Dog Is My SUV?

Book on sustainability takes aim at pet ownership.
By Lisa Wogan, October 2009

In Time to Eat the Dog: The real guide to sustainable living, Robert and Brenda Vale of Wellington, New Zealand, condemn pet-ownership claiming companion animals guzzle resources, devastate wildlife populations, spread disease and add to pollution, according to reviews in New Scientist, Salon and The Telegraph. Many of these complaints aren’t new (since I haven't read the Vale's book yet, I can't testify to the soundness of their science), although I was startled by one their oft-quoted conclusions: The production of a protein-rich diet of a mid-size dog has the equivalent environmental impact as a Toyota Land Cruiser driven 6,000 miles per year. Time to turn the Land Cruiser in for a Husky?

My gut reaction: Get out. And the sensational title will probably drive more than a few dog lovers away. From what I’ve read about the book so far, the authors aren’t putting dogs in a larger context that is essential for a serious consideration of the topic. Choices about sustainability don’t take place in a vacuum. Nearly everything we do has a cost, and we make our choices on a cost/benefit basis. Are all the good things that dogs bring to our lives worth an impact? Not only do dogs provide enormous benefits (companionship, assistance, protection, engagement, access) that can’t be waived away, they may even offer some positives for the planet. Blogger Jim Gunshinan attempted to quantify these eco-advantages, such as providing love and comfort, necessitating less travel to see friends and family, and additional exercise, which should cut down on our food intake.

Still, I think there is probably food for thought in here. As in our choice to buy a car, light bulbs, food, to have children, to build a house, and on and on, we shouldn’t ignore the environmental costs of our choices have—including living with dogs. Of course, I’m not suggesting we eat our dogs (horrors), but we need to be responsible and accountable. An editorial in New Scientist recommends simple modifications such as feeding dogs more table scraps to offset some of the industrial pet food production. That sounds like a pragmatic start.