It comes after Chinese authorities imposed an immediate ban on eating and trading wild animals in response to coronavirus, which is believed – but by no means conclusively proven – to have first spread to humans at a “wet” market in Wuhan.
“With the progress of human civilisation and the public’s concern and preference for animal protection, dogs have changed from traditional domestic animals to companion animals,” China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs said.
“Dogs are generally not regarded as livestock and poultry around the world, and China should also not manage them as livestock and poultry.”
The announcement was published on Wednesday alongside a draft document of the National Catalogue of Livestock and Poultry Genetic Resources – a list of which livestock can be legally traded for meat, fur and medical purposes.
While the official list has never included dogs or cats, it is the first time Chinese authorities have explained their omission. The document is open to public consultation until 8 May.
An estimated 10 million dogs a year are killed for China’s dog meat trade, which is thought to be consumed infrequently by less than 20 per cent of the population, according to Humane Society International (HSI).
A nationwide survey in 2016 suggested a majority of Chinese citizens think the dog meat trade should be completely banned, with nearly 70 per cent of those polled having never eaten it – despite efforts by traders to promote it. Last week, Shenzhen became the first Chinese city to explicitly ban their consumption and production.
“This draft proposal could signal a game-changer moment for animal protection in China,” said HSI director Wendy Higgins.
“Coming so soon after Shenzhen’s dog and cat meat ban, it is incredibly encouraging now to see a draft on the table in mainland China that could effectively ban the eating of dogs and cats.
“Tens of millions of dogs and cats every year, mostly stolen pets, suffer the agonies of the brutal meat trade, and there is no greater desire to see it end than among Chinese animal groups and animal lovers themselves.
“Not only does it cause enormous animal suffering, but it is also almost entirely fuelled by crime and, perhaps most significantly right now, poses an undeniable human health threat with the risk of diseases such as rabies and cholera.”
The announcement “signals a major shift” in government policy, said Ms Higgins, adding: “We have to await the outcome of the consultation phase but this draft could effectively pave the way for China to officially take dogs and cats off the menu.”
But the draft ban already faces opposition from dog-related business owners, particularly in Guangxi, where thousands of people are reliant upon the trade.
One business owner from Guangxi told the state-affiliated Global Times that the government's draft should take local living conditions into consideration, warning it could be difficult for many to change profession.
Dogs are eaten infrequently in Nigeria, Togo and across most of South East Asia, according to the Poynter Institute. Campaigners also say they are eaten in Switzerland.
China's draft livestock catalogue was published as a new study found cats and ferrets are highly susceptible to contracting Covid-19.
The paper, published on the website of the journal Science, found dogs, chickens, pigs and ducks are not likely to catch the virus.
The results prompted the World Health Organisation to say it will take a closer look at transmission of the virus between humans and pets, Reuters reported.