Puppies—Pets or Protein? —by Jinny Batterson
First, a couple of disclaimers: 1) I have never knowingly eaten dog meat while in China; 2) No Chinese restaurant in the United States would risk serving dog meat to its customers.
That said, I have seen dog meat on restaurant menus in China. I have also seen, in meat markets in rural China, both caged live puppies and singed dog carcasses, though I wish I hadn’t. I’ve been frightened several times while walking in the countryside by coming across an unaccompanied, unleashed dog—not sure if it was a tame dog whose owner was careless and let it run free, or a feral animal. I’m lucky that I have not been bitten, since rabies is a serious problem in China, and most human rabies cases there result from bites by rabid dogs.
Dogs have a long and mixed history in China. Dog remains have been found in graves beside human ones in archeological excavations of Chinese Neolithic sites dating back about 7,000 years. There is a fair amount of evidence that dogs were domesticated early, used in ritual sacrifices, and also as a source of animal protein (along with pigs). China’s earliest emperors kept hunting dogs. Also since the earliest Chinese dynasties, small dogs have been used by noble families as pets. The “Pekingese” breed even bears the name of China’s capital city. There is speculation that these snub-nosed fluffs were bred to resemble Chinese fantasies of lions, which do not exist in China and were not photographed or imported to Chinese zoos until recent centuries.
Estimates of the total number of dogs in China vary widely, with most in the range of 100-200 million. The vast majority of dogs in China are unregistered. In rural areas where public health infrastructure and public health funding are limited, controlling dog populations by encouraging rabies vaccinations, administering spaying and neutering programs, enforcing fencing or leashing requirements, and minimizing exposure to feral animals remains difficult. Chinese researchers reported over 3,000 cases of human rabies exposure in China in 2006, most resulting from a child or teenager being bitten by a dog. Increasingly, major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai require the registration of pet dogs, limit the size of allowable pets, limit the number of dogs per family (typically one), impose a registration fee, and require up-to-date rabies vaccinations. In Beijing, annual dog registration is handled through the Public Security Bureau, the same agency that deals with registrations and permits for its human inhabitants.
Dog fanciers in China can be just as elaborate in providing for their canine companions as dog owners elsewhere—I’ve seen pets outfitted with bows, bangles, elaborate collars, sweaters, even booties to protect their paws from the cold. I’ve seen pet dogs riding in cushioned comfort in baskets at the front of owners’ bicycles, peeking out from carrying cases or elaborately embroidered bags, or being carried in owners’ arms across muddy streets to avoid their getting dirty.
Once we asked a Chinese colleague whether dog meat was served in the dining facilities at his school, hoping to avoid eating some by accident.
“Oh, no,” he answered. “We can’t afford it. Dog meat is expensive.”
We were relieved, but never verified the pricing part of his response. Other Chinese friends and acquaintances have told us that there are lots of folk traditions associated with dog meat—in some areas, dog meat is considered a strengthening, warming food during cold weather. In other places, certain organs or parts of the dog are reported when eaten to help cool the diner’s metabolism during extreme hot spells. However, as China becomes more urbanized and as its younger generations become more globally connected, the overall trend is toward vaccinating, petting, walking, playing with, and cleaning up after Rover or Fido, rather than chewing on his remains at a banquet.