Why can't we eat our house pets?
December 5, 2007 4:19 PM   Subscribe

How is eating a dog or cat more morally objectionable than eating cow, pig, chicken, etc? It's a crime to eat them in the U.S.A., but why?

As city dwellers, we are very disconnected from our food sources, but people on farms love and care for cute animals that they ultimately eat, such as cows, pigs, and lambs. In many countries, dogs and cats are treated in the same way as any other protein source. Why are cats, dogs, and horses granted Do-Not-Eat status in the U.S. and other Western countries? It seems disingenuous.
posted by oldlies to Society & Culture (54 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Plenty of countries in Europe eat horse even today. Cat and dog, not so much.

I don't know if this answers the question, though.
posted by koeselitz at 4:22 PM on December 5, 2007

It's us trying to convince ourselves that we're more civilized than we really are.
posted by HotPatatta at 4:27 PM on December 5, 2007

You didn't happen to call into the Howard Stern show today, did you (exact same topic was discussed, see "Caller Feeds Dog And Cat To Homeless. 12/05/07. 7:10am"?
posted by The Gooch at 4:27 PM on December 5, 2007

The objection is simply social more. Dogs and cats are pets to be cherished (unless rounded up and euthanized at the humane society). Horses are utilitarian animals for transportation and labor, etc.

But I wasn't aware that it was an actual crime to consume them. Have a link to back that up? Is it an F.D.A thing, or something regulated on a state to state basis?

Anecdotally: Some friends in Italy ordered horse at a local restaurant. I initially recoiled, but soon realized my disgust was (for lack of a better term) a social fabrication; that there was no inherent distinction between horse flesh and other meats.

So I tried a bit and thought it was great - excellent on toast points. A bit like venison, as you'd expect.
posted by aladfar at 4:28 PM on December 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Cultural convention does not always follow the dictates of rationality. We have deemed cats and dogs worthy of such protection, and so they are.

Do you want a historical account for this distinction between food animals and cats and dogs? Or do you want an argument someone may give for this being a rational distinction to draw?
posted by Ms. Saint at 4:29 PM on December 5, 2007

I don't think it's illegal to eat dog meat throughout the United States. Certain states have laws against it, but others don't. Same for horses, I think: Illinois recently passed a law outlawing the production of horse meat for the purposes of consumption, but before then it was perfectly legal.
posted by goatdog at 4:29 PM on December 5, 2007

A lot of people (me included!) consider their dogs and cats their "fur children." I wouldn't eat my cats anymore than I would eat my own human children.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 4:29 PM on December 5, 2007

Eating cat or dog is not illegal in the US. I don't think you will find any reputable butchers to do the slaughter. If you think you can do the job yourself, there are many tutorials online about how to kill, skin, and gut small animals.

Horses are not off limits, there is a really delicious sausage in Italy, France, Spain and elsewhere that uses horse meat and donkey meat is often used in many dishes.

Eating of dog, in Korea for example (from what I read in Tom Parker-Bowles' new book) is something that is not done every day and is seen as a homeopathic activity.
posted by parmanparman at 4:30 PM on December 5, 2007

You can kill and eat dogs in Canada, as long as you slaughter them in front of federal inspectors.
posted by goatdog at 4:32 PM on December 5, 2007

I didn't realize that eating those animals was illegal... I just thought few people did it. Hmm.
posted by blaneyphoto at 4:33 PM on December 5, 2007

Wikipedia covers this too.

Your question is unclear: Are you looking for a moral argument or a historical argument?
posted by vacapinta at 4:34 PM on December 5, 2007

Respect for our own and others' emotional attachment and expectations. It's fine if the emotional attachment isn't transparently "rational"; what matters is that there _is_ an emotional attachment, of a particular kind (different from even very cute livestock), and that disregarding that emotional attachment is offensive and shocking.
posted by amtho at 4:35 PM on December 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

This is just speculation on my part, but I think it's just a social / ick factor thing: We think of cats and dogs as only pets, while cows and chickens are only food. (There are some that are both, though, like rabbits, which are more cuddly than a cow but less social than a cat or dog.)

There's a little bit about this in Act I of the This American Life Poultry Slam: http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1218

(Sorry for not being able to embed the link. It's a new "security" thing on this computer.
posted by Airhen at 4:41 PM on December 5, 2007

According to this news story from Hawaii--part of the U.S., obviously--eating dog meat and killing your own pets for meat is legal.
posted by HotPatatta at 4:42 PM on December 5, 2007

I have a friend whose parents raise dogs for eating (not in the states). He thinks it's weird that I let my dog sleep in my bed and treat it like a baby and all. He thinks dogs are cute the way cows and baby pigs can be cute, but he doesn't quite get the bonding thing.

