Throughout history, animals have played a key role in human life. People have depended on animals for food, clothing, transportation and nowadays, as companions. In the last several hundred years, there has been a massive increase in the number of animals kept solely for companionship and pleasure.
In many cultures around the world though, animals have also been the focus of religious worship. Animals still have certain roles in the world today. They are not just considered as pets, but they still maintain many of the traditional uses around the world, but the role of animals in society has most definitely changed.
The question really shouldn’t be when did animals become pets though, but rather what was the first animal to become a pet?
We can all keep animals like chickens, cows, sheep at home but would we class them as a pet? How do we define an animal as a pet? A pet suggests that an animal is tame and domesticated. It is solely used for companionship rather than for just work. We know that dogs were the first domestic animals, but it’s not clear if dogs were the first pet and if I’m being honest, no one really knows the answer to that question.
If we think of dogs in particular, you might think that the answer would be simple. That they were once wild wolves who then became domestic dogs. But you can’t say when exactly that happened and it’s also not as simple as that. Instead we need to look more at animals taking on different roles in human societies, which is something that happened over centuries.
Unfortunately, asking when the first pet came into being is a bit like asking when did life begin, or even which came first – the chicken or the egg? These are questions which we will never have a solid answer too. We can guess that just like now people found puppies, kittens and all sorts of animals cute, but did they think of them more as food rather than as companions as they got bigger?
Instead the best thing that we can do is look at how relationships between people and animals have developed over time to get a better idea of what the timeline might have been.
In prehistoric times, the animals were seen as food. It was how people survived. So you could just say that the relationship between primitive man and animals was that of hunter and prey. The simple instinct that man has is self-preservation, ensuring man’s survival in the world. Animals were there for food, and also for clothing.
Having said that, during this time, it soon became clear that dogs did have practical uses. They could hunt, guard and also herd. This is why we can say that dogs were the first animal to make the transition from the wild to the domesticated start of the wolf (the common ancestor of all modern-day dogs). So we can say that the idea of “man’s best friend” would have occurred at least 12,000-14,0000 years ago, when people realised that they could train young wolf cubs to remain subordinate to humans.
So we can assume that dogs might have been the first animal to become a pet. But there is no concrete evidence for this. We can just assume that domesticated dogs would have been treated with respect and there is also evidence that dogs were companions 12,000 to 14,000 years ago.
We know this, due to the finding of a Paleolithic tomb in Northern Israel, in which a human was buried with a dog or wolf puppy, illustrates this point. The dead person’s hand had been arranged so that it rested on the animal’s shoulder, as if to emphasize a deep bond of affection during life.
As the world changed and evolved, man turned from hunters to settled farmers, which was approximately 8,000 years ago in the so-called Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Dogs already played a huge part in human’s lives (the term “working dog” is probably more suited to dogs during this time), but cats were starting to become loosely associated with humans.
As humans became more settled, they were building houses, barns and grain stores, but with these new buildings came a few other issues – mice and other small animals – which are the favoured prey of small wild felids. It’s possible that cats who went after these rodents in human settlements would have been encouraged in some instances, but definitely tolerated. Cats played a small role during the ancient civilisation time though.
Instead, dogs still played a huge role, but not just as a “working dog”. In some ancient civilisations dogs would have had cultural significance, which usually would have regarded death practices. A slightly gruesome ritual was that the deceased would have been deliberately given to dogs to consume (gross I know), their reasoning was that it was necessary for the dead to pass through the dog (as in they needed to be consumed/eaten by dogs) to reach the afterlife.
This idea soon evolved into the belief that keeping a dog would actually ward off or prevent death (much better then thinking you need to be eaten by your dog when you are dead). In Ancient Greece, co-therapists in healing temples would often keep dogs though as they believed that they could cure any illness. Now I wish that dogs could cure all illnesses, but what I do know, is that even now we use therapy dogs to help with a wide range of things. There really is just something so calming about them.
It is also worth noting that pet ownership was starting to become a much bigger thing during this time, particularly amongst the ruling and noble classes – dating back as far as ancient Egyptian times. You can easily look at murals from that era depicting pharaohs who keep pets. Greek and Roman nobility were also avid pet keepers.
As the world developed and things changed, it is clear that animals became less central to human life. Animals did lose their religious and culture importance during this time, but there was a subtle change to animals taking on the role of a companion.
