The Dividing Line

Photo by Peter Lawson

By Rachael Whitlock

Typically, when we order barbecue at a restaurant, we don’t think about the animal that the meat came from. We don’t think about the 9.2 billion animals that are slaughtered every year in America for food (Human Society of the United States). Instead, it’s just a product – something that has been processed for our taste and enjoyment. But if someone ever put a plate in front of us with a piece of dog meat on it, most of us would not see edible food. In fact, many Americans would picture their own four-legged friend, with his wagging tail and lolling tongue, and would be repulsed at the thought of eating him. For hundreds of years, humans have divided animals into two separate categories: the ones we eat and the ones we don’t. In the United States, cows, pigs, and chickens fall into the “edible” category while cats, dogs, and horses fall into the “inedible” category. In other cultures, although animals might fall into different categories than these, there is still a dividing line between the spared and the slaughtered. But how have we come to create such a line? Why is it that people find it acceptable to eat some animals but not others?

It would be difficult to argue that our companion animals are more intelligent or more sentient than at least some of the animals we eat. A series of studies published in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology in 2015 found pigs to possess more cognitive capabilities than dogs, and to be on about the same intellectual level as chimpanzees. In order to conduct these studies, pigs had to pass a series of tests involving using mirrors to find hidden food, completing mazes, learning a simple symbolic language, and manipulating a joystick to move an on-screen cursor. Another study concerning farm animal sentience done by researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, indicated that pigs may be able to empathize with their pen mates, a trait previously assigned only to humans and primates (Scientific American, 2015). To conduct the study, scientists trained a few pigs to feel either happiness or stress based on whether they received rewards or punishments. The untrained pigs began to show the same signs of happiness or distress as their pen mates, even though the untrained pigs had no knowledge of the rewards and punishments. Based on the pig’s reactions, the researchers were able to conclude that the animals possessed the capacity to be effected by, and share the emotional states, of each other (Scientific American, 2015). The study on empathy in pigs was published in the journal Animal Cognition.  These studies conclude that at least some of the animals we eat, including pigs, are as intelligent as our beloved pets.

But even with evidence that dividing species is nonsensical, many of us continue to eat farm animals without blinking an eye. Today, the general public is so far removed from living, breathing, farm animals that the disconnect many feel is understandable. Few people still work on farms and interact with their food before it’s on their plate. Most Americans no longer have to collect chicken eggs, milk cows, and slaughter pigs they’ve raised since birth. After all, it seems the most obvious reason we don’t eat dogs and cats is because they play such a large role in our lives. We feed them, play with them, and sleep with them; many people would find it difficult to fathom eating their companions. The apparent reason for our choices is simply because that’s the way it has always been done.

The point of this article is not to influence people to start eating their companion animals, but to ask people to think deeply about the reasons they eat (and don’t eat) certain animals. Realizing that “edible” animals are intelligent and emotionally cognitive could suddenly make it more difficult to eat them with a clear conscious. Our pets and our food are much more similar than they are different, and, because of these similarities, we should think more closely about the moral dilemma eating animals poses.  Next time, when ordering a rack of ribs, think about that pig as you would think about your dog and ask yourself, should there really be a dividing line?


What do you think of this article? Share your feedback in the comments section.



  • (2017). Protect Farm Animals. Humane Society of the United States. 28 March 2017.
  • Griffiths, Sarah. (15 January 2015). Pigs Have Feelings Too! Farm Animals Feel Empathy Towards Their Penmates, Study Claims. Daily Mail. 28 March 2017.
  • Marino, Lori; & Colvin, Christina M. (2015). Thinking Pigs: A Comparative Review ofCognition, Emotion, and Personality in Sus domesticusInternational Journal of Comparative Psychology, 28 March 2017.
  • Muth, Felicity. (13 January 2015). Can Pigs Empathize? Scientific American. 28 March 2017.
  • Reimert, I., Bolhuis, J. E., Kemp, B., & Rodenburg, T. B. (2014). Emotions on the loose: emotional contagion and the role of oxytocin in pigs. Animal cognition. 28 March 2017.



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