For preservation of the race, it's likely a good thing that we find it generally unappetizing to eat what we bond with and vice versa. But it's American culture, I'd guess.

Illegality is likely the stigma (who's going to loudly, publicly defending eating dogs) plus the fact that they're not regulated. Not that I'd imagine a grain-fed farm of schnauzers would make anyone feel better, but it's a more logical argument to raise than, "But look, he's got such lovely eyes!"
posted by Gucky at 4:45 PM on December 5, 2007

Horses are not off limits

Yep, true. Horses bred for slaughter are almost exclusively for foreign consumption.
posted by HotPatatta at 4:47 PM on December 5, 2007

Remember that dogs and cats have been domesticated for donkey's years, specifically as companion animals. Of course, dogs have been worker animals (herders, hunters, etc) but by and large, in the modern U.S., cats and dogs are bred to be human companions. You know: friends, not food. And those that we actually keep in our homes as pets look up to us, trust us. Anthropomorphically speaking, we would be "betraying" them if we were to turn around and shoot them in the head, right after their afternoon walk. That's why it's taboo in these parts.

Rationally speaking, my brain tells me that a dog or a cat is just another animal. Especially wild/feral dogs and cats. But I can't help think, "that animal could be my pet." My dogs really are my best friends, so you can imagine how I feel about the thought of slaughtering them. (The eating part doesn't actually bother me as much; it's the killing part, the cutting-life-short part. Watching them I can see that they relish life, probably more than I do.)
posted by iguanapolitico at 4:49 PM on December 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Airhen: You can do it by hand if they're disabling the button:

<A href="[url here]'>[words that will be clicked to get to the link]</a>

posted by Lentrohamsanin at 4:51 PM on December 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

This later article says that dog and cat meat is legal in 43 states.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:54 PM on December 5, 2007

I've been told that if you order steak in Europe, you will probably get dead horse instead of dead cow. Which makes me wonder if these are all retired riding horses, or if they are bred to be butchered like cows are?

When you add in all of the advertising where anthropomorphized food encourages buyers to eat it... it's a wonder we don't all have eating disorders.

(Still committed to living omnivorously)
posted by happyturtle at 5:00 PM on December 5, 2007

Dogs and mankind go waaay back (~14,000 years). The remains of domesticated dogs have been found with the remains of hunter-gatherers. We've been socialized to think of dogs as uneatable companions, partly because humans have historically taken a utilitarian view of everything. Dogs are/were well-suited for many purposes (e.g., companionship, herding, following scents, fetching), and raising them as a protein source wouldn't be making the best use of them.
posted by HotPatatta at 5:01 PM on December 5, 2007

The concept in economics is "Repugnant Markets" - see this interesting journal article (pdf) from the summer (which discusses the California ban on horsemeat).
posted by patricio at 5:03 PM on December 5, 2007

Yes, Gooch, the caller on Howard Stern prompted me to ask the question.
posted by oldlies at 5:04 PM on December 5, 2007

You really don't want to eat a horse, dog, or cat that has been kept as a pet. Dewormers and other medications given to them for their long term well being are not necessarily nice for you to eat. Willie Nelson actually nails it in this opinion piece. There is probably nothing morally wrong from a purely objective standpoint about eating a horse, dog, or cat, but there are some commonsense reasons why it's not such a hot idea.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:08 PM on December 5, 2007

Knee jerk reaction: cultural. It is what it is.

Personal reaction: no way I could grill up fajitas from this.
posted by Ufez Jones at 5:10 PM on December 5, 2007

I think most of the practical theories offered above are "just-so" stories. Certainly the idea that utilitarian considerations forbid dog-eating can easily be countered by the observation that in some societies, notably pre-Euro-contact Polynesian ones, dogs were an important food source.

What we have here is an anthropological problem. Dogs and cats are totems, taboo animals, whatever term you like. The answer to "why" is fundamentally "because."

Having said that, I will note that the dog/cat/horse taboo is predominantly a feature of Christian societies. Horse-eating has a long association with European paganism, and the Church discouraged it for that reason. The Christian church in turn inherited the Jewish notion that some animals are unclean.

Think about how you would feel if you discovered someone had surreptitiously fed you dog meat. You might well feel "that poor doggie" but I bet your immediate reaction would be "YUK!". Dogs are "unclean" for Americans in a ritual sense, as are cats, horses, rats, mice, most invertebrates, etc etc.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:19 PM on December 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Additionally dogs, horse and yes even cats had more value as work animals (protection, transportaion, and vermin control) then they did as food. The reason why we eat pigs and cows and sheep is that outside of food they are for the most part of limited value.
posted by BobbyDigital at 5:31 PM on December 5, 2007

It's on the same spectrum of social custom that precludes cannibalism. Sure, there are good nutritional arguments against eating humans, but the reasons we don't do it are all cultural, not nutritional. In cultures where human meat is or has been eaten, the practice is constrained by ritual and circumstance: eating only enemies, eating their hearts, etc.

