I continue to be surprised by the degree that culture affects our interactions with other species. Take, for example, eating cats. Dog meat is a common item on the menu in countries such as Korea, China, Vietnam and Thailand. (See this post on the origins of dog meat taboos). But until I read a forthcoming article in the journal Anthrozoos, I had never given any thought to the idea that people might eat cats -- and sometimes even their own pet cat. (That's my cat Tilly in the photo. She is in no danger of being eaten.)
The Cat-Eaters of Madagascar
The article, aptly titled Consumption of Domestic Cat in Madagascar: Frequency, Purpose, and Health Implications, describes a study by a team of researchers lead by Raymond Czaja of Temple University. The researchers interviewed 512 heads of randomly selected households in five towns in central Madagascar. They wanted to know how often cat meat was consumed, the reasons people ate cat meat, the existence of taboos against eating cat, and the sources of the cats. This is the first systematic study of a cat-eating culture, and the results are fascinating.
Cats were eaten in all five towns to varying degrees. In three of them,1 in 4 adults had consumed feline flesh, while in the other two towns nearly half of individuals had eaten cat. In none of the towns, however, was cat a common dinner entrée. In fact, the average villager had only eaten cat meat about three times in their lives. And when asked to list their favorite foods, hardly anyone spontaneously mentioned cat meat.
The researchers had hypothesized that cat flesh would be related to levels of food-insecurity. That is, because cat meat was not a preferred food, its consumption would only go up during economic hard times. They were wrong. There was no evidence that people turned to eating cat as a last resort when other forms of meat were unavailable. Rather, in Madagascar, killing and eating cats seems to be a matter of convenience and opportunity rather than of necessity or a pronounced dietary preference.
The researchers also predicted that the towns would differ in the degree that cat meat would be considered taboo. They were partially right. Ten percent of the residents of one town had a personal revulsion against eating cat as compared to zero percent in another town. On the whole, however, only 3% of the individuals interviewed in the study felt profoundly disgusted by the idea of eating cat flesh. This low incidence of taboos on eating cat is surprising as the consumption of dog is widely tabooed on the island of Madagascar.
To me, the biggest surprise of the research project was related to how Madagascarans obtained their cat meat. Over half of the time (53%), they simply ate the family pet. (Sorry Tilly.) Cat meat also came in the form of gifts from friends (27%). Sometimes stray cats were caught by hand or by trapping. And in one of the towns, most of the eaten cats were – gulp -- road kill.
The Bottom Line
This study illustrates several general attributes of human-animal relationships. First, the commonly held belief that people never eat their pets is not true. Public opinion polls report that between 75% and 95% of American pet owners think of their dogs and cats as family members. Hence, eating your pet cat would be akin to cannibalism. (While the researchers did not report on whether cats are considered family members in Madagascar, but I’m pretty sure they are not.)
Second, when it comes to our attitudes towards animals, culture is often more important than biology. As described in John Bradshaw’s highly recommended book Cat Sense, attitudes towards cats differ widely between societies, and they can change rapidly. In ancient Egypt, cats were deified, in the Middle Ages they were vilified, and over the last two hundred years, they have become objects of our affection. Now we can add “some we eat” to the list. Indeed, a million cats are consumed each year in Asia. In parts of Africa, eating cat meat is associated with good luck, and in some rural villages in Switzerland cat is still served for Christmas dinner.
Third, eating animals can be risky. The researchers pointed out that cat meat is potentially perilous as cats are often infected with toxoplasmosis and other contagious diseases. They argue that public health officials in Madagascar should discourage the consumption of road kill and cats that have died of natural causes.
They also suggest that Madagascarans cook their cats until the meat is well-done.
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Czaja, R., Wills, A., Hanitriniaina, S., Reuter, K. E. & Sewell, B.J. (2015) Consumption of domestic cat in Madagascar: Frequency, purpose, and health implications. Anthrozoos, 28:3, 469-482.
Hal Herzog is professor of psychology at Western Carolina University and author of the book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals.