You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Thu, May 16, 2013 : 6 a.m.

Sustainability and pets: is pet food the only area that needs serious consideration?

By Lorrie Shaw


Lorrie Shaw / Contributor

Sustainability is a word that has become well-woven into our everyday language, and it's no wonder: we're finding more ways to be mindful of our daily activities and their impact on the environment.

For so many of us, our lives have come to encompass our pets. Co-existing with companion animals means a lot of things — how we care for them, the toys that they need and the important area of nutrition.

As Kelly Swanson, a University of Illinois animal sciences researcher tells it, when it comes to pet food, sustainability should be paramount.

But how realistic is the prospect? Swanson, who with The Nutro Co. (they produce pet food brands like Natural Choice & Ultra), propose that this area of sharing life with a pet can easily be made more sustainable.

Ingredients count

The pet food industry has grown substantially, and goodness, has it changed over the years. Walk into any pet store and you'll see shelves lined with high-end foods touting phrases like "organic," "human-grade ingredients" and "natural." The brand names even glow with references to their naturally-sourced ingredient profiles and how the food is formulated. Of course, the favorable whisper of how healthy a food is and the results that it promises to deliver are compelling.

One theory to help reduce the load on the planet requires thinking outside the box when it comes to the source of nutrients pets require to be healthy. The assertion has been made that they can be derived from broader choices in the food chain.

Case in point: protein.

Yes, pets need it to maintain their good health, and for the most part, that ingredient comes from meat — these days that's mostly chicken, beef, turkey and lamb. Buffalo and fish are other common sources, especially in higher-end brands.

Some companies promote formulas that have enhanced levels of protein, which for the vast majority of pets isn't even necessary.

It's been noted that the pet food industry is closely tied with the production of livestock and, in some respects, directly with the human food system, primarily because human-grade ingredients are used.

Animal-sourced protein is expensive to produce not only from a financial standpoint, but in terms of the environment as well. Animal protein requires more water and energy to produce than plant-based counterparts.

Much to the delight of many, some pet food companies are including more plant-based proteins in their ingredient profiles, like soy and legumes (peas) -- as well as newer-to-the-market sources like quinoa.

Vegetarian or vegan diets for pets have been popular in recent years, but not without some controversy, as I've written about in the past.

Dr. Tony Buffington, professor of veterinary medicine at The Ohio State University's Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, has pointed out that while canines, who are omnivores, can adapt more easily to a vegetarian diet. Cats, as obligate carnivores — meaning that the majority of their nutrition needs to be derived from animal sources — makes their nutritional needs are different.

The main caveat with feeding felines a vegetarian or vegan diet is that they usually become deficient in taurine — an amino acid essential for proper cellular function. Cats synthesize taurine at a lower rate than dogs, and it is depleted more quickly. Taurine deficiency can lead to problems with vision, and is associated with dilated cardiomylopathy, a type of heart disease.

Less is more

Swanson notes that another practice on the part of pet owners that is far from sustainable: the overfeeding of pets.

"They're being fed as much as 20 percent more than they need, so their health is poor, and you're wasting all that food," indicates Swanson.

"Especially with cats, it's very difficult."

Cats do not self-regulate well when it comes to food intake.

I couldn't agree more. Quite honestly, overfeeding is something that I see frequently and judging from the waistlines of many pets that I see, people are not getting the message when it comes to what's behind the cause of their furry and feathered friends' portly appearance.

Feeding less food is in itself a highly sustainable practice. In doing so, it has a secondary benefit: a fuller wallet.

Long term thinking

Could employing strategies like these increase the sustainability of pet foods in the future? Certainly. And that is one thing to really mull over, considering that pet owner ship worldwide is increasing, not only here in the United States.

One last thought of my own: pet overpopulation also works against the idea of sustainability as a whole. With so many homeless pets and the struggle to feed, house and care for them, it seems that the area of pet nutrition may be another area where it's important to meet the needs of the present and not put those needs of the future in peril.