In dire necessity, almost all of us will eat dog, almost all of us (perhaps fewer) will eat human, and almost all of us will do it in that order - although there's an element of moral decision there too, in that some of us will eat certain humans before we eat dog; especially humans we would kill anyway.

There's a whole series of desert island jokes to that effect: "If you, a dog, and George W Bush were trapped on a desert island with water but no other source of food, weeks go by and the three of you are starving ... do you feed his brain to the dog, or do you throw it to the fish?"
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:35 PM on December 5, 2007

N-thing the social mores explanation. Right up there with leather shoe wearing vegetarians haranguing fur wearers. (I'm a leather shoe wearing vegetarian, not so much a haranguer)

Also, Happyturtle was it April 1st when someone told you the European steak thing?
posted by merocet at 5:40 PM on December 5, 2007

I think of farm animals as less interactive and less tuned into relationships with humans. Is this partly true? Reflection of my cultural bias? Both?
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 5:50 PM on December 5, 2007

I've eaten horse. Not bad, actually.

In my culture people bond with goats, chickens, cows, what have you. And it is difficult to eat animals that you've bonded with. But you need to, to survive.

In Islam there is a very strict set of rules for what's halal and haram (permissable and forbidden). It's not just pork. From what I remember:

* Dogs and pigs are automatically out - unclean
* Anything with claws
* Insects (except grasshoppers and crickets, I think)
* Anything with cloven hooves
* Amphibians
* Predators
* Any animal that keeps its waste in its body

there's a couple more but I don't recall now.
posted by divabat at 5:50 PM on December 5, 2007

Let's not forget-in Peru, guinea pigs are dinner. A half-Peruvian friend of one of my daughters went to visit The Old Country and was horrified to find that what she thought was a pet was on her plate for dinner.
posted by konolia at 5:55 PM on December 5, 2007

I think if people interacted with some of the more "social" farm animals on a day to day basis and made an effort to bond with them, like we do with pets, they'd have problems eating them too. Farms I know who raise goats for meat have to be careful not to bond with them, because they have very social dog-like personalities and it would be easy to get attached.
posted by melissam at 5:59 PM on December 5, 2007

I've read that as a rule of thumb, we eat herbivores, not carnivores. Apparently carnivores don't taste good to us, possibly because, being further up the food chain, they're actually not too good for us to eat. Cats and dogs are off the menu for that reason as well as the others enumerated above.
posted by zadcat at 6:01 PM on December 5, 2007

All of this cultural analysis is bullshit.
The simple truth is, it's not good to kill your friends.
posted by spasm at 6:45 PM on December 5, 2007

Morally objectionable? The dog meat "industry", insofar as there is one, is completely unregulated. There's no one checking how the dog was killed to provide your dinner, no one knows whether or not it was stolen from somebody's backyard... So if you're willing to buy the argument that regulation of the meat industry lessens the pain and suffering of animals, then it's morally objectionable to buy meat that came from outside those regulatory guidelines.
posted by bunglin jones at 6:52 PM on December 5, 2007

those that we actually keep in our homes as pets look up to us, trust us.

Animals don't have ethics, so they can't have trust. However, people tend to anthropomorphise animals with which they spend a great deal of time. Hence the comparisons to "cannibalism".
posted by meehawl at 7:02 PM on December 5, 2007

Animals don't have ethics, so they can't have trust

Trust isn't an ethical stance, it's more natural and instinctive. Trust is a condition of having learned that another being is not going to hurt you or neglect you. Cats and dogs are definitely capable of that: bringing a stray cat in from the cold is all about winning its trust by showing it a consistent kindness.

But this begins to wander from the topic.
posted by zadcat at 7:20 PM on December 5, 2007

Again, the best answer to "Why is dog meat illegal in the US?" is that


In most of the US as of 2005, anyway. I can't find a list of the few states where it's illegal.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:44 PM on December 5, 2007

I don't think there's any real logical reason why we don't eat cats and dogs, although I'm a pet lover and wouldn't want to.

I'm surprised no one's mentioned how in Hindu India, it's repugnant and wrong to kill (and/or eat) cows.

