As so many Westerners do, I feel distinctly icky about eating dog meat. *
I have long attributed this to my Western ideals, my long-standing personal fondness for dogs, and a keen appreciation for how useful the critters can be as helpmates and companions — but I didn’t have much logical underpinning to that whole “eating dogs is gross” thing.
Just a feeling.
However, living in Asia as I do, I continue to come across the argument — often promulgated by distinctly self-satisfied looking vegans — that eating dogs is just the same as eating chickens, cows or pigs, and that us Westerners are being awfully delicate by getting all bent out of shape over it. Cultural relativism, meet culinary relativism.
This got me thinking: why do most cultures avoid eating dogs? Is there any good reason for this, beyond namby-pamby sentiment and repeated early overexposure to “Benji” movies?
Turns out there’s quite a few reasons.
PROTEIN IS YOUR FRIEND – AND DOGS AREN’T A GOOD SOURCE
Dogs are not a very efficient source of protein.
Can you think of any other terrestrial predator that’s regularly consumed by humans as a staple food? Hard, isn’t it?
There’s a really simple reason for this beyond Yonder Gauzy Western sensibilities, and it’s found in your average middle school science class lecture on trophic levels.
Energy that originates from the sun is first photosynthesized by plant life, which is then consumed by herbivores and omnivores: when your average carnivore sprints onto the scene to devour that wildebeest or bunny rabbit, he or she is only receiving a fraction of the energy from the sun that the herbivore managed to extract from leafy greens.
The bigger the predator, the worse the energy equation gets — which is why nightmare grizzly bears and sexy surfer devouring Great White sharks have always been, mercifully, relatively rare. *
This simple ecological arithmetic means rearing a facultative carnivore like a dog to primo eating-weight is a less efficient use of energy then, say, turning a cow or a goat out to good pasture for a bit.
All meat is relatively “expensive” to produce as compared to plant food due to this loss of energy, but the meat of carnivores like dogs is even more so. Dogs aren’t obligate carnivores and can survive on plant-based diets (yes, I saw that new study on dogs and carbohydrates, too) but it’s by no means optimal for their health.
There’s also the issue of growth.
Pigs, which are rather flexible omnivores, grow faster then dogs, and on average, get a lot bigger. According to the USDA, pigs are slaughtered at around 240 to 270 pounds, and at about 24 to 26 weeks of age, or about half a year old.
I’m guessing this varies quite a bit, as I’m no pig farmer, but I estimate that the pigs I’ve seen reared for eating here in Asia are around this weight as well (though I’ve been unable to ask them their ages, being pigs).
Let’s compare this with the English Mastiff, one of the weightiest breeds of dog, with a suggested adult weight of 160 pounds in the breed standard for males — although many individuals are larger, some hitting over 200 pounds.
Most mastiff breeders agree that their charges will likely continue growing and adding weight and muscle until around age 3 or 4 (156 to 208 weeks) and that number usually goes up the bigger the adult dog is.
If we decided to start eating English Mastiffs instead of pigs, we’d therefore have to wait much, much longer before we could send the animals to slaughter — and likely be forced to spend considerably more money on feeding them to an optimal size. When you compare your average robust and swiftly growing Asian pig with your average small and skinny Asian dog, the equation makes even less sense.
You probably could selectively breed a dog for eating, but it’s a lot easier (and a lot more popular) to just eat the pigs we already have.
Ancient cultures that did have a dog-eating tradition, such as those that existed among the Aztecs in modern-day Mexico, or in pre-colonial Polynesia, tended to reserve dog meat for royalty and for special occasions, as it was simply more expensive to produce than other common protein sources.
All this means that raising dogs and cats as primary protein sources just doesn’t work that well, which probably explains why essentially no cultures with other options have relied primarily on the flesh of carnivores for survival.
This may explain some of the cultural revulsion towards dog meat consumption that we experience in the West: it’s impractical and unsustainable.
