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Why do we eat cows but not dogs?

The myth of dog-eating in China

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July 30, 2014 May 28, 2021

There is a misconception among some that China has always been a dog-eating nation. The growing popularity of eating dog in China is due mainly to prominent depictions of the practice in the film Shaolin Temple and a popular historical TV show about a monk, helped by over-promotion by some restaurant-owners and local governments.

The recent controversy over the “dog-meat” festival in Yulin, a city in south-west China’s Guangxi province, is awkward for the local government. Officials first stirred up the debate to promote the importance of the festival, claiming it supported local culture while boosting the local economy. But the local government never expected that its commercial activities would come under pressure from dog lovers around the country. It was forced to quietly claim that the whole affair was run by local businesspeople in an attempt to avoid responsibility.

China’s history of dog-eating

Dogs have been a part of Chinese households for at least 7,000 years, archaeologists say. The mythological ruler Fu Xi was said to have domesticated six wild animals: the pig, ox, goat, horse, fowl and dog, indicating that dogs were often kept even in ancient times.

Records show that back then dogs were kept mainly to assist with hunting. As the Chinese people became more engaged with agriculture, the dog’s role as hunter became less important – but it was not cast aside. Its loyalty to its owner made it valued for its role as a guard.

Those who advocate the eating of dog maintain it is a Chinese tradition, claiming that historical documents tell of “dog butchers” who specialised in preparing the meat. Others quote from works by founder of the Han dynasty Liu Bang and Qing dynasty painter Zheng Banqiao as proof that the Chinese have always enjoyed dog meat – but this is not enough to prove it is a tradition or custom.

The San Zi Jing, a text used to teach children since the 13 th century, describes dog as one of the six animals raised by people. This is generally taken to mean that these animals were a source of meat. But as agriculture developed and eating habits changed cows, sheep, chickens and pigs became the main sources of meat for Chinese people. Dogs gradually stopped being used as food – and the reasons behind this are complex.

People came up with a ”dog-meat and lychees” tradition to attract tourists and investment

Prior to the Qin and Han dynasties the combination of primitive agricultural techniques and the chaos of constant war meant that living standards were low and meat a rare luxury, offered primarily to the elderly as a sign of respect. Beasts of burden and guard dogs which died of illness or old age could not be wasted, so our thrifty ancestors would cook the meat and eat their fill.

Dog meat was not an essential food for people, as can be seen from a study of sacrificial offerings. These offerings to the gods and their ancestors were important and great attention was paid to the goods to be offered. For the grandest of imperial ceremonies a cow or horse would be sacrificed, for less important occasions a pig or sheep, and the ordinary people would offer pork, chicken or fish. But dog was almost never used, and it was regarded as disrespectful to the spirits to do so. That taboo is still common today, showing that dog meat is not suitable for refined tastes, and certainly not for serving to guests.

Dog fell increasingly out of favour after the Han dynasty. Philosophical Taoism, which rose in the late Han, saw dogs as unclean and consumption of dog was believed to harm efforts to live a simple life. During the Tang and Song dynasties dog consumption decreased further as the range of available meats increased and stories of faithful dogs and Buddhist ideas of reincarnation spread.

China has many ethnic minorities, each with its own traditions and culinary customs. But none of them can be described as dog-eating. In Islam dogs are regarded as unclean and so there is a religious prohibition on eating dog meat. Mongols are traditionally nomads and see dogs as guards and staunch companions. For Manchus eating dog is taboo, due to a legend that a dog saved the life of their forefather Nurhaci. The Tibetans are Buddhist and will not kill animals unnecessarily, and see dogs as loyal companions, so rarely eat them. And even the Zhuang people of Guangxi – where the Yulin “dog-meat festival” takes place – are not recorded in historical documents as being keen dog eaters.

All about the money

Local government officials are evaluated by their superiors on GDP growth. But remote and poor regions struggle to meet these growth targets, and the officials responsible are under considerable pressure. This gives rise to various odd money-making schemes, with cultural events designed to boost the local economy a popular choice.

Yulin, situated in China’s south-west border province of Guangxi, has never been a part of mainstream Chinese culture and has no famous historical figures or events to make use of. So people scratched their heads and came up with a ”dog-meat and lychees” tradition to attract tourists and investment.

Dog-eaters have, naturally enough, any number of reasons to explain the legitimacy of the practice, going as far to defend its legality by pointing out that anything not banned by law, is permitted. But have they thought that there are moral standards as well, higher than legal ones? Or our own standards as human beings, higher again?

Legal standards are designed to protect our basic security. Moral standards maintain our civilisation and ensure we do not tend towards the degenerate. And our own standards push us forward to achieve more.

While the dog-eating advocates argue the reasons for their case, have they considered the shock and horror of the ordinary people seeing dogs slaughtered in the streets of Yulin?

Dogs Aren’t Dinner: The Flaws in an Argument for Veganism


With the shorter days of fall, I do some of my regular ranch chores in the dark. I stride calmly through inky blackness over ground where we’ve recently spotted packs of coyotes and a stealthy mountain lion. Claire de Lune, our silver and black mottled Great Dane, always accompanies me, a few paces ahead and slightly off to one side. This is my nightly reminder of how dogs earned the moniker Man’s Best Friend.

The thought of eating Claire is more than foreign to me. It’s mortifying. But lately, it seems as if every time I turn around, a vegan is insisting that feasting on a pork chop is morally equivalent to eating a hunk of dog meat. It’s irrational, illogical, and hypocritical, they say, to treat pigs as meals but dogs as friends.