The big three monotheistic religions share food restrictions, or used to. What's halal in Islam more or less is kosher in Judaism. In the Bible, the book of Leviticus mentions all the unpermitted foods, which are pretty much the same as in Judaism and Islam. I am told the reason that Christians don't adhere to many of these restrictions is that the New Testament sort of erased many of the requirements found in the Old Testament - although that doesn't stop the Reverend Fred Phelps and many Republicans from attacking alternative forms of sexual expression using Leviticus as a basis, but I digress.

While I don't think anyone I know wants to eat bats or spiders, these are restricted along with pigs and lobster in the Old Testament. Stupid as it sounds, I'd never even heard of people eating shrimp before I came to America. (I love them now; I'm not very religious.)

There's a great book on cultural religious "food" beliefs, but I can't remember the name or author. Essentially, many things are forbidden to eat because they are of two "worlds." It's okay to eat fowl, because they're "of the air," even if they don't fly, while bats are verboten because they are mammalian and therefore half-air, half land. Not good. Animals that wallow in mud, like pigs, are unclean because they are half-water, half-land. Ditto amphibians. Shellfish are not purely of water, since they live at the bottom of the sea, in mud. It's more complicated than that - the dividing lines have to do with some features (fish should have scales for example), and there are other factors, but this gives you some idea.

I think cats and dogs are forbidden because they live with us, for the most part, and it's as simple as that. It's interesting though that the Roma, for instance, traditionally don't keep cats (contrary to stereotyped images) because they clean themselves and swallow the dirt, and are thus ritually unclean, but they eat hedgehog (who can't do the same, obviously.) I am fortunate enough to have eaten hedgehog, and it was actually very tasty - but most Westerners would be repulsed. I've eaten horse too, and it was okay, but I still had senseless issues with it, even though I don't especially care about horses - it just seemed weird.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:59 PM on December 5, 2007

I've read that as a rule of thumb, we eat herbivores, not carnivores. Apparently carnivores don't taste good to us, possibly because, being further up the food chain, they're actually not too good for us to eat. Cats and dogs are off the menu for that reason as well as the others enumerated above.

We eat omnivores, actually. We don't eat carnivores (normally) because it takes meat to raise them.

Why do people always mention "cats" in these sorts of questions? Cats are almost never eaten (by humans) anywhere. Dogs are, but dogs are more amenable to being raised for slaughter and, so I've heard, can be pretty tasty.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 8:44 PM on December 5, 2007

I've read that as a rule of thumb, we eat herbivores, not carnivores. Apparently carnivores don't taste good to us, possibly because, being further up the food chain, they're actually not too good for us to eat. Cats and dogs are off the menu for that reason as well as the others enumerated above.

I wonder if this logic is correct. Perhaps the reason we don't eat carnivores is that being higher up the food chain, there tend to be fewer of them around. Gazelles outnumber cheetahs, rabbits outnumber foxes, etc. We do eat carnivouous fish, and lots of Western livestock is inadvertently carnivorous (blood or bone meal fed to cows, etc) so I kind of doubt it's related to the taste of the meat. I have no stats, but I suspect that it's just more expensive to raise carnivores, because it also involves raising herbivores to feed the carnivores, and plants to feed the herbivores.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:53 PM on December 5, 2007

Erm... I've eaten cat - several times actually (although not in the US or Europe) and no joke, it really does taste like chicken! I've also owned cats as pets - and i never ever felt the urge to eat them!
posted by ramix at 9:17 PM on December 5, 2007

I have eaten dog and recall it tasting a bit like mutton. In China, most restaurants don't serve dog - in fact, I could only find it on the menus of some Korean restaurants.

I've also had dogs as pets and considered them good friends. I think dogs are really cute, but at the same time, I think donkeys, horses, pigs, cows, and lambs are very cute, but that doesn't stop me from eating them. I wouldn't eat my own dog, but I have no problem with eating a dog(or any other animal) that I didn't raise and somebody else butchered. I wouldn't eat my own pig either, but I don't raise pigs.

It's just a cultural thing; I've read stories were horses are described as close companions and almost as fellow humans, but that doesn't stop Europeans from eating them. Likewise, dogs are kept as companions in China and Korea, and their owners generally don't eat them. I would just guess that there was enough of a supply of dogs for them to double a food animal in those countries.
posted by pravit at 10:07 PM on December 5, 2007

For what it's worth: pigs, apparently, will reliably outwit dogs. When I was in China I was all up for eating dog (I'm usually a vegetarian, but I'll try anything once), but I never saw it offered.
posted by greytape at 5:05 AM on December 6, 2007

I've read that as a rule of thumb, we eat herbivores, not carnivores. Apparently carnivores don't taste good to us, possibly because, being further up the food chain, they're actually not too good for us to eat.