The Middle Ages
This time frame is from the 13th-15th century. There was a huge increase in pets during this time, most noticeable amongst the aristocracy and some senior clergy. It was seen as fashionable for noble ladies to have lap dogs (similar to how dogs in purses was fashionable at one point, although I would never been seen with a dog in my purse). For the noble men though, to truly show how “incredible” they were, they wanted more useful animals, such as hunting hounds and even falcons.
This makes so much sense, when you think about how during this period, hunting or “venery” was of great importance, since it was a symbol of power and status. It was also during this time that dog breeds spread throughout Europe as different types of hound were developed for chasing different quarry.
Not everyone approved of having a pet though. The Christian church frowned upon it hugely, as Church leaders suggested that the food given to the dogs should be given to the poor – the people who deserved it more in their eyes. It’s important to note that that was the reason they gave, but I think it was probably because they were more afraid of the close association that animals had with pagan worship. The reason I believe this is just because of the prejudice against pets reached its height during the Inquisition – often evidence that would be found against heretics would also include references associated with animals…
When you look at the witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries, where a large number of innocent people were accused of witchcraft and condemned to death, they often had possession of an “animal familiar“. Somehow this was considered as a symbol of Satan and it was used to prove that they were guilty – which is just awful. When you think that it was mainly elderly or isolated women, who probably kept an animal for companionship, it’s just sickening really.
Once the witch panic died down though, companion animals soon returned and even became a symbolise for good fortune.
As the world progressed, it’s kind of easy to understand why there was such a negative attitude towards companion animals though, as it was largely considered immoral and against the natural order of life. If you seem surprised by that, then interestingly, until relatively recently, there was a commonly held view in the Western world that animals lacked feelings and animals were created in order to serve humanity.
The Rise of Pet Keeping
After all of this, pet keeping wasn’t generally accepted in Europe until the end of the 17th century, and it wasn’t common among the middle classes until the late 18th century.
It wasn’t actually until the 19th century, thanks to a Victorian invention that pet keeping is how we see it today. But even then, the practice of pet keeping in Victorian times also reflected other social attitudes of the time. Pet keeping was not considered appropriate for the “lower classes,” as it was thought to encourage the neglect of other social duties.
We can clearly see that Britain has been breeding dogs since Roman times, and one of the first formal competitive dog shows was held in Newcastle in 1859 for the Pointer and Setter breeds. But it wasn’t until 1859, when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species that we cared more about the breeding of dogs (making it more formal and for there to be strict breed standards).
Where would be now without our beloved pets? I have three cats, two dogs, and several other animals on the farm, possible if I lived alone, and had this many animals during the Middle Ages, I would be accused of witchcraft. Now, I am quite happy to be known as a cat lady, particularly, when I’m on a zoom call with work, and the cat’s take centre stage. I think it brings a little bit of joy to people, particularly as this lockdown is never seeming to end in the UK (stay safe everyone).
But animals are not just here in the world to act as a companion to humans, animals like dogs have a number of different roles, from ornamental to status symbol, as helpers, and as companions. Dogs can help calm people, can help guide people, and even in some cases can be used to show a person’s status depending on breed.
Still we can say that the most common reason for having a pet is companionship though – coming home to your dog at the end of a rough day can really help bring a smile to your face. A cat who chooses to sit on you can make you feel special even on your bad days. There is a huge positive effect to having a pet, and obviously it’s totally up to you if you would rather not have a pet as well.
At least now, I don’t have to worry about being accused of witchcraft, I don’t have to worry about my body being eaten by dogs when I die, and certainly it’s nice knowing that having a dog (or any animal) as a companion is a total normal thing. It seems that animals are way more trusting than humans.
So there we have it, the evolution of pets. Going from wild animals to domestic dogs, from a social status to a beloved companion. The way we think about things compared to thousands of years ago is crazy, but I think it’s fascinating seeing how much we have changed and evolved.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve learnt anything new? If not I’d love to learn more about any of your pets in your life – let’s help spread a bit of positivity during this tough time!
*Photos picked are just of cute animals – just to bring a smile to your face 😀
**I’m UK based so currently still in a lockdown, it’s frustrating particularly when I’ve barely seen my family/boyfriend since March, but here we are…. I just want to say I hope everyone is doing okay and just think we are one day closer to this all being over!