BUT ISN’T DOG MEAT FOOD FOR THE POOR?
As I explained above, in non-survival situations, dog meat has actually always been something of a gourmet specialty, not what one might rustle up for an average Tuesday night supper. That holds true in the 21st century.
When you think about the resources that must be invested to get that delicious, fat dog from a Bangkok street or a South Korean “dog farm” to your plate, it’s a relatively expensive endeavor.
In China, South Korea, and Vietnam (and even in some bits of Switzerland), dog meat remains a special occasion food for most, and is especially popular in the cold months due to its alleged “warming” properties.This definitely doesn’t mean that harried Chinese parents are zapping microwaveable portions of dog meat for dinner: it would just cost too much.
This means that those who are against the eating of dog meat aren’t attempting to deprive China’s poor of their daily supper: they’re actually railing against a practice that largely benefits those who can afford to splurge on a luxury meal.
STARVATION, AND CHOWING ON HOUNDS
It is indisputably true that starving people around the world have eaten dog. But that’s the point: they were starving — which means that essentially everything is potentially on the menu, including one’s own smaller and slower family members. In most cultures, you know things are getting ugly when one must resort to sauteing the family dog.
Starvation might be one reason why South Korea, Vietnam, and China have persisted in their dog-eating habit into the modern era.
These nations experienced numerous heinous starvation events in their history, including in the relatively recent past, perhaps making dog-eating a much more attractive regular proposition. And of course, many people do find it tasty.
How many people actually eat dog in Asia? Numbers are hard to nail down, largely because the dog meat trade is a shady and poorly regulated business.
When it comes to South Korea, I’ve read figures indicating that between 5 to 30 percent of the population have eaten it at least once, while far fewer eat dog on a regular basis. In China, a traditional dog-meat eating festival was banned in Qianxi, after extremely vocal opposition from China itself by animal lovers. As for Vietnam, the illegal trade in dogs from Thailand seems to be expanding, although more and more young Vietnamese, many the owners of pet dogs, are objecting to the practice.
THAT DOG DOES HUNT: THE UTILITY OF CANIS LUPUS FAMILIARIS
Dogs have lived in close concert with humans for a remarkably long time, and although no one is entirely clear on the deepest-depths-of-history timeline, it’s likely that Homo Sapiens and Canis Familaris have had a lot of pernicious two-way influence on one another.
All this Kumbuya and togetherness means that dogs are damned good at reading people and figuring out what we want, to an extent you just don’t see in wolves that otherwise possess reasoning skills far superior to those claimed by your average Labrador. Indeed, a lot of new research indicates that when it comes to the tricky art of human interpretation, dogs can even beat out chimpanzees.
Thanks to our mutual ability to understand one another, the domestic dog has served as a life partner and coworker for generations, contributing to the common revulsion reaction when it comes to the notion of eating them.
These dogs are better at using the Moscow subway than I doubt I’d ever be.
Dogs don’t just keep us company, they actively help us hunt, consume, and manage other animals, a unique capability that ancient humans most assuredly had figured out at a rather early date. Aside from their ability to score us some calories, dog have a certain penchant for protecting human households from the depredations of other humans (assuredly among the nastier of mammals), and regularly save and enhance human lives in a downright dizzying number of ways.
All this most assuredly cannot be said of the chicken or the pig, both species that harbor few illusions about doing humanity a good turn every once in the while, perhaps because they are acutely aware that they are delicious. Cattle occupy a somewhat different status due to their use as draft animals in many cultures, which could help to explain the sacred cow of the Hindus.
Eating a dog,on the other hand, was for much of human history and in most cultures rather more akin to eating your business partner or your colleague: it just felt wrong, somehow. It felt a lot like a betrayal. And perhaps a waste of a good helpmate, as well. Here’s a link to an excellent look at the relationship from a trainer of working Search and Rescue dogs — incidentally, another life-saving task that you rarely see ol’ Spotty the Pig entrusted with.
When running a simple cost-benefit analysis, I then suspect that most cultures in non-starvation situations concluded that a live dog was, on the whole, better then one barbecued and served on a spit with a nice citrus marinade. And thus a taboo was born.
EATING DOGS IS A GOOD WAY TO GET RABIES (AND OTHER FUN THINGS)
Considering that the average third-world dog snatched off the street and into the kitchen subsisted largely on trash, meat, and human effluence, you can safely assume that that’s a lot of mystery pathogens that could find their way into a gut very near you if you then turn around and eat him.
Some distinctly unpleasant stuff accumulates in the meat of dogs, such as Trichinella infection, an unpleasant parasitic condition which has been directly linked in China to dog meat consumption.
Perhaps the biggest worry is rabies, which can spread to humans if they handle the meat of an infected dog. (I’m having trouble finding information on whether it’s possible to get rabies from eating the flesh of an infected animal, though I’d suspect that cooking probably kills the rabies virus).
A rabies infection remains tantamount to a death sentence, especially in third world countries, and raising carnivorous animals in close quarters — thereby inducing them to fight and spread the disease to one another – and then eating them is an awfully convenient way to get yourself all frothed up and doomed.
Dog meat loving China has the second highest rate of rabies in the world after India, Land of the Feral and Bitey Feral Canine, while Vietnam also suffers from numerous rabies cases. The Philippines, where dog meat eating is illegal but is still widely practiced, saw 208 rabies deaths in 2011 alone, less than the 257 fatalities in 2010.
Rabies presents another strong argument against cultivating scavenger dogs as a cheap source of meat for the poor.
Sure, those semi-feral dogs might provide you with both free trash pickup and a bag lunch, but there’s a pretty good chance they’ll give you and your children a roaring case of rabies as well: infected dogs are the world’s top source of human rabies cases.
If the dogs don’t give you rabies, there’s a good chance these semi-wild and not exactly cherished ferals might decide to take a more direct approach and devour or maul your firstborn — just look at India, where dog attacks from strays are a serious public health problem, especially when it comes to children.
Sure, all mammals can get rabies, including cows, pigs, and goats, but they are considerably less likely to transmit it to humans through their meat or by means of a bite than free-ranging and sharp-toothed dogs are.
NOT EATING DOG
All my research indicates that avoiding eating dogs isn’t just some sort of whinging Western emotional judgement: there’s many good economic and public health reasons to shun the practice, as well.
That’s not even getting into the undeniable cruelty of the under-regulated Asian dog meat trade, where animals are kept in poor condition in close quarters during their short lives or stolen from their owners, transported to a slaughterhouse in stinking and crowded trucks, and then beaten to death or even skinned alive upon reaching their point of destination.
Would regulation help solve some of these problems of animal welfare and food safety?
Absolutely, but changing cultural attitudes towards dog meat in most Asian nations indicates that animal lovers probably won’t look too kindly upon any government attempt to legitimize the practice.
This leaves governments in a bit of an ideological pickle, but my gut feeling is that the illegalization of dog meat entirely is a lot more likely than the creation of sanitary and legitimate dog farms.
Call it cultural relativism, but East Asia is well aware that most Westerners are deeply grossed out by the consumption of dog meat — and I suspect that on the whole, East Asia is likely more interested in attracting more foreign investment than it is in legitimatizing and regulating the dog meat trade. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in this arena in the next few years.
As it stands, Western tourists in Asia eager to prove how “authentic” they are by chowing down on some dog may want to think again. Dog meat isn’t just cruel, expensive, and not-even-that-tasty: it might get you very, very sick.
* I’ve eaten dog meat before, and ironically enough, at a North Korean restaurant. Someone else ordered it and I didn’t want it to go to waste. It tasted like somewhat elderly mutton to me. Not something I’d seek out for culinary fireworks.
* This doesn’t quite hold true in the sea, although the population collapse of tuna, a predatory species, indicates that eating them at the rate we do is a less-than-great idea, as well.