Recently, much has been made of a passage in Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father where he speaks of eating dog meat as a child in Indonesia. He described it as “tough”, though not as tough as snake meat. Others have claimed that Obama has never apologized since then or expressed any regret over having eaten dog. But regardless of the veracity of these claims, or the ethics of other dog-related acts such as transporting a live dog on the roof of a car, there’s little reason why this would be newsworthy. And even if Barack Obama were completely unapologetic about eating dog and continued to enjoy dog meat to this day with no compunctions whatsoever, this still should never have become an issue. Whatever your views on the morality of eating meat, there’s no reason why the ethical status of eating dog should be substantially different from that of eating cow, pig or chicken. The concerns that apply to the raising of dogs for meat are equally applicable to other livestock as well.
The need to spare the animal as much cruelty as possible has been raised, but it’s not as though dogs have a greater ability to perceive and suffer from pain and discomfort than other meat animals. They feel pain just as much as dogs do. While we might find ourselves much more disturbed and emotionally pained at the sight of a dog being deliberately slaughtered or kept in inhumane conditions, there’s no reason to assume that our own unique suffering must mean the dog suffers uniquely as well. If we feel that the circumstances in which a dog is raised or killed cause undue distress to the dog, then we should be just as insistent that pigs or cows be treated equally humanely – whether we prefer that they be treated well before slaughter, or not be killed at all.
Others seem to regard dogs as special due to their intelligence and ability to learn. However, pigs have also proven capable of learning commands and remembering them for years. They’ve also shown their competence at playing video games designed for chimpanzees. The intelligence of dogs is not qualitatively different from that of other animals, and it seems arbitrary that dogs should define the level of intellect that would rule out using an animal for meat. And even if we do subscribe to that definition, it would still encompass more than just dogs. Yet nobody finds it especially notable if a presidential candidate is found to have eaten bacon.
The question of food safety is an important one, since the unpopularity of dog meat in many areas means that it’s often processed and sold with little or no oversight. But this problem is not limited to dogs, and can be remedied by bringing dog meat within the purview of a proper regulatory framework, just as with other meat animals. A lack of regulation is not inherent to the use of dogs as livestock.
Another objection I’ve heard is that dogs are an inefficient source of food because they don’t provide enough usable meat relative to the resources used to raise them. While I haven’t been able to find information about the resource consumption of dog meat farming, the raising of cows, pigs and other livestock is remarkably inefficient as well. 100,000 liters of water are used to produce a single kilogram of grain-fed beef, whereas only 2,000 liters of water are required to produce a kilogram of rice or soybeans. The grain being fed to livestock in the United States could be used to feed 800 million people, and livestock production is responsible for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions.
If the environmental effects of livestock dogs are a concern, the environmental effects of all livestock should be a concern – and if one is willing to overlook the impact of all other livestock, there seems to be little reason why dog would stand out as unacceptable. In any case, livestock dogs could simply be bred to have more usable meat, as has been done with cows, chickens and turkeys. In fact, there’s already a breed of dog in South Korea specifically meant to serve as a source of meat.
Finally, many people have appealed to the history of canine coexistence with humans to justify why dogs deserve special treatment. Given that they’re considered “man’s best friend”, often exhibiting a great degree of personal devotion and serving a variety of useful purposes to us, it’s been suggested that we owe it to dogs not to eat them. But the consumption of dogs is just as much of a historical tradition as the companionship of dogs – their relationship to us hasn’t ruled out their use as food before, so why would it now? Either tradition can justify eating dogs as well, or their history as pets is as irrelevant as their history as food.
And if a certain lifeform deserves to be treated respectfully and humanely, then they deserve dignity regardless of what services they can offer us or how much they like us. Their entitlement to respect is not contingent upon any particular alliance we have with them. When it comes to devotion, other domesticated livestock are quite capable of exhibiting similar attachments, and people are likewise able to form bonds with these animals as well – it’s just that most of us don’t have a pet cow or pig to greet us when we come home. Conversely, while cows are deeply respected in India, not many people elsewhere seem to find this a compelling reason to refrain from eating beef. And if canine allegiance to humans is still troubling, we could always try to breed dogs that, while docile, have no special attachment to people. If that’s not enough to make them acceptable as food, then it’s hard to see why any other livestock would be acceptable, either.
Ultimately, the cuteness and friendliness and unique companionship of dogs is less like a serious argument, and more like an anti-abortion billboard that says, “Your baby’s heart is already beating!” – true, but irrelevant. In the present context, highlighting Obama’s consumption of dog meat as if there were something strange about it is likely meant to depict him as some kind of alien “other” who’s violated one of our most deeply held taboos, marking him as part of a foreign culture and mindset. Meanwhile, few people have bothered to question whether this taboo has any actual merit. If we’re looking for a reason not to eat dog, there are plenty of better arguments which don’t rely on the assumption that dogs are categorically different from other livestock. Unfortunately for some of us, treating other livestock as not categorically different from dogs may have undesirable implications.