To many of us, our cats and dogs turn a house into a home. Nearly three-quarters of us see our pets as part of the family, whilst more than half of us say the best thing about them is the affection they show us.
They are there to greet us when we come home at the end of a long day. In the case of dogs, they may lick our faces when we’re feeling sad. And they are enthusiastic about almost anything we want to do. As I’ve shared previously in this column, my own dog, Duke, is my best friend and teacher. Sometimes I think he knows me better than I know myself.
But what thought do we give the animals that go into the food we feed our pets? A lot of the meat used in pet food comes from animals farmed to poor standards of welfare.
As journalist and philosopher Julian Baggini wrote recently, “we keep one set of animals in industrial farms where many never see the light of day while we treat others as though we are honoured to be guests in their homes”.
All but a small percentage of dog and cat food is made with meat from the human food chain. According to the British Petfood Manufacturers Association (BPMA), petfood companies have “limited influence” over the conditions animals are kept in. Whether it be beef, lamb, poultry, pork, fish or game, the chances of the ingredients coming from animals that had a good life are often low.
I asked the BPMA what proportion of meat in pet food comes from animals reared to higher welfare standards; they couldn’t put a figure on it. The answer, BPMA suggested, lies in the proportion of animals reared to higher welfare standards in the human food chain, which for animals like chicken and pigs in particular is a small percentage.
When I asked the BPMA which of its members use only higher-welfare meat, they didn’t say, instead citing a “number” of unnamed members, saying that it was a matter for “individual company policies”.
I know from my own experience that there are some petfood companies who really do pride themselves on their animal welfare credentials: one such company – Honey’s – only uses meat from animals kept free-range, certified organic or wild.
As well as animal welfare issues related to pet food, another area of growing concern is for the environment.
Pet food has been calculated to be responsible for a quarter of the environmental impact of animal production in terms of land, water, fossil fuel use and pollution.
After one study, researchers were quick to point out that this doesn’t mean we should curtail pet ownership. After all, our pets provide huge benefits to society, including companionship and benefits for our mental well-being.
They also provide us with direct connections with animals that I strongly believe helps foster a more caring society. They do much, in my opinion, to foster a kinder, more considerate community towards other species and the planet.
However, it does underscore the need to reduce environmental and animal welfare impacts in all we do, including food for our beloved pets.
Self-recognition in ants
One recent idea has been to feed pets on insects. Insect-based pet foods are now widely available and cite lower environmental impact and avoiding meat from intensively farmed animals amongst its benefits. But what about the insects themselves?
Although scientific understanding of the inner workings of insects is limited, there is evidence that they have the capacity to suffer. They have receptors that sense heat or injury, while honeybees have been shown to have the capacity for optimism and pessimism.
Ants teach each other where to go for food, with teachers having less patience with slow learners. But the most intriguing behaviour by ants is their response to the ‘mirror test’.
If a blue dot is painted on their head and they see it in a mirror, they will try to clean it off. This kind of response is regarded by scientists as proof of self-recognition; that the ants can see themselves. It is further evidence that insects should be treated with respect.
The concern is that, as the insect-farming industry scales up, so too does the prospect that it will industrialise, bringing serious welfare concerns.
A further alternative to traditional meat-based pet foods are diets with no animal products at all.
Plant-based pet food may not only be nutritionally equivalent to animal-based pet food, but pets fed a vegan diet exhibit the same levels of enjoyment, according to a recent study by the University of Winchester.
Professor Andrew Knight, who led the research, believes nutritionally sound vegan diets can provide the healthiest and least hazardous diets for both cats and dogs.
“Dogs and cats are just as happy to eat these diets as much as meat-based diets. And there are really substantial environmental benefits of switching our pets to plant-based diets,” he told me.
So our choices for what we feed our four-legged family members are growing.
Whatever we put in their bowls, our pets are important to us, and in my view play a key role in fostering a caring world.
Giving back to those who give us so much in terms of love and companionship is vital, and a big part of that is to make sure we feed our pets in ways which keep them healthy and happy.
Considerations about what goes into their food, including the animal welfare and planetary factors, will I’m sure become ever more prominent with every precious feeding time.
Philip Lymbery is CEO of Compassion in Farming International, a United Nations Food Systems Champion, and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat and Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf