Dogs and dog products are in use for medical purpose in many countries across the Indian ocean. Stories about this animal were gathered and written by students. They are all part of a pedagogical project, funded by the National University of Singapore and the Université de Paris. The Bestiary site is a work-in-progress and a participatory educational tool, representing animals whose products or body parts are used to promote health and healing.

The dog

A story by Lee Shao Jie

In Chinese culture, there are 12 animals that everyone knows about. This is known as the zodiacs. Despite being one of the last few animals on the zodiac cycle, the dog has carved out its place in Chinese culture and history. As with their non-human counterparts, humans born in the year of the dog are projected to have similar characteristics such as loyalty or playfulness. In ancient China, people believed that a dog was the one responsible for giving humans seeds to plant their first crops. In another version, dogs lost eight of their nine tails when they were stealing seeds from heaven. This noble sacrifice resulted in dogs being worshipped in ancient times.

Dogs were also reared to assist in hunting. However, as the world progresses and older traditions are forgotten, the Chinese started to view dogs for medicinal purposes. A pivotal point in history is when the Chinese started to increase agricultural pursuits instead of hunting. This is most prominently seen in Guangxi province’s Yulin Festival. According to the Chinese, dogs are eaten in winter as they have “warming” potential and are restorative. However, this is an invented tradition to increase the sale of dog meat and boost the local economy. As more and more people grow aware of the false claims, so have the animal activist groups. Nonetheless, like other invented traditions, the best medicine is time and proper education. Dog eating will continue in the near future but may eventually be eradicated.

A Tartar, an emaciated horse, and a dog, Possibly Yuan dynasty, 1279-1368, China. Freer Gallery of Art

Value of Asian medicine

Dogs were wrongly thought to have warming effects on the body which would have been beneficial during the winters. In rural parts of China, modern technology such as heaters may not be available which makes it alluring for them to turn to food.

An important factor that the Chinese failed to consider is that dogs carry a myriad of diseases. Children and immunocompromised individuals are at risk of contracting these infections. The most common disease is rabies. Rabies are easily transmitted when a dog bites a human and it has a high mortality rate. Another lethal disease is the Methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus which may be transmitted simply by coming in contact with infected dogs. This infection is lethal but most commonly occurs if the human is already immunocompromised.

If dogs are eaten, humans could also contract other forms of diseases such as the norovirus, salmonella or Brucella. While these diseases are less deadly, they could still cause gastroenteritis which affects the human’s health.

While dogs certainly have no place in TCM, they have been helpful in developing western medicine. Cancer has plagued humans and currently has no cure. Cancer in dogs is common and almost 25% of dogs will develop a form of cancer. The type of cancer they develop has been shown to be identical to humans which makes it ideal to include them in medicinal trials. Besides cancer, dogs have helped in several medicinal breakthroughs. The most prominent is the discovery of insulin. The difference between the use of dogs and other non-humans is the development of these diseases. For example, when mice are used in medicinal trials, the diseases have to be introduced into their bodies. For dogs, these diseases occur naturally which makes it morally acceptable to incorporate them in medical trials.

Dog (Gopalpur, Orissa, India, 2008) © Leo Jalais