The Yulin Festival, held on June 21, celebrating the summer solstice, has been held annually for years by local residents by eating dog meat and lychees washed down with strong grain alcohol. The festival attracts locals as well as tourists to Yulin city in Guangxi province with its offerings of barbecued, stir-fried and boiled dog hot pot and offers a glimpse of the deeply rooted traditional food culture that is increasingly at odds with a modernizing society.
While the question of what makes eating dog meat different from consuming beef or pork will continue to be debated, more members of Chinese society are countering with responses that it is inappropriate to categorically state that all animals should be either eaten or not eaten. Chinese animal rights activists and animal lovers argue that every animal has a value and the contributions from dogs used in the aid of law enforcement, in providing guidance to visually blind and handicapped individuals as well as companionship and emotional support for children without siblings and retired empty nesters is well recognized.
In countries where dogs and cats may be certified as emotional support animals, they provide service men and women returning from battle with constant companionship and love, helping them cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. Therapy dogs and cats that visit long-term hospitalized and hospice care patients or elderly residents in assisted living facilities, bring emotional support and reduce loneliness for many of these individuals. Dogs have been trained to recognize, sniff or sense seizures and symptoms of severe allergic reactions (e.g., anaphylaxis to food, chemicals or bee stings), allowing the dog to alert other humans for help or to retrieve Epi-pens for the administration of life-saving injections.
It is easy to go on about the benefits and contributions of our companion dogs and cats but what will really shift the culture away from consuming dogs and cats in China is generational change. We see this already with young Chinese children growing up with dogs and cats that have developed strong love for their pet family members. The human-animal bond grows stronger with each generation of China’s pet owners and is truly heartening to behold. It is not uncommon for our veterinarians at ICVS to see three-generations of the family – grandparents, parents and the only child – accompany the ailing pet to the animal hospital for treatment. During the Spring Festival, it is a joyous event to watch local dog owners venture out early in the morning on Chinese new year’s day in matching red silk jackets with their Pekinese dogs. China is having a love affair with its pets, the same as what pet owners in many other countries have already experienced. But in such a large and populous nation, it is reasonable to assume that this will take some time before the majority of society agrees that we should abandon the traditional custom of consuming these animals.
So until that day, what we should keep in mind is that we already face concerns about the quality of the air we breathe, the safety of the food and water we consume, the drugs we use and the authenticity of products we purchase on a daily basis. The internet is saturated with online posts about latest food safety scandals and the media is rife with reports lamenting the difficulty of enforcing quality standards and carrying out inspections in such a large and highly fragmented market. Supplying and demanding dog and cat meat products that are unregulated, uninspected and lacking quality assurance from any officially authorized regulator presents a real public health risk for the vendors as well as the consumers.
The WHO states that more than 95 percent of the rabies fatalities in China are traced back to exposures (e.g. bites or licks on wounds and mucous membranes) from dogs. Dogs and cats may be carriers of rabies and not exhibit any signs associated with the disease (e.g. aggression, excess salivation or “foaming” at the mouth, etc.). With less than 10-20 percent of the dog population across China vaccinated for rabies, the possibility of butchering or consuming a dog that may have been exposed or infected with the rabies virus cannot be ruled out.
Moreover, among the dogs and cats rescued off transportation trucks destined for the meat markets, the animals are usually a mix of strays and lost, abandoned or purloined pets (e.g. wearing collars). These rescued animals, after being taken to animal hospitals for medical treatment, have been diagnosed with a host of diseases, including canine distemper virus, parvovirus, coronavirus, feline viral rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, panleukopenia virus, and found positive for internal and external parasites. While these canine and feline viral diseases are not contagious to humans, it is hard to imagine that the State Food & Drug Administration would allow these animals to pass inspection and be sold for meat. Agriculture and health officials have raised concerns about the way that these animals may have been slaughtered with some dogs being poisoned or drugged. So from a public health as well as societal perspective, even the State Council Information Office advocates “when there is already a vast variety of meat, maybe it is time to stop serving dog."
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Mary Peng is the Co-Founder & CEO of International Center for Veterinary Services (ICVS).
This post first appeared on thebeijinger.com on July 22, 2014.
Photo: The Beijinger, State Farm & Tar0 (Flickr)