Nope. We don't eat carnivores - but hunter-gatherer societies do; they eat whatever they can catch & kill. Admittedly, less carnivores and more herbivores - but that's mainly because carnivores tend to be harder to catch; they have to be faster / have more complex behaviour in order to catch their prey!

Besides, we do eat carnivores - most of the aquatic animals we eat are carnivores, or at least omnivores or insectivores.

Most ways you look at it, it boils down to energy efficiency - energy expended vs energy returned. In the case of domesticated food animals, the equation doesn't really add up; it's just not worth the energy loss involved in going up a trophic level or two (herbivorous feedstock -> herbivores -> carnivores). In the case of non-farmed animals, that doesn't matter - you eat what you can catch; the energy expenditure is much the same either way.

Interesting to note that in the cases where animals are currently in the process of being domesticated for food - say, for example, aquaculture - we tend to do our damnedest to feed them plant-based foods as much as possible, only including the minimal amount of animal protein required for optimum return.
posted by Pinback at 5:30 AM on December 6, 2007

Dogs and mankind go waaay back (~14,000 years). The remains of domesticated dogs have been found with the remains of hunter-gatherers. We've been socialized to think of dogs as uneatable companions, partly because humans have historically taken a utilitarian view of everything. Dogs are/were well-suited for many purposes (e.g., companionship, herding, following scents, fetching), and raising them as a protein source wouldn't be making the best use of them.

This was marked as a best answer, but it doesn't really work. That is, if it were true, then you would not find places where the eating of dogs is (more or less) common -- those places also use dogs for utilitarian purposes, such as guarding, fighting for entertainment, and herding. We in the US and Europe and some other places have certainly been socialized to think of dogs as friends, not food, but that is a much more recent development than 14,000 years ago. I suspect that until fairly recently, one of the "utilitarian" uses for dogs was as a reserve food supply. Sure, the dog can help herd the cows and hunt for game, but if the cows die and there is no game, that dog gets eaten, rather than fed. (That's why that old Far Side cartoon with three people and a dog in a lifeboat, where they draw straws and decide to eat one of the people, is so funny, because in real life that poor dog would have already been dinner.)
posted by Forktine at 6:10 AM on December 6, 2007

We do not need to eat cats but in times of famine pets get offed. We prefer not to kill them because they are cute (or because they were useful too for rodent control/guarding).
posted by ersatz at 6:38 AM on December 6, 2007

Here is a National Geographic piece which talks briefly about the eating of dogs on the Lewis and Clark expedition:

Their favorite foods were always elk, beaver tail, and buffalo ... But dogs would do if dogs were all that they could get. Only Clark abstained. He couldn't bring himself to eat dog meat.
posted by Forktine at 8:32 AM on December 6, 2007

And one more Lewis and Clark snippet, suggesting that the dog eating was by choice rather than of necessity:

On the west side of the mountains they encountered Indian tribes who subsisted on roots and fish, which Lewis and Clark's men thought caused diarrhea. Because they disliked this "western" diet, the men began to purchase or trade for dogs kept by the Indians. Between Weippe Prairie in Idaho and the Pacific Coast the men subsisted almost exclusively on dogs, in the midst of one of the most productive salmon fisheries ever known!
posted by Forktine at 8:38 AM on December 6, 2007

"Dogs and mankind go waaay back (~14,000 years)"

This didn't ring true to me as I was taught that dogs have been domesticated far longer than 14 000 years. The article you link to says it is believed it could be as long as 100 000 years. This is closer to the theories I was taught.
posted by skinnydipp at 12:18 PM on December 6, 2007

Also, Happyturtle was it April 1st when someone told you the European steak thing?

No, it wasn't.

I am reminded by the Lewis and Clark stories that Shackleton's crew ate their sled dogs after the expedition became trapped on the ice.
posted by happyturtle at 2:44 PM on December 6, 2007

As many have said above, it is because we anthropomorphize, at least to some degree, our pets.

Also: not only are horses eaten in Europe, but horse meat is sold in many grocery stores in Quebec.
posted by ssg at 5:30 PM on December 6, 2007

People anthroporphise domination and utility relations with their pets as "trust". They are not - trust is an emergent property of human social networks where the probability of mutually "fair" exchanges can be modelled in part by using past interactions aggregated with trust metrics. An alliance between humans and animals is mediated through bare power relations of very limited duration - we do not eat them because it is not convient at that time. They do not eat us becaused they cannot. This stasis persists until we end it or our domination ends because of death, infirmity or extraordinary hunger. Many old cat ladies or dog-savaged infants can attest to this.
posted by meehawl at 3:42 PM on December 8, 2007

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