You take a fat cat, and cut its throat, and after it is dead, behead it and throw the head away, because it is not something to be eaten because it is said that those who eat the brains will lose their minds and lack judgment.
So begins a recipe in Llibre de Coch, a 15th-century Spanish cookbook and one of the oldest in Europe. Today, most people in the western world would turn away in disgust if they saw cat on the menu, regardless of whether or not they were a fan of the world’s most popular pet. But people do eat cats—millions of felines a year, in fact, and four million in Asia alone, according to a study published this month in Anthrozoös.
Why do they do it? Cats (and dogs) have long been on the menu in China—it’s considered a delicacy by some—though the government has begun to crack down on the practice as both animals have become more popular pets there. But it many places it’s not clear why people eat cats, or even how they obtain them.
To get some answers, the authors of the Anthrozoös study turned to the island nation of Madagascar, home to a rapidly growing—and impoverished—human population. The researchers speculated that given the high rates of malnutrition and the large number of pet and feral cats found across the country, that the Malagasy would turn to felines for food.
But after the researchers interviewed hundreds of people, the responses surprised them. Only a third of the interviewees had consumed cat meat in their entire lifetimes, and those with less regular access to food were no more likely to eat cat. When people did eat cat meat, they rarely bought it. Instead, they ate cats that had been hit by cars or that they had killed to protect their chickens. “Cat consumption is unlikely to provide a sufficient, sustainable means of tackling hunger, given the large scale of food insecurity issues in Madagascar,” the team concludes in its paper.
Whether these results apply to other parts of the globe is unclear. But one thing does seem certain: as cats gain in popularity as pets, the taboos against eating them will only become stronger. Felines may have been on the menu in medieval Spain, but today they’re more likely to be on your lap than on your dinner plate.