In the UK, we had one unwelcome sideshow with an ex-Royal Marine, Paul Farthing, escaping Kabul in a privately chartered plane with about 200 rescued animals. He had founded a charity to rescue dogs and cats 15 years ago and mounted an aggressive campaign to bring them out. Despite his Afghan staff and their dependents also being eligible to travel to the UK, he left without them.  

This serves to highlight the modern significance that pets play in our lives. They have become part of our families, sometimes more important than them. In the UK alone, it is estimated that the number of pet dogs increased in 2020 by 25%, or about three million, as families and lonely individuals decided the wanted a pet. Some dogs clearly play an important role in helping disabled individuals and countering mental health issues, but this huge surge in global pet ownership creates problems that cannot be ignored.

Animal welfare

One is clearly animal welfare, as the surging demand for pets has led to illegal puppy farms with the associated maltreatment of the animals, in particular young that are less desirable for new pet owners. Unscrupulous criminals work hard to profit from demand for certain breeds and laws are being strengthened as police divert time to stopping theft of precious pets and seeking out illegal breeders and puppies living in atrocious conditions.

Concerns are increased with the post-pandemic return to work as people discard pets that prove incompatible with their new “normal” life. UK dog homes are already geared up to receive large numbers of unwanted pets and expect even more to be abandoned in the same way as horses after the financial crisis.

We should also note that keeping a medium-sized dog is said to be roughly equivalent to running two large SUVs in terms of CO2 emissions. In a 2017 article in Forbes, based largely on peer reviewed journals, Senior Contributor on Sustainability Jeff McMahon noted that, in the U.S., “dogs and cats are responsible for a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by animal agriculture”, according to one study. He does make it quite clear that this is not perfect science and actual calculations vary widely, plus the fact that pet dogs lead many owners to engage in more healthy lifestyles such as walking, which can reduce their overall carbon footprint.

They fail to recognise the hypocrisy involved

However, looking at those I know with dogs, and those who have purchased them in this last 18 months, I have no doubt that pets make a measurable addition to the household carbon footprint.

You have to ask why owners fail to recognise the hypocrisy involved in all this.

As we increasingly moved animals such as dogs and horses into the category of “pets”, society has become reluctant to understand the reality of how we manage animals which provide us with our food. An urbanised world increasingly divorced from the sources of food has made this worse.

Yet complaining about livestock farming over climate change or animal welfare grounds requires some re-evaluation if you are keeping pets and involved in a process which encourages their frequent abuse in so many ways. Emotion soon obliterates logical thinking these days. As our coffee shop and dinner party activities restart, we need to remind our friends and colleagues of these points, as well as speak out on social media.

And that is before you even think of the immense numbers of cats. According to National Geographic, a 2013 study estimated that free-ranging domestic cats kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds – on top of between 6.2 and 22.3 billion mammals – every year in the United States alone, the majority by feral or unowned cats. Who can complain with integrity about wind farms now, unless they are carelessly sited on migratory routes?

As a Scotsman, this is even more poignant as I remember seeing my first Scottish wildcat while away camping with my school. These wonderful “Scottish tigers” have struggled from habitat loss and persecution but today their biggest danger is interbreeding with domestic cats. The wildcat is the UK’s most threatened mammal and is close to being non-viable as a species, dependent on breeding programmes for survival. It is hard to imagine that my grandchildren might never see one, yet that they have been lost because of a misguided love of pets.

Mike Redwood

September 6, 2021

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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