Pet history: A look at our interest in pets over the years

Historical evidence of the first pets range from Rome to Egypt. (Photo courtesy of Ken & Lisa Baechtold)

Historical evidence of the first pets range from Rome to Egypt. (Photo courtesy of Ken & Lisa Baechtold)

Many pet owners like to think their pets chose them as much as they chose their pets. And on the wider historical scale, this is very much true. When hunter-gatherer societies settled into agrarian mode, the earliest companion animals wandered into human colonies. "They were sneaking in to feed off garbage and waste," says Melinda Zeder, director of the Smithsonian Institution's archaeobiology program. "These early visitors were less wary and aggressive than others of their species, and so they were more tolerable to humans."

By studying animal DNA and skeletons, archaeologists have determined that humans domesticated dogs 17,000 years ago and cats a few thousand years later. Further evidence of domestication are ancient gravesites where dogs and cats were buried alongside humans. In one grave dating to 10,000 B.C. and found in Israel in 1978, a man and a woman were buried alongside three dogs, with the woman cradling a puppy in her arms. "The fact that they're buried with a human shows that they're not just hanging out, but have become part of a household," Zeder says.

Of all domesticated animals, cats changed the least from their wild form to independent and aloof pets. "Cats didn't have a purpose in the home and probably never will have a purpose," says Oxford University zoologist Carlos Driscoll. "They're cute, which is the facetious but probably true reason we keep them around. They aren't even very good mouse hunters, compared to dogs and ferrets."

That didn't stop ancient Egyptians, who revered animals in general, from praising cats for their hunting ability. More than 4,000 years ago, Egyptians worshipped cats as gods, making it a capital crime to kill one. They made them valued members of the household and often mummified them.

Elsewhere, Romans welcomed cats and dogs into their homes and formed emotional bonds not unlike modern times. "They had dog gravestones in ancient Rome, and their descriptions talked about how handsome and loyal they were, a lot like pet cemeteries today," says Katherine Grier, author of "Pets in America" and curator of a traveling museum exhibit of the same name.

Grier says the word "pet," short for "petit," originated in 16th-century England, when it described any child treated as a favorite. By the mid-17th century, the term expanded to include animals.

The 19th century saw significant growth in pet interest. In the 1840s, people became interested in breeding animals specifically for show. "The roots of this were in animal husbandry and agricultural improvement, and then it became a vehicle for expression of social class," Grier says.

Fish and birds, which had already been kept as pets for centuries, grew even more common, and small animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs became popular pets for children. In the 1870s, as sailors and brought home unusual creatures from their travels, Americans grew interested in exotic pets such as monkeys and iguanas.

In the last century, and in particular the last few decades, the pet/human relationship has seen great change. "In the Victorian era, thinking of pets as 'furry children' was not common," Grier says. "That's really in the last 20 years."

Veterinarian Karen Halligan, author of "What Every Pet Owner Should Know" and a frequent expert commentator on Animal Planet, says much of this is due to an increasingly isolated society. "You don't have a lot of interaction with people like you used to," she says. "Now everything's so automated you don't even have to talk to people, even at the grocery store. So pets have become a very big source of companionship."

She and other experts say the future holds a continued blurring of the line between human and animal. "You can get a blueberry facial for your dog!" Halligan says. "It's crazy what niceties are available for your pets now, from massages to room service."

Researchers have also learned that pets can extend their owners' lifespans and improve health, such as lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels. "Pets and people add to each other tremendously," Halligan says. "Your pet will always love you, no matter what."

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