Leiden Psychology Blog

Why we eat cows (and sometimes horses), but not dogs

Why we eat cows (and sometimes horses), but not dogs By ecatoncheires

Most people in Western culture have no problem with eating cows, pigs and chickens. However, the idea of eating dogs tends to disgust us. Why do we make such mental distinctions between ‘animals for eating’ and ‘animals not for eating’?

Over the past few months, Europe has been gripped by the ‘horsemeat scandal’. In the Netherlands horsemeat has been found in for instance Euroshopper ‘beef’ lasagna and Ikea’s Swedish meatballs. Perhaps characteristically for the Dutch, the typical response was not one of shock, but of pragmatism (“Oh well, meat is meat I guess…”).

The response would probably have been very different if it had been dog meat that was discovered in our Swedish meatballs. In Western culture, most people are revolted by the idea of eating dogs. But why is it that we make such mental distinctions between ‘animals for eating’, and ‘animals not for eating’?

In her acclaimed book Why we love dogs, eat pigs and wear cows, Dr. Melanie Joy explores the psychological mechanisms behind ‘carnism’: the ideology according to which eating certain animals is considered ethical and appropriate. The book starts with a thought experiment:

Imagine yourself at a dinner party with friends, enjoying a delicious meat stew. When you ask your friend for the recipe, she says: “You begin with five pounds of golden retriever meat, well marinated, and then…”

You might freeze mid-bite as you process these words: the food you are eating is from a dog. Would you shrug your shoulders and finish your meal? Or would you be so disgusted you lose your appetite, not even able to eat the vegetables around the meat, as if they were somehow ‘tainted’?

The role of empathy and disgust in the decision to eat animals

The experience of disgust is an important psychological mechanism influencing the decision to eat certain animals. In fact, disgust is considered one of the core moral emotions. According to Dr. Joy, generally the more empathy you feel for an animal, the more disgusted you are about the idea of eating it. Because most people feel more empathy towards dogs than cows we are more disgusted at the idea of eating dogs.

The hypothesis that empathy influences food choices through disgust is supported by anecdotal and scientific evidence from vegetarians. One vegetarian friend told me that to her the idea of eating dogs is equally disgusting as eating cows, and in fact even as disgusting as eating human flesh. Increased disgust at meat in vegetarians was also found in an empirical study. Could this difference in disgust levels between omnivores and vegetarians be mediated by empathy?

An fMRI study found support for empathy differences between vegetarians and omnivores. Vegetarians showed more activity in empathy-related brain areas when watching both animal and human suffering. Interestingly, in vegetarians activity was even higher for animal than human suffering. Vegetarians also scored higher on an empathy questionnaire.

However, the link between disgust and empathy in food choices has not yet been investigated. It is therefore not clear why vegetarians feel disgusted at the idea of eating cows and omnivores do not, although the described research suggests empathy plays a role. This would mean that action groups aiming to lower meat consumption would do well to focus their campaign on increasing empathy towards farm animals.


Posted by Anonymous on August 26, 2018 at 21:59

1. All organisms are systems of matter, but we obviously shouldn’t have sympathy for matter
Rocks are matter
Some organisms have consciousness, which makes them different than the ones that don’t
Mammals, birds, and probably some types of fish have consciousness
Bacteria, plants, fungi, protists, and insects don’t
I don’t know if reptiles and amphibians do
If an animal has a conscience and can feel pain, we should care about it, and we shouldn’t harm it
All of the animals that people eat for meat are like this

To the person who said that he or she makes no distinctions among animals, “cares” about them, and wants to eat all of them, humans are also a part of the animal kingdom and have sentience just like the animals he or she wants to eat and claims to “care” about
This means that he or she should be eating humans to not be hypocritical

To give some examples of some of the animals we shouldn’t eat, we shouldn’t eat people, chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs, ducks, geese, dogs, cats, deer, sheep, goats, squirrels, hamsters, mice, apes, dolphins, horses, elephants, parrots, parakeets, or penguins

Posted by Tiffiny on October 25, 2016 at 04:26

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Posted by Norman on April 24, 2016 at 05:20

