How Big is a Dog's Eco-Pawprint?

[Photo: RachaelKathrynGiles via iStockPhoto]

There's been a lot of barking and hissing this week over reports that the ecological pawprint of a beloved pet may be higher than even the most notorious SUVs. The calculations were presented in a new book, Time to Eat the Dog: The real guide to sustainable living. Given the combination of cuteness and counterintuition, it's no surprise that it got a fair amount of press.

"Man's best friend," reports New Scientist, "is the planet's enemy."

The claim especially hit a nerve in Seattle, which is "known not only as a green city but one of the nation's top dog-loving cities," according to the Seattle Times.

Among the many articles and blogs from Seattleites is one debunking, well-researched post from the city's Sightline Institute. "Once you sniff around the numbers," Sightline reports, "it quickly becomes apparent that those researchers are barking up the wrong tree."

The book's authors estimate that about 150 million acres of farmland are needed to feed all the dogs in this country, or approximately a third of all U.S. cropland. But Sightline points out that pet food is generally composed of 'leftover' meats and cereals people won't eat—not even in hotdogs. In other words, little additional farmland is needed. Sightline also dissects the car's numbers, concluding that the yearly miles attributed to the SUV in Time to Eat the Dog, as well as the energy consumed in gas and manufacturing, were gross underestimates.

The popularity of this misleading news, the Sightline author fears, could lead some to "catch scent of this meme and conclude that buying an SUV is no big deal—'It's not like I'm buying a dog or anything.'"

While the calculations may have been exaggerated, there's no denying that our pets are consumers too.

So, what should an owner do to minimize their pet's planetary impact? First, you can think about the choice of your next pet. While the authors found medium-sized dogs had a footprint greater than that of a Toyota Land Cruiser (which we've already established is questionable), a cat was compared to the more benign Volkswagen Golf. For an even more eco-friendly pet, you could try a goldfish; it's finprint is supposedly equivalent to a couple cell phones.

But if you're not quite ready to sacrifice furry companionship—which may be increasingly valuable the further we fall into our ecological crisis—there are other things you can do. For example, you could reconsider the diet you feed Garfield or Odie: Go ahead, pass on the Purina and give him your table scraps.

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