Puppy-fattening farmers switch trades: Is an end in sight for Vietnam’s dog meat market?

As dog meat bans sweep across Asia, Vietnam is one of the few countries in Asia where consuming canines remains legal. Puppy-fattening farmer Phạm Dũng tells Eco-Business why he switched to growing bean sprouts. Meanwhile, experts debate the link between the dog meat trade and rabies.

Fifty-two year-old Thái Nguyên resident Phạm Dũng holding a puppy
Fifty-two year-old Thái Nguyên resident Phạm Dũng used to rear puppies in small cages or old pig barns and feed them pig feed or leftover food from humans during his seven years as a puppy-fattening farmer. He has now switched to growing beansprouts and sweet potatoes. Image: Humane Society International

There have been clear signs over the last year that Asia is losing its appetite for dog meat.

Rising pet ownership and powerful celebrity-led campaigns from animal welfare groups that point to the link between the dog meat trade and zoonotic diseases such as rabies have increasingly made eating dog taboo in Asia, even in countries where canine consumption has been a niche but socially accepted part of the culture for centuries.

South Korea, the only country where dogs have been farmed on an industrial scale, joined China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore in banning the dog meat trade in January.

Regional bans have been sweeping across Indonesia too, with Jakarta outlawing the trade last year and even Tomohon, home to North Sulawesi’s notorious “extreme” market, clamping down on dog consumption last July, although Eco-Business found evidence of dog for sale there in December. Now, 50 cities, regencies and provinces across the archipelago have banned the trade.

India’s Nagaland state and Cambodia’s Siem Reap province have also banned dog meat from dinner plates in recent months.

One of Asia’s strongholds for the dog meat market is Vietnam, where consuming canines is not illegal, and eating dog is considered a delicacy in some parts of the country. Some five million dogs and one million cats are believed to be slaughtered every year for their meat in Vietnam, the second biggest consumer of dog and cat meat after China, according to estimates by non-governmental organisations. 

However, a directive from Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh in March for local authorities to institute tougher rabies prevention and control measures in response to a spike in cases of the disease – mainly caused by dog bites – has given animal welfare groups ammunition to go after Vietnam’s dog meat trade.

Animal welfare groups, and some scientific papers, argue that the trade undermines rabies control efforts because it removes vaccinated dogs – often stolen pets or captured strays – from the population, effectively taking away the barrier to stopping the spread of the disease, which has killed 29 people in Vietnam since the start of the year.

However, some animal welfare experts in Vietnam, for instance Hoi An-based Catherine Besch of Vietnam Animal Aid, argue that without the population control of the dog meat trade, Vietnam’s rabies rate would be even higher, because of the absense of an effective sterilisation and vaccination programme for free-roaming dogs and poor veterinary standards.

“They can say whatever they want about trying to eliminate rabies in conference rooms in Hanoi, but they’ve never built the army of vets to carry out mass vaccination,” she said. “If anything, the dog meat trade is actually preventing even more extensive spread of rabies from an unchecked stray population.”

Freed puppies

Last week, Humane Society International (HSI), a United States-based animal welfare non-profit, rescued 58 puppies from two dog meat fattening farms in Thái Nguyên, northern Vietnam, as part of a joint effort with the local government to crack down on the trade.

The initiative was part of HSI’s Models for Change programme, which has been operating since 2015 to shut down dog meat farms, first in South Korea and later in Vietnam, and relocate rescued dogs to homes in the West.

An investigation by HSI in January revealed how a network of dog thieves, traffickers and traders operate in Vietnam, transporting dogs in brutal conditions from neighbouring countries such as Cambodia and Thailand back to Vietnam for slaughter and sale.

The unregulated movement of dogs of unknown disease and vaccination status poses a major rabies risk, experts told Eco-Business in a report on the increase of the zoonotic in Southeast Asia in the years since the Covid-19 pandemic.

A study commissioned by HSI last year found that around one quarter of Vietnam’s population had consumed dog meat in the last year, with 64 per cent and 68 per cent of respondents, respectively, supporting a ban on dog meat consumption and trade.

Why a Vietnamese dog farmer ditched the trade

One of the two dog meat fattening farms that was closed down as part of HSI’s programme belonged to 52-year-old Thái Nguyên resident Phạm Dũng, who has run his farm for the last seven years.

