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It’s hard to imagine a world without pets. Dogs are considered to be man’s best friend. Cats are cute and cuddly companions. Even more unconventional pets like mice, lizards, and Guinea pigs have become major parts of American homes.
But, it wasn’t always that way.
While owning animals for different purposes has been practiced for centuries, the Victorian era changed the way we look at pets. Up until the 19th century, it wasn’t common to have an animal in the home with no real purpose other than companionship. People certainly weren’t researching how to care for kittens or spending money on dog toys the way they do today.
So, what is the history of pets, and how did that change during the Victorian era? If you’re a pet owner today, you can probably thank the 19th century for changing the way we look at our furry friends. Let’s dig deeper into those changes, and why they matter so much in terms of the dog or cat you might have by your side while you’re reading this.
Research has shown that humans have likely kept animals as some form of entertainment for centuries. It’s believed that dogs were the first domesticated animals, as research has been published showing wolves were domesticated in Europe 16,000 years ago, and in Asia about 14,000 years ago.
These animals weren’t really considered “pets.” Rather, they were more like property, kept around for entertainment purposes or to do a specific job. That didn’t mean those animals weren’t enjoyed by their owners, but it was a far cry from the companionship and praise of household pets we’re used to today.
The real rise of pet domestication in the U.S. began in the early 1700s with the catching and taming of wild animals – including squirrels! Most squirrels were trapped by children who caught them in their nests and attempted to domesticate them. The trapping and taming of wild animals didn’t stop there and carried on into the Victorian era, though it combined with a view on pets that was starting to become a bit more exclusive.
As the Victorian era rolled in, pets were already well-established for some people. It was their purpose, however, that started to change. It was during the 19th century that it started to become more acceptable for animals to be companions. That included letting them into the home and allowing them to be a part of the family. Many people started to see pets as a way to add moral value to a family and build character for children.
During the Victorian era, people became more interested in a domestic lifestyle, and having a pet seemed to naturally fit. Pets were especially encouraged for young boys, as they were thought to develop a sense of responsibility.
But, the pets of this era were slightly different than the cat curled up next to you or the dog at your feet right now. Poor and working-class families essentially had to trap their own pets. Many of them captured wild birds to keep in cages or rabbits to keep in hutches. Middle- and upper-class families popularized pedigree dog breeding. It was seen as a sign of status and wealth, and something that is still practiced today.
With the rise of pet popularity in the Victorian era, people became interested in keeping more unusual or exotic animals. There were even manuals on how to care for such wild pets, including:
While the types of pets people have may have changed, pet owners of today owe a lot to this era for changing the narrative of what domesticated animals can be.
Today, 67% of households in the U.S. have some type of pet. Many of those furry (and sometimes not so furry!) friends are considered to be part of the family. The pet industry is booming, reaching $99 billion in 2020. Needless to say, we’ve come a long way in how pets are perceived and what they’re used for. The 21st century has even seen a rise in animal rights, with several notable court cases featuring animals as plaintiffs.
There are still “working animals,” of course. Working dogs are extremely common in farming, police work, search and rescue, and even for therapeutic purposes. But, many pets are simply constant companions within a household. People now take the time to pet-proof their homes and provide things like:
- A bed
- Food and water bowls
- A litter box/training pads
- Training treats
People care for their pets so much today that many even take out pet insurance to help cover veterinary bills. In centuries past, the medical care of domesticated animals was rarely a concern. Today, pet insurance can cover everything from diagnostic testing to emergency care.
It shouldn’t be surprising to see how far the role of the household pet has come throughout history. Centuries ago, people couldn’t stay away from the idea of domesticating animals. While the purposes have changed, the desire for companionship hasn’t, and we owe a lot of how pets are viewed and treated today to some of the changes that took place in the Victorian era.