Individuals and cultures have always made countless decisions about what things are food and what are not. The basis for these decisions is about much more than whether something is edible or palatable.

In a live debate I did with vegan activist Howard Lyman (about which I blogged here), he made this argument to much applause from the vegan-dense audience. In another similar debate a few weeks ago, my opponent, artist and animal rights activist Sunny Taylor, made the same point. And in Eating Animals, (a book that includes sections about Bill and me), Jonathan Safran Foer dedicates several pages to a conceit evidently designed to bring the reader to an «aha!» moment wherein the folly of treating pigs and dogs so differently suddenly becomes clear.

Despite being pummeled with this argument at every turn, I have not yet heard a compelling case. The dog-equals-pig argument has some serious flaws. First, individuals and cultures have always made countless decisions about what things are food and what are not. The basis for these decisions is about much more than whether something is edible or palatable. Until recent years, for instance, few modern Americans had eaten dandelions, nettles, or purslane, even though each of these plants (generally considered «weeds») are not only highly nutritious, they’re quite tasty.

What each of us eats is the result of multiple factors, including income, geography, climate, culture, heritage, habit, and even, to a certain extent evolution (more on that in a moment), and there’s simply nothing wrong with that. Evidently, these norms are the basis for the modern Western view that eating dogs is wrong. It’s no more contradictory to eat a pig but not a dog than it is to eat arugula but not purslane. When it comes to eating, we all rule some things in and other things out.

Danish chef Rene Redzepi has made something of an art of bucking this universal system. Interviewed recently by NPR, he discussed why his restaurant and cookbook explore ingredients most of us wouldn’t even consider food, such as burnt hay, wood chips, and bulrushes. «We have narrowed ourselves in always using the same [few] ingredients,» he explained, adding, «We have a nature and product diversity that needs to be used.»

More importantly, the pig-equals-dog claim ignores the glaringly obvious issue of relationships. The human relationship with dogs is unique. For as many as 30,000 years, dogs have literally been indispensible members of the human family. Quite naturally, many humans have qualms about eating a family member.

Most of us have traveled to countries where animals that are not generally eaten in the United States were found on local menus. In France, where I lived for a year, I saw people eating frogs, pigeons, snails, and horses. Some Italians eat donkeys; South Africans eat ostrich. In West Africa, another part of the world where I spent a year, I heard of people eating primates. And in some parts of the world, most notably China, many regard dog meat as not only palatable but delicious.

In Unmentionable Cuisine, Calwin Schwabe reported that dog meat was once also widely eaten and valued in Hawaii. He notes that as recently as a few decades ago, many Hawaiians raised both dogs and pigs as pets and for food and were baffled by why Western visitors found only the pig suitable for consumption.

But the Hawaiian perspective seems to be unique. More commonly, dogs are part of the household while pigs are designated to the fields. Pigs have benefitted humans while dogs were fundamental to their existence. That is to say, people could get by without pigs (by eating other meat, for example), but their success—and, in many cases, their very survival—depended on dogs.

The Inuit people are a striking example. Archaeologists have determined that the relationship between humans and dogs in the Arctic has existed for at least 1,000 years, notes a United Nations report. The Inuit dogs have aided in hunting, carrying, transportation, protection, navigation, and companionship. In a recent PBS documentary on dogs, an Inuit man says simply, «Without them we would never have survived; without them we wouldn’t even be here.»

This intensely close relationship between human and dog understandably creates a taboo on eating dogs, much as there is a taboo on eating fellow humans.

Dr. James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at University of Pennsylvania, extends this mutual dependence across the globe. «The dog became a symbiotic partner with us,» he says. «It has become like another limb, an extension of ourselves.» Another expert interviewed in the PBS program says, «I don’t think people realize how much having dogs around has affected the evolution of human culture and civilization.»

In her book Animals in Translation, animal behavior expert Temple Grandin goes a step further, arguing that dogs shaped not just our culture and history but our very physical evolution. «The Aborigines have a saying: ‘Dogs make us human.’ Now we know that’s probably literally true,» she writes. «People wouldn’t have become who we are today if we hadn’t co-evolved with dogs.» Grandin argues that, over tens of thousands of years, humans and dogs actually evolved in particular ways because of their close relationship. The human lost much of its olfactory and aural capabilities, according to Grandin, because these were dogs’ greatest strengths. Humans came to rely on the canine nose and ears.

This intensely close relationship between human and dog understandably creates a taboo on eating dogs, much as there is a taboo on eating fellow humans. Animals that Changed the World, a book about animal domestication, stresses that dogs have held a privileged status within human culture for thousands of years. «Within the ranks of domesticated animals there is a small group that stands in a different and closer relationship to humanity than, say, the cow or the sheep,» or, one could add, the pig. From very early on, the authors note, «the familiar animals are part of the household.»

So the next time someone tells you it’s no more defensible to eat a pig than to eat a dog, just say, «That’s nonsense,» and refer them to this blog.

Update, November 5:

Several comments criticize this piece for failing to explicitly address sentience (capacity for suffering). Apparently these readers missed that the irrelevance of pigs’ sentience is the whole point. I would be the last person to deny a pig’s many admirable qualities. My book, Righteous Porkchop, extensively describes pigs’ natural behaviors and expressly compares their intelligence and capacity to suffer with that of dogs. Yet none of these traits are connected to why Americans refrain from eating dogs. The real reasons are explored in this piece. Consequently, arguing that if you won’t eat a dog you shouldn’t eat a pig because they are equally intelligent and sentient doesn’t hold water. That is the material point.

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