmental degradation and many of us are increasingly moved to find more sustainable ways of living, yet we rarely stop to consider the environmental impact of owning a pet. Here I have gestured at only a few of the harms and costs associated with keeping pets: this is just the tip of the iceberg. One only needs to think about the hundreds of millions of tonnes of animal faeces in landfill sites, unrecyclable plastic pet food packets, plastic pet toys, bowls, and beds, as well as plastic poo bags, unrecyclable cat litter, and so on, to see that the collective environmental cost of keeping animals as pets is far greater than we assume. In light of this, we cannot continue to overlook the damage that our practice of keeping pets does to the environment and the harms it involves to other animals. Ultimately these considerations suggest that loving your pet is (still) not enough to justify our current practice of keeping pets.

The harms and costs associated with pet-keeping are like so many others that involve animals: created by us. Though some pets come into existence by accident, the practice of pet-keeping is not itself accidental but sustained by billions of individuals globally. One thing we can do to minimise our contribution to climate change, do our bit to protect the environment, and reduce threats to local wildlife is to stop buying pets.

Angie Pepper is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Roehampton. Angie works on issues to do with the rights of nonhuman animals and what we owe to them as a matter of interspecies justice. Her recent work focuses on the normative significance of nonhuman animal agency; in other words, she is interested in what other animals do and why it matters morally, socially, and politically.