I noticed the restaurant from the window of a speeding bus as we were exiting Lijiang New City: 狗肉—dog meat. There it was, clear as day. Evidence that in many parts of China, meat is meat, and it doesn’t much matter what animal it comes from.

Have I ever eaten dog meat? No. I came close once, during my semester abroad in Hangzhou when it was served at a banquet. Would I ever be willing to try it? I’m still not sure. More on that later.

Just a few days before I noticed the dog restaurant, someone was walking a husky past the Water Wheel in Old Town, one of the busiest, most touristy parts of the city. The dog was enormous and beautifully groomed, his long gray-and-white fur gleaming in the evening sun. He attracted lots of attention. A little girl stopped and reached up over her head to pat his back. The girls in “traditional” Naxi costumes who pose for tourist pictures by the Water Wheel glanced away from the sea of cameras and watched the husky march past like a king.

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One thing is clear in China—dogs are everywhere. They sniff around the ditches and sun themselves in the public squares. They wander around underfoot and growl from behind closed doors. Some dogs are escorted through the markets with little fleece booties on their paws, and others are hanging from hooks, waiting for the spicy hotpot. Based on my own observations, I’ve identified roughly four categories of dogs in China, as follows:

  1. Scraggly dogs
  2. Country dogs
  3. Teddies
  4. Food

1. Scraggly dogs:

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These are the most ubiquitous and difficult to characterize of Chinese dogs. They wander through the streets, weave in and out of bicycles, and curl up to sleep in random patches of sunlight. They’re ugly, usually; short-legged and bug-eyed, with under-bites and dirty fur. Sometimes they’re strays. Sometimes I think they’re strays, but then someone whistles and they prick up their dirty little ears and run back home. Sometimes they’re in cages for sale, 50 RMB each. What are the fates of those mangy little streetside puppies? I can only imagine that they get split up among the following three categories.

2. Country dogs:

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Every village family has at least one dog. They bark menacingly as you walk by, although sometimes their tails wag as they do so, giving away their true disposition. As soon as one dog starts barking, all the dogs in the village start barking, and they keep going and going long after you’ve passed through the village and continued on your way, feeding off each others’ nervous energy until the whole village is whipped into a frenzy. Once I saw an adorable village puppy who trotted over and nuzzled my hand, tail wagging furiously. He looked like he wanted to play, so I picked up a little stick and prepared to toss it. But as soon as he saw the stick, he instantly flinched and cowered, tail between his legs. Country dogs aren’t pets.

3. Teddies:

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The greatest cultural divide in China is between rural and urban, and nowhere is this more apparent than in their dogs. Rural people have guard dogs; urban ladies with false eyelashes have teddies. Teddy dogs (泰迪犬tàidí quăn) are small poodles, usually reddish-brown in color, who have been bred to have a short, flat face and groomed so that they look like teddy bears. More than once in Nanjing, I saw someone walk by carrying a teddy dog in a baby carrier, as if it were a helpless doll and not a healthy dog who needs to run and sniff the ground. In recent years, pampered purebreds have spread beyond teddies to include golden retrievers, huskies, labs, and other dogs utterly unsuited to high-rise living in a polluted megalopolis. The poor things.

4. Food:

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No, I take it back. The pampered dogs are the lucky ones. Although most middle class Chinese today are horrified by eating dog and swear they’d never touch the stuff, the dog meat industry is alive and well. Especially in poor places like rural Guizhou and Guangxi, and ethnically Korean places in northeast China, dog meat is perfectly acceptable for human consumption. Also in Guangzhou, which is neither poor nor Korean; it’s just Guangzhou. Every year in the city of Yulin, Guangxi, residents hold a dog meat festival in which an estimated 10,000 dogs are slaughtered and consumed. It is unclear how many dogs were strays, how many were farmed for meat, and how many were abducted. Dog meat is believed to be very nutritious and able to cure conditions like impotence and poor circulation. Animal rights activists protested the festival this year, but it happened anyway.

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At first glance, it might seem monstrous for a single culture to embrace dogs both as pets and as food.

But hold on a second.

I’m not vegetarian. Are you?

The way we distinguish between Food Animals and Companion Animals is completely arbitrary. When most people express disgust at the thought of eating dog, they justify their aversion by arguing that dogs are Man’s Best Friend, plus they had a dog growing up and can never imagine eating little Fluffy. I include myself in this hypothetical “they,” by the way. My family has two dogs at home, and I love them. I admire their intelligence, their individual personalities, and their complex social interactions. But does this make them inherently better than the animals we Westerners routinely consume as meat? Pigs have complex social relationships, can understand the principle of reflection and use mirrors to assess their surroundings, and learn circus routines faster than any other animal. Even chickens, which are hardly known for their intelligence, may possess more mental faculties than we give them credit for; recent studies have shown that chickens outperform dogs in many cognitive tests and are even able to delay gratification, something many human toddlers are unable to do.

In short, it is senseless to “rank” animals by their supposed intelligence and use this as a justification of which animals are fit to eat and which are not. All animals are uniquely adapted to their environments, and it is impossible for us to ever truly know what goes on inside their furry, feathery, and scaly heads.

So am I morally opposed to eating dog? No. In theory, I believe that since we cannot draw a line between animals that are appropriate to eat and animals are not, and since I do eat animals like pigs, therefore I should be willing to eat dog. The people who eat dog meat in China are usually rural and relatively poor; they live alongside many different kinds of animals, all of which are eaten. Assuming that humans can ethically consume meat of any kind, there is theoretically nothing wrong with eating dogs.

But if faced with an actual plate of dog meat, would I eat it? I don’t think so. I am heavily influenced by cultural norms and my own experiences—and yes, that makes me hypocritical. I think everyone who refuses to eat dog meat should simply acknowledge their hypocrisy. Don’t try to argue that some animals are inherently fit to eat, while others are not. Acknowledge that your mindset is influenced by society and limited by your own familiarity with different animals, instead of trying to impose false categories on the diverse and complex creatures who live and die alongside humans.

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