The Separation of Strays and Pets

Humans may have kept dogs as pets for centuries, but it was during nineteenth century that Europeans and North Americans embraced dogs as valued and beloved members of the family and welcomed them into the home. The expansion and veneration of pet-keeping cemented the strengthening assumption that stray dogs were unwelcome on the streets of modern cities. Pet-keeping advice and products served to distinguish pet dogs from ownerless stray dogs who were increasingly felt to act and look differently to owned and domesticated canines. If strays were symptoms and propagators of dangerous urbanization, pet owners and dog experts treated pet dogs as an emotional balm for the stresses and anxieties of modern life. Books, paintings, prints, photographs and newspapers glorified pet dogs as loyal members of the household who comforted family members and protected the home from hostile intruders.

westminster dog show image by Chris Rodenhurst

Westminster dog show in New York as illustrated by Chris Rodenhurst. Find out more about Westminster Dog Show by downloading the app Sniffing the Past

Experts, self-appointed or otherwise, began to offer detailed advice to pet dog owners on the correct way to care for their animals, encompassing feeding, training, grooming, clothing and treating illnesses. Breeders, veterinarians, magazines, pet shops and manufactures began to cater for consumers in this expanding market. North American breeders imported dogs from Europe to sell to wealthy urbanites, with purebred European breeds becoming living symbols of elegance, savoir-faire and aristocratic values.  Female breeders and importers became main players in the breeding and selling of pet dogs.[1] Money was to be made from pets, with Spratt’s Patent pioneering commercial pet dog food. American businessman James Spratt founded the company in the 1860s when he reportedly saw stray dogs eating hardtack (ship biscuits) on the London docks. Inspired by the foraging of stray dogs, Spratt created a trans-Atlantic business whose products promised to offer dog owners a modern and rational way of ensuring their dog’s health. From its base in London Spratt’s became the first commercially-available dog food in the United States and France. It promoted its ever-diversifying range of dog biscuits and medicines through advertisements in dog care and breeding books as well as in its own publications, arguing that its high quality ingredients guaranteed canine “dietetic hygiene” unlike the carrion found on streets.[2] Most dog experts hailed the biscuits as a sign of progress, and approved of Spratt’s continual development of the biscuits. Editor of The Field J. H. Walsh (who was also known as “Stonehenge”) welcomed the introduction of beetroot to the biscuits in 1881. [3] The expansion of the nascent pet food industry meant that distinctions between stray and pet dogs were now made on a dietary level, even if strays had allegedly inspired Spratt.

Manufacturers of collars, flea powder and dog soaps joined Spratt’s in advertising their wares to the dog fancy through dog show catalogues.[4] Increasingly cared for and attached to their owner and home, pet dogs stood out aesthetically from stray dogs. Even when unattended pet dogs roamed the streets alongside ownerless dogs the difference remained apparent. A reader of Le Petit Journal distinguished between dogs that were loose on the streets of Paris but which had owners and those that had “no home nor food” and who constituted a “real danger”. Echoing medical debates over the visual identification of cretinism and other perceived degeneracies in humans, the correspondent argued that it was possible to identify “at first glance” those dogs that “lived in a permanent bohemian state”.[5] Lacking human care and control, strays fed off, and contributed to, disorderly streets. As British dog breeder Gordon Stables argued in 1877, “dogs have far too much liberty. In our villages and towns they are allowed to do pretty much as they please, and go wherever they list – at least, the mongrel portion of the community may, for well-bred dogs are looked better after. [Strays] crowd our streets… eating garbage and filth, getting disease, and freely disseminating it.”[6] Lacking human control and companionship, strays cluttered and degraded the streets.

They also seemingly made streets more violent. British authority on rabies George Fleming argued that unattended dogs were prone to violence and that “dogs ought never to be allowed to run about at large for a long time without being watched, as they are liable to fight with strange dogs, become quarrelsome and vicious.”[7]  Some observers saw strays as a direct threat to pet dogs. Without human contact they became “quarrelsome” and “aggressive”, setting themselves on pet dogs, who, having become more “docile” in human company, fared poorly in street brawls with their wilder counterparts.[8]

Strays’ reputation as vicious and dirty beings crystalized, a view given credibility by evolutionists. Charles Darwin’s protégé Georges Romanes asserted that “curs of low degree” lacked the “moral refinement” and sense of “self-respect and dignity” enjoyed by “high-life” dogs who could experience greater suffering due to their “constant companionship” with humans that had endowed them with greater intelligence and “emotional character.”[9] As mobile, disruptive, debased, semi-wild beasts living on the streets at a time when the middle classes in particular celebrated pet dogs as loyal and useful household members, strays had deviated from the dog’s main purpose in life: to serve and to provide companionship for humans. Alongside the public hygiene movement, rabies scares, the promotion of pedigree breeds, and fears of vagabondage, petkeeping helped transform strays into dogs who deserved containment and culling.

This blog was written by Dr Chris Pearson. Chris is Senior Lecturer in Twentieth Century History at the University of Liverpool. He is researching the transnational history of dogs in London, New York and Paris, and has published articles on police dogs, stray dogs and dog mess. He blogs on dogs and history at https://sniffingthepast.wordpress.com/  and has produced a free smart phone app on dogs in London, New York and Paris, which is available on iTunes and Google Play at https://appstore.liv.ac.uk/sniffing-the-past/

[1] K. C. Grier, Pets in America: A History (Chapel Hill, 2006), 237-9.

[2] Spratt’s Patent, The Common Sense of Dog Doctoring (London, [1884]), 114.

[3] J. H. Walsh, The Dogs of the British Islands, 4th edition (London, 1882), 4.

[4] Grier, Pets in America, 281-3; Westminster Kennel Club, First Annual N.Y. Bench Show Catalogue (New York, 1877).

[5] ‘Un Lecteur assidu’, Le Petit Journal, 24 March 1870.

[6] G. Stables, Dogs in the relation to the public: Social, sanitary and legal (London, 1877).

[7] G. Fleming, Rabies and Hydrophobia (London, 1872), 352.

[8] H. Laligant, De la rage chez le chien et de sa police sanitaire (Dijon, 1874), 30.

[9] G. J. Romanes, Animal Intelligence (London, 1882), 439.

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