Fact Check

Cat in Chinese Food

Do Chinese restaurants serve cat meat?

Published April 29, 1999

 (Hannamariah / Shutterstock)
Image Via Hannamariah / Shutterstock
Chinese restaurants in the U.S. use cat meat in their entrees.

How old is old? The rumor about Fluffy's or Fido's being slipped into Chinese food by unscrupulous restaurateurs has been traced by British researchers to the earliest years of the British Empire in England and to the 1850s in the United States:

[Jacobsen, 1948]

How ripe small towns actually are for rumors was amply demonstrated a few years ago. In a town of thirteen thousand inhabitants, which was gradually blossoming into cityhood, there was a restaurant operated by three Chinese. It was the most successful eating place around, patronized by businessmen and citizens morning, noon, and night. Everyone agreed that the food and service were good. But without the slightest warning business suddenly took a drastic drop. The once-prosperous proprietors became miserably unhappy, for they could not understand what had happened to all their patrons. Then they found out that someone, maybe a competitor, maybe just a person who nursed a real or imagined grudge against Chinese, had initiated a rumor that the police had found three skinned cats, labeled rabbits, in the restaurant's refrigerator.

Ancient slur or not, wherever this rumor goes it affects how the locals feel about the Chinese in their midst, and it often impacts a restaurant's fragile bottom line:

[Smith, 1983]

One evening several friends went out to a local Chinese restaurant for a celebratory meal. Half way through the meal one of the party suddenly started to cough and choke. Thoroughly alarmed they rushed her to hospital and she had to undergo minor surgery to remove a small bone stuck in her throat.

The surgeon who removed the bone was somewhat perplexed as he did not recognise the type of bone found. He therefore sent it off for analysis and the report came back saying that it was a rat bone.

The public health department immediately visited the restaurant to inspect the kitchens and in the fridge they found numerous tins of cat food, half an Alsatian dog and several rats all waiting to be served up.

[Collected on the Internet, 1999]

Okay, at this chinese restaurant where I live, it's called moon palace, they suddenly closed down. Everybody wondered why they closed down, but then we finally heard the truth. When the health inspectors went to inspect the so-called "clean" facility, they found cages and cages of cats. So they were like "okay" and then they went to the freezer. FROZEN CATS EVERYWHERE!!!! Happy eating!

As an example (this rumor has turned up in so many cities, it would be impossible to list them all), in 1995 the closing of two Chinese restaurants in Columbus, Ohio, awakened the sleeping rumor yet again. Calls were fielded, both by the local paper and the board of health, about whispers that these closings were the result of dead cats' being discovered in each eatery's meat locker. Never mind that just the previous day the local paper had run a story about the closure (for business reasons) of all 51 restaurants in this particular chain — the cat meat rumor would not be denied.

Cartoon of the legend

In 1996, county health department officials in Knoxville, Tennessee, stepped forward to issue a strong denial about frozen cats' being found at a particular local Chinese restaurant. It seemed everyone had heard the rumor, yet no such complaint was on file. Indeed, this particular restaurant had always met Health Department regulations, a claim supported by inspection records.

In 1991, after a Burlington, Ontario [Canada] Chinese eatery lost 30% of its trade to this rumor, its owners attempted to combat the talk by inviting the local professional football team, the Hamilton Ti-Cats, to eat there on the house. Due to the loss of business, restaurant staff had seen their work week cut by 10 hours. The trouble had started two months earlier, with its first sign being a phone call from a woman asking if the restaurant was closed. A friend had told her health officials had padlocked the 434-seat restaurant because it "had been serving cat." That call was the first of many to the restaurant, the health department, and the media. Callers often said others told them the rumor was on radio or in the papers, but no such reports had been broadcast or published. Again, this restaurant had a good reputation with the health department, but that didn't stop the progress of the rumor and the damage it did to the livelihoods of the small business owners and their employees.

This legend is a classic example of xenophobia (fear and hatred of foreigners or that which is foreign). Asian culture is markedly different from Western culture, with language but the first barrier to be hurdled. Customs, religious observances, traditions — all are wildly different from their North American counterparts. As with all xenophobic reactions, that which isn't the same is vilified. The Asian culinary practice of making a tiny bit of meat stretch to feed a family by cutting it up fine and making it part of a larger dish of vegetables or noodles is transformed by fear into a vehicle for "them" to slip something objectionable into our unwitting stomachs. Likewise, that the Chinese don't as a rule keep cats and dogs as pets becomes seen as a willingness to plop someone else's animal companion into the stew pot. Anything for a buck, says this legend, and if in the process one puts over on the white devils, so much the better.

Though the Chinese have been known to dine on cats or dogs in their homeland, the practice is predominant primarily in far-flung regions, and they don't serve them up on unsuspecting diners in Europe or North America, where these animals are known to enjoy the exalted status of family pets. It is true that dog is more or less routinely consumed in Korea, where it's seen as a game meat, but even there Western sensibilities are catered to on this issue. When the Olympics were held in Seoul in 1988, every wire service ran stories about dog being one of the dishes that could be ordered in a restaurant there. In response, the South Korean government temporarily shut down more than 400 eateries where dog soup was a staple. It knew visiting cultures would never understand. (Likewise, in 2008 China ordered that none of the 112 officially designated Olympic restaurants in Beijing sell dog meat dishes during the games.)

In North America, few, if any, Chinese or Koreans eat dog. (See our Hound by the Pound page for the story of an elaborate hoax about a Korean-American company approaching animal shelters with an offer to buy excess dogs.) Also in North America, the Vietnamese are tarred with a variation of the Chinese restaurant rumor: according to this version, when a Vietnamese family moves into the neighborhood, all the stray cats disappear. That few, if any, Vietnamese in the U.S. eat cat doesn't impact this rumor one whit.

Additional Information:   The embedded clip below plays a fabulous musical version of this legend set to the tune of Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle":

Sightings:   Swayed by the police discount a new East Indian restaurant is offering, various members of the force partake of kitty curry before discovering what they're dining on in an episode of television's Hill Street Blues ("Bangladesh Slowly," original air date 1 November 1984).

Also told in:

    Holt, David and Bill Mooney.   Spiders in the Hairdo.
    Little Rock: August House, 1999.   ISBN 0-87483-525-9   (p. 77).

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.
    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 174).


    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Choking Doberman.     New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.   ISBN 0-393-30321-7   (pp. 121-122).

    Chenoweth, Doral.   "Cat, Dog Meat Rumors Should Be Put to Rest."     The Columbus Dispatch.   7 September 1995   (Features; p. 16).

    de Vos, Gail.   Tales, Rumors and Gossip.     Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1996.   ISBN 1-56308-190-3   (p. 39).

    Jacobson, David J.   The Affairs of Dame Rumor.     New York: Rinehart & Co., 1948   (p. 168).

    Goleman, Daniel.   "Anatomy of a Rumor: It Flies on Fear."     The New York Times.   4 June 1991   (p. C1).

    Kidd, Paul.   "TiCat Feast to Fight Cat Meat Slur."     The Toronto Star.   8 August 1991   (p. A10).

    Smith, Amy.   "Frozen-Cats-At-Eatery Story Called Only a Rumor."     Knoxville News-Sentinel.   3 December 1996   (p. A4).

    Smith, Paul.   The Book of Nasty Legends.     London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.   ISBN 0-00-636856-5   (p. 54).

    Zhuoqiong, Wang.   "Restaurants Told to Take Dog Meat Off Menus."     China Daily.   12 July 2008.