Lorrie Shaw leads the pets section for Connect with her on Google+ and follow her daily adventures as a professional pet sitter or email her directly.



Fri, May 17, 2013 : 1:41 p.m.

The feeding chart on the bag of dog chow (high end, grain-free stuff) sez that I should feed my 110 lb dog 4.25 to 5 cups per day. That's way too much. He gets 3 cups split into 2 feedings. He looks fabulous (yep, I'm biased), maintains his ideal weight and should have great health throughout his mature years. If I could only do the same for myself.... How are those feeding charts calculated??? Are they just winging it? It sure seems that way.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 11:10 p.m.

I wouldn't be so quick to recommend Nutro dog food. It was recalled in 2009 because of small pieces of plastic in the kibble. Made in China. More information here:


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 1:53 p.m.

I love! He has a great rating system that makes it easy to figure out if you're feeding your dog kibbles or crap.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 11:13 p.m.

Whoops I stand corrected. This, unlike other plastic found in dog food, was because of a worker's cap.

Bob Needham

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:15 p.m.

Lorrie, thanks for writing this. Lots of interesting angles. One question: You've probably addressed this in the past, but is there an easy way to know the appropriate amount of food for a cat?

Bob Needham

Mon, May 20, 2013 : 3:16 p.m.


Lorrie Shaw

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 9:17 p.m.

Bob, Actually since recommendations vary from cat to cat, there is no hard or fast rule when it comes to caloric intake or amounts per day. The problem is that the recommendations that you see on the back of a pet food package... they're just guidelines, and not really accurate. There are many folks who follow those recommendations to the letter and still have a pudgy pet. The best person to ask is your veterinarian -- they can assess a pet's overall health, nutritional needs, age and most importantly, their activity level. Even better -- a veterinary nutritionist (they have a DVM and have a degree in animal nutrition) can help guide a pet owner better. I hope that this helps!


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 5:45 p.m.

Feed them about 30 calories per pound per day - 240 calories daily for an 8 lb cat. Cat food has caloric information on the label. The cats will swear that they're starving, but cats lie.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:04 p.m.

If you raise livestock correctly, on pasture, the environmental impact is positive. Read Joel Salatin's "Folks, this ain't normal", available at the library. Unfortunately we send $billions in taxpayer money to Big Ag to grow corn in a sea of herbicides and synthetic fertilizer, truck the corn to gigantic feedlots, dump manure into fetid waste lagoons, and other nonsense. Buy local grass finished meat whenever you can and accept that it'll cost more due to the lack of taxpayer subsidies. Dogs and cats do much better on raw meat diets. Definitely don't feed them grains.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 1:43 a.m.

Watch this TED talk. Increasing consumption of pastured meat at the expense of monocropped annuals, especially grains, would be a good thing.

Lorrie Shaw

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 9:32 p.m.

Technojunkie, You raise a good point. Perhaps if more people did buy local, more sustainably-raised meat and paid the higher price, consumption would naturally drop. The sheer *amount* of livestock that's raised for consumption is staggering. And, there is only so much land. Also, there's so much talk and controversy about grain-free-vs-grain-based pet foods. I made the decision to feed grain-free (now kibble and a dehydrated formula) to my pets years ago -- doing otherwise just didn't make sense. Paying high prices for food laden with corn and rice and otherwise seemed silly, not to mention counterintuitive. I also don't over feed. One dog gets 1.5 cups, the other 2.5 and my cat, it varies, but only what he needs. My pets are nearly 16, 14 and 12, and are an excellent health: no serious arthritis issues (like a lot of pets that I see at these ages), etc. I do attribute it to good care and being mindful of what and how much is fed. I do have to laugh when people see my dogs -- they are lean, the way that they are supposed to be and people aren't used to that. I hear, "He's kinda skinny!" Thanks for making those points! Much appreciated!