The practice of eating dog and cat meat — an age-old delicacy in parts of Asia — could be banned as legal experts consider the first law in China against animal abuse and cruelty, reports The Guardian. If passed, violators could be charged with fines of up to 5,000 yuan ($730 U.S.) and up to 15 days in jail.

The culinary tradition dates back thousands of years, but China's growing affluent, pet-loving middle class is increasingly critical of the practice. Online petitions against dog and cat consumption have attracted tens of thousands of signatures, and protests have arisen at markets where the animals are bought and sold.

Penalties proposed under the new law are steeper for businesses or organizations that promote the practice of eating man's best friend, with potential fines of up to 500,000 yuan.

For many international animal rights groups, the proposed legislation is long overdue. Without stiff enforcement, cruelty to animals and the raising of cat and dog meat for dinner tables is likely to remain widespread in China regardless of the growing consciousness over animal welfare.

"We need something more than moral pressure," said Zeng Li, the founder of the Lucky Cats shelter in Beijing. "Beijing's dog restaurants get their meat mainly from vagrant and stolen dogs. In the suburbs, dogs are hung and slaughtered in front of buyers."

Dog meat, often euphemized as "fragrant meat" on restaurant menus, can be found throughout China. The label helps ease the minds of those who understand the fondness for dogs as pets coexists with a taste for canine meat, much in the same way that "veal" or "mutton" are used in the United States to mask the reality of consuming calves or baby lambs.

Over 10 million dogs and 4 million cats are murdered every year for their meat or fur, according to livestock and poultry slaughtering administration departments in China. Eating both animals has long been viewed as promoting bodily warmth by practitioners of traditional medicine, though today the animals are often simply consumed for sustenance.

The report warned that the law is still being fiercely debated, and it could be modified or diluted during the drafting stages. Furthermore, draft legislation can take years to be approved in China.

Even so, once passed the proposed law should at least set a new precedent for animal rights in a country where endangered species are frequent menu items and antiquated, unfounded and superstitious medicinal practices are commonplace.