Can we talk of pets having a history?
The English word ‘pet’, meaning an animal kept for pleasure or companionship, seems to have been used no earlier than the 16th century, and possibly as late as the early 18th. The earliest references were to indulged or spoiled children, so we might reasonably ask not when animals became pets but when pets became animals? The answer to that question, at least in the western world, seems to indicate a later transformation. In 18th-century England, dogs as pets seem to be widespread, for instance, but often portrayed as useless luxuries, the playthings of a corrupted aristocracy and their womenfolk especially. Such quintessentially ladies’ pets as lapdogs could be scorned as frivolities and fashion accessories, or, worse, a perversion of proper feelings. As Alexander Pope put it, in The Rape of the Lock (1712): ‘Not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav’n are cast,/When Husbands or when Lap-dogs breathe their last’.
How did we arrive at the pet dogs with which we are familiar, pampered still, but to a rather greater degree respectable? There is a strong case to be made for a focus on the Victorian age, when the newly admired royal couple pictured their pet dogs alongside their children, as the very image of a proper family. With the onset of industrialization and urbanization in the 19th century, pet keeping can even be considered as a kind of lament for a lost closeness to nature. There are other milestones on the remarkable journey to the modern pet too: the first recognizable dog show was held at Newcastle in 1859; pedigree dog breeding was formalized under the aegis of the Kennel Club (founded 1873); in or around 1860 the world’s first dedicated mass-produced dog food, Spratt’s famous ‘X Patent’ dog biscuits, were launched; and one of Spratt’s employees, a Mr. Charles Cruft, was to lend his name in 1891 to the most famous dog show in the world.
If we want to place the pet in the Victorian age, it is also important to take this ambition literally rather than figuratively, to consider the location of the pet dog (the characteristically erratic cat is an obvious contrast) in the family and in the home. Charles Dickens, for example, was fêted as a great friend of animals, dogs in particular, and his love of animals was entirely of a piece with his paeans to the charms of home. Dickens’s ambition, ‘to live in the hearts and homes of home-loving people’ profoundly coloured the many pen portraits of dogs in his fiction. Increasingly the emblem of a comfortable and loving home, the Victorian dog was now released to become one of the family rather than a threat to its right relations. As a living and breathing reminder of the duties of care, for instance, the dog took on a new role in the moral education of middle-class children. As the focus of new animal welfare efforts, ‘man’s best friend’ also became the animal equivalent of the host of ‘rehoming’ and ‘rescue’ charities that sprung up in the Victorian age. The founding of the Battersea Dogs’ Home in 1861 is testimony to this desire to place the dog, as a pet, firmly in the security of the home.
The construction of the private ‘pet’ is unthinkable, moreover, without that of the proper dog’s public counterpart: the all-too-vulnerable ‘lost’ dog or ‘stray’. Dogs in public who had wandered off from their owners faced a host of new terrors – the vivisector, for one, but the dognapper for another. Dog-snatchers were criminals who stole pets and ransomed them back to their owners, for considerable sums (it is a trade which still exists, called into being by the emotional and financial investment that pets, and particularly pedigree pets, represent). In September, 1846, as Elizabeth Barrett was preparing for her secret marriage to Robert Browning, her beloved spaniel Flush was stolen from the streets for a third time – necessitating an anxious expedition to Whitechapel to pay the six guineas’ ransom. Dognapping illustrates how important the pet had become by the 19th century, and the pet’s place in owners’ affections. But it also reinforced the association between the pet dog and the middle-class home, as well as the idea that dogs were ‘out of place’ in the public streets. This geographical separation between the ‘pet’ and the ‘stray’ was mutually reinforcing. It is a cruel irony, for instance, that the function of the Battersea Dogs’ Home to reunite owners with their lost dogs, particularly the pedigreed pooches, was accompanied by its role in clearing the public streets of the many unwanted strays, mongrels, and curs. Street dogs’ lives were, in contrast to the pet, increasingly inauspicious: being without a home was the same as being without ownership, and without all the protections that being property conferred. The stray dog was increasingly vulnerable to being policed out of the public streets, and out of this world altogether. Through our neglect, many dogs’ homes are forced to be, in the uncomfortable and oxymoronic modern parlance, ‘kill shelters’.
By the Victorian age, then, we have something like a modern culture of pet keeping: pet dogs were widespread, but (and more importantly) largely normal and respectable; they were the common enthusiasm of both rich and poor, but also subject to an invidious hierarchy that separated the pedigree from the mongrel; and whilst the lucky few were more securely placed in the sanctuary of the home, the dogs of the street found their lives as a result increasingly precarious. We can call this culture, more succinctly, the age of the pet.
By Philip Howell, Senior Lecturer in Geography, Emmanuel College, Cambridge