BEIJING — There are a million moral and ethical arguments against eating dogs.

Westerners like to make these arguments, while Chinese who enjoy the meal refute them with a polite scoff. The dogs you eat, they say, are different than those you keep as pets. The meat is healthy, especially in winter. But a growing body of evidence could make everyone think twice, as new studies emerge indicating that putting Fido on a plate is potentially harmful and even deadly to humans.

China has a rabies problem. The deadly disease has spiked here in recent years and its troubling rise shows no sign of abating. In 2007, there were 3,302 confirmed human rabies cases in China, nearly 21 times the number found from the entire period between 1990 and 1996, when rabies was largely controlled. Periodic dog culls in rabies-hit areas have not stopped its spread and the mass killings often lead to public ill will. The far northeastern town of Heihe was forced last week after public outcry to reverse its plan to kill every dog in the city, instead allowing each family to keep one small dog.

As the debate over the dangers of pets and strays rumbles on, a growing number of studies point not to the country’s burgeoning pet population as the source of its problem, but rather to mass dog farming and slaughter. Even if they don’t have rabies, there is a good chance that dogs bound for the dinner plate are unhealthy.

“There is certainly more risk of rabies in the dogs caught up in the meat trade, where they are caged transported and kept in the markets en masse,” said Jill Robinson, the founder and CEO of the Animals Asia Foundation. “Many are wounded as a result of inappropriate handling and the abuse they receive at the hands of the traders, and the rabies virus can easily spread through bites or scratches or even from saliva entering open wounds.”

Robinson, whose organization rescues farmed animals in China and across Asia, said a recent mission to save 149 dogs from the meat markets in Guangdong Province proved eye-opening about illness. The group had to euthanize 100 of the rescued dogs, mainly for disease. There were no confirmed rabies cases, but most had distemper.

In a March 17 study from Hanoi published by the PLoS Medicine magazine, researchers pointed to two cases of human rabies in Vietnam where the patients were believed infected while butchering a rabid animal — in one case a dog, the other a cat. In 2006, Philippines media reported two cases of people dying of rabies after eating dog meat.

“Dogs are the main reservoir for human rabies, and the raising, butchering, processing and consumption of dogs should be regulated and controlled,” the researchers in Vietnam wrote.

In China, nobody is quite so open about the dog-meat trade and its potential dangers, likely because it’s so culturally sensitive. Even the most diehard fans know the habit is frowned upon elsewhere. Though there are no clear numbers, Robinson’s group estimates that 18 to 80 million dogs are eaten every year in China.

Chinese scientists investigating the rabies problem were reluctant to talk about the dog-meat issue, saying only that large dog farms create special hazards.

A recent Chinese study also mentions two separate cases of human rabies infection in this country among people who were infected while butchering or handling dog carcasses. In that study, published by medical researchers in the journal “Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases,” researchers noted that the vast majority of rabies cases occurred in rural areas, and were mainly contracted through dog bites in places where dog farming and ownership is unregulated. In other words, the Pekingese pups of Beijing and Shanghai are not likely to morph into Cujo.

The solution, since Chinese diners don’t appear willing to give up dog meat any time soon? Education and vaccinations, plus more pressure, Robinson said.

Still, she said, “No government in the world has devised ‘humane’ methods of raising and slaughtering dogs and cats en masse and, if we were to endorse this route, we would undermine decades of work by welfare groups in other countries of Asia who have successfully brought the consumption of dogs and cats to an end.”

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