Beyond fulfilling basic needs, we consume for pleasure, to establish our identity, to fit in, and because many consumption habits—as shaped by cultural norms—become expected or even “natural” over time. But today, more and more, even the things we own are becoming consumers. Pets fulfill many different roles—from friend or surrogate child to extension of one’s personality or fashion accessory. But increasingly they are becoming serious consumers themselves. There are the obvious examples of course: doggy clothes and shoes, fancy pet foods, treats and toys, doggy spas and day care, and now there is even a dedicated “Pet Airways.”
Worse is that this obsession with pets is spreading around the world. A New York Times article from August, “Matchmaking in India: Canine Division,” describes the spread of dog-owning to India. “As more Indians enter the middle class,” the author Lydia Polgreen writes, “having a Pomeranian, Shih Tzu or Neapolitan mastiff at the end of the leash has become a symbol of new wealth and status.” And with the shifting family patterns, increasing work hours, exposure to consumer culture media, and other side effects of consumerization of India, people want dogs. As dog show judge Partha Chatterjee notes in the article: “Families are smaller now, just a husband and wife, and they have nobody to talk to. And then they have access to all these television programs where they see how dogs are being treated abroad. They want that kind of affluence.” And dog-owning is even adapting to the Indian culture. Marriage plays an important role in happiness in India, so dog owners there are even trying to find their dogs mates—to the point where, according to the article, they’re using matchmaking services to find partners for their dogs.
Pets are beloved in the U.S. culture and even questioning their role is a cultural taboo (and as the comments section will surely demonstrate). Yes, they can often serve as important companions, especially as levels of social isolation in America continue to grow. But let’s try to get some perspective: owning pets is not a values-neutral issue. Pets consume significant resources, especially when pampered like people, which makes this both an ethical and ecological issue.
According to a recent book Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living a large dog like a German shepherd consumes up to 0.36 global hectares of resources annually (using the global ecological footprint methodology). A medium dog, like a border collie, consumes 0.28 hectares. So a family with two border collies would need more additional resources than the average resident of Haiti or Malawi consumes in a year. Two German Shepherds would require more resources than the average Bangladeshi or Tajik uses.
As planetary resources are finite, the resources used by the family dog means fewer available for the poorest people. And considering there are 1.02 billion people underfed, that’s a questionable appropriation of resources from a simple global justice standpoint. Pet food alone is a $42 billion industry worldwide—on par with the $54 billion needed to halve the proportion of people living in extreme poverty, number one on the list of Millennium Development Goals.
But this poor allocation of resources is made worse when we recognize that the Earth’s ecological systems are seriously overtaxed. We currently use the equivalent of 1.31 planets each year. Of course, we only have one planet, so that means we’re undermining the ecological systems we depend on. We’re going to have to consume less overall if we want to prevent significant ecological and social disruptions in the future (climate change is just one of the looming ecological threats). And yet even as we’re consuming beyond the limits of the planet’s ability to sustain us, there are many who will need to consume more—like those 1.02 billion hungry people. So something has to give to make this equation balance out. Considering the population is growing and projected to hit 9.1 billion by 2050, the variable that’ll need to give is the consumer lifestyle, and pets can be a part of that.
Preventing the spread of pet ownership where it has yet to root itself into the culture will be one important strategy (it’s hard to prevent people from wanting pets once it’s seen as a “natural” part of life). And for those already in a pet owning culture, actively choosing not to own one and encouraging others to choose this as well will also help.
But of course, for those who already have a family pet and have bonded with it, most will say they can no more easily get rid of it than they could get rid of the family child. The pet industry calls this phenomenon “humanization” of pets—a trend that they spend hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising every year to promote. As David Lummis, pet market analyst, explains: “Pet industry players fully understand just how potent tapping into the human/animal bond can be in driving animal lovers to spend at levels previously unheard of.” So for pet owners, these are my suggestions in order to keep impacts of their pets as low as possible:
1) Listen to Bob Barker and spay or neuter your pets. That’s a no-brainer. Don’t accidentally multiply the problem by generating unwanted pets.
2) Be mindful of marketing and cultural pressures that push you to turn your pets into consumers. When next tempted to buy overalls or fancy meals for your dog, remember that many children in the world can’t afford enough food or clothing for a minimally decent life. Consider instead donating that money to a relief or sustainable development organization.
3) Feed them diets that minimize their impact. Time to Eat the Dog notes that to feed the dogs of the 10 largest dog-owning nations requires a land mass the size of New Zealand. Yes, New Zealand! But feeding your dog food scraps and dry food rather than canned meats can lower total impact to an extent.
4) Keep your pets lean. Fat pets, like fat humans, are less healthy, and will most likely require more medical care, so feed them less. In 2009, Americans spent $19 billion on veterinarian care. Compare that to the $5 billion needed to reduce under 5 mortality by two-thirds by 2015.
5) Choose “productive” pets. A rabbit raised for meat and companionship–if you feed it greens from the garden–can actually produce more biocapacity than it costs (this assumes it displaces other meat in the diet, its waste is composted, and the feed crops are replacing grass not vegetables that you’d otherwise eat). But of course few have the stomach to eat their pets today. So try a free-range egg-laying chicken. Even if you don’t eat it, it only takes the ecological capacity of 0.003 hectares, less actually than a canary. Eating the chicken at the end of its productive lifecycle brings its impact down to just a sixth of a hamster.
Yes, yes, how can I suggest eating your pet? But then again, most of us eat animals that are locked away in awful factory farm conditions. These animals have the same capacity to feel as a family pet, yet we cut off their beaks, inhibit their movement, give them food that makes them ill, then give them antibiotics to combat those effects. (And by we I mean any of us who have eaten a factory farmed animal, so I include myself in that list.) Is eating your pet really worse? Or is it just that the farm industry spends millions to dehumanize certain animals, as opposed to the pet industry working to humanize other animals? Unlike the nameless, countless broiler chickens in the world’s factory farms, at least your chicken, Clucky, could have a nice life before giving up her last cluck for your Christmas dinner.