Phạm first entered the trade because of the low initial cost of setting up the farm compared to farming pigs, chickens or cows, and the relatively high return on investment. It also did not require any particular skill or technical knowledge, he said.

“At first I had just a few dogs in my yard and the dog traders came to buy them and I found it made good money. So then I started my own business and it helped to support my family as the main income source,” he told Eco-Business.

Phạm kept his dogs in small cages or old pig barns and fed them pig feed or leftover human food to fatten them before selling them to butchers.

Dogs kept in cages before slaughter in Vietnam

Puppies reared for the dog meat trade in Vietnam. Image: Humane Society International

But the mental health repurcussions of sending “friendly and loyal” animals for slaughter eventually took its toll on Phạm, as did the worry that he was putting his family at risk of contracting rabies. “To maximise my profits, I never gave rabies vaccinations to my dogs,” he said.

Pressure from the community may have played a role in his decision too, as Phạm admits to having received criticism from family and friends for his role in the trade, which is known to deploy cruel methods to capture, transport and butcher dogs.

To catch free-roaming dogs and pets for the meat trade in Vietnam, traders use poisoned food baits, tasers and iron pincers, according to HSI’s research. Dogs are crated and transported without food or water in cramped conditions. The most common way to kill dogs is to hit them on their head with a hammer or club to make them unconcious, then slit their throats.

Despite being a broadly accepted custom in Vietnam – particularly among men, who enjoy the dish as a treat to be consumed with alcohol – a growing number of Vietnamese are against the dog meat trade, as dogs are increasingly regarded as pets and kept at home, said Phạm.

“It is getting easier to understand the perspective of people who are against the trade.” 

However, cost is an unlikely barrier to stopping the trade. According to HSI’s research, dog meat is inexpensive, costing from VND150,000 to VND200,000 ($US6-US$8) per dish in Thái Nguyên.

52 year-old Thái Nguyên resident Phạm Dũng, who has run his farm for the last seven years, holding a puppy

Phạm Dũng, who has run his farm for the last seven years, holding a puppy. Image: Humane Society International

Phạm has now switched to cultivating beansprouts and sweet potatoes instead of dogs, even though he won’t earn as much income.

“The income I bring in from growing crops will be ok,” he said. “It may not be quite as high as running a dog farm, but personally I feel more comfortable now that I have got out of the business.”

Bringing Asia’s dog meat trade to heel

South Korea’s ban on the dog meat industry presents a “compelling opportunity” for policymakers in other Asian countries where the trade persists, said Wendy Higgins, director of international media for HSI.

The Korean ban shows that it is possible to introduce strong legislation to dismantle the industry, combined with solutions-based policymaking to address the needs of those financially dependent on the trade, in addition to penalties and strict enforcement for infringements, said Higgins, adding that she hopes Indonesia, where dog meat bans have been spreading across the country, will follow South Korea’s example.

“In Indonesia, Vietnam, China and elsewhere, the link between the dog meat trade and the spread of rabies is another compelling reason why we are seeing policymakers engaging more and more,” she said.

Policymakers recognise that an active dog meat trade that sees the mass movement of dogs across and between countries, is “utterly incompatible” with rabies control measures and actively undermines canine rabies vaccination drives, Higgins said.

“What we need to see now though, is for that to translate into decisive, effective, national-level legislation to wipe out the trade in these remaining countries, for the benefit of both animals and people.”

Dogs in a dog meat farm in Vietnam

Dogs in a holding pen on a dog meat farm in Vietnam. Image: Humane Society International

Meanwhile, rabies continues to be a problem in Vietnam, which has seen a 160 per cent jump in human fatalities recorded so far this year. Experts warn the death toll could rise further, because of large number of unvaccinated, free-roaming dogs in the country.

Dr Terence Scott, director of programmes for Global Alliance for Rabies Control, said that while the illegal dog meat trade can contribute to the spread of rabies, the ending of the dog meat trade does not necessarily correlate with a reduction in the disease.

In countries such as Vietnam, where the dog meat trade is directly associated with the unregulated movement of unhealthy animals or animals of unknown health status, the ending of the trade is likely to have a positive impact on rabies elimination efforts. “But it is unlikely to result in a drastic and visible reduction of rabies cases without other interventions, such as mass dog vaccination, being part of rabies elimination efforts,” Scott said.

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