This is probably the first and last time you hear this answer for free, so take note:
It is expensive to eat animals that feed on the same thing as we do, but it’s cheap to breed animals that can feed on things we can’t eat. Ruminants eat cellulose (grass and leafs) which we can’t digest, hence we breed cows, sheep and goats. We would breed deer as well since it’s a ruminant, but they have too little meat, and they basically are goats, but thin. Chicken feed on dry seeds, which we can’t eat. Pigs eat all forms of decomposed material, they can even eat excrement, that’s why their meat carries so many parasites, and they are considered impure by many. Notice ruminants are the ones who’s food is the cheapest, that’s why many cultures have tried to make people aware of their importance by keeping them in their beliefs; in india they worship cows, and the jews use goats for some traditions.
Animals that eat our food are considered a plague; rats, mice, wolfs, and so on.

Posted by Jay on August 12, 2015 at 11:15

The answer is because the horse has been injected with other sub-tenses an antibiotics, which would effect the meat. It’s everything to do with what the animal was breed for. The Horses are breed for racing, cows where breed for eating. if you want to breed a horse for eating go ahead but you will make more money racing it.

Posted by RKK on April 27, 2014 at 05:11

Finally a good explanation! Here are few things I like to add.

Just like non-veg world, all vegetarians are not equal. Some “strict” vegetarians have empathy towards killing plants and they avoid eating anything that grows underground (foods like Carrots, Onion, Ginger, Garlic etc,). Interestingly, vegans avoid anything related to animals including dairy which even strict vegetarians have no problem whatsoever. Most vegetarians though oppose eating of animals do not show any empathy when it comes to killing mosquitoes or ants. Also, most vegetarians have no second thoughts about eating live bacteria in yogurt. Another interesting topic is egg and fish. Most vegetarians avoid egg but many (increasingly due to culture changes and need for good protein) accept egg because it is not same as eating chicken. The same vegetarians find no issues in consuming grain or nuts which could be source of life of another plant.

Considering all this, I would add “social acceptance/culture and empathy” as the driving factors towards why we do not eat certain kinds of food that others eat.

D Jensen
Posted by D Jensen on January 31, 2014 at 01:44

I view all animals the same. I care for them the same and I would eat any of them the same it doesn’t matter the species or family. You can care a lot for animals and still eat them. I have more than 20 species as my personal pets, I do not make distinctions between any of them.
I will try any kind of meat at least once.

Posted by cery on August 27, 2013 at 23:34

I don’t eat cow because they are my favorite animal I love cows, I hate to think people eat them I don’t won’t to hurt them we should let them live free without slaughter!!!

Annemieke Bijker
Posted by Annemieke Bijker on June 15, 2013 at 13:57

An interesting fact I heard about is that Chinese people had difficulties with the fact that they started to keep dogs as pets while they were also used to eat the animal.  So now they make the distinction between dog races that can be eaten and other races than can only be kept as pets.

Ceylan Soylemez
Posted by Ceylan Soylemez on March 22, 2013 at 16:58

I think cultural/social norms are of greater influence than empathy. Like the previous commenter said: “...most people would agree that you’re not supposed to eat animals that are considered pets”. It is culturally unacceptable in our society to eat dogs and whoever does is being labeled as a bad person.

Erik de Kwaadsteniet
Posted by Erik de Kwaadsteniet on March 22, 2013 at 09:18

Nice article, and interesting topic to think about! Empathy may indeed be one of the factors influencing what you eat (after all, horse lovers often do not eat horses). However, I agree with the former comment that cultural/social norms (not just religious beliefs) may play an even bigger role. After all, most people would agree that you’re not supposed to eat animals that are considered pets. Furthermore, research has shown that there is a strong link between the violation of social norms and disgust, which may also explain why people feel disgusted by the thought of eating dogs.

Md. Salim Hossain
Posted by Md. Salim Hossain on March 16, 2013 at 06:26

I don’t agree with Dr. Joy. In Bangladesh people feel highest empathy for cows. In the rural side people treat cows as their family member. However, the highest number of animals people eat in Bangladesh is COW! People of Bangladesh does not like dogs and they don’t even think of eating dogs. I think religious belief plays an important role in deciding what to eat and what not.

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