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02 Mar 2020

Blame the Victorians for the humanisation of pets

Blame the Victorians for the humanisation of pets

Like just about everything, it’s easy for us to lay the blame for the humanisation of pets firmly at the door of millennials.

But we’d be wrong. The real culprits who instigated this trend in the first place predate millennials, Generations Xers, and even Baby Boomers.

It’s the Victorians, who in the 19th century, turned dogs and cats into the pampered pets they are today.

 

Changing attitudes to domestic animals

Prior to the 19th century, there was no real concept of a pet being an essential part of a family.

Animals have always lived with humans. However, in a general sense, the prevailing attitude towards domestic animals had been that they either needed to work (e.g. donkeys pulling carts) or become food (e.g. chickens for the pot).

Only a small cohort of society could afford to keep pets purely for the enjoyment of them. Pets who didn’t land up on the kitchen table or help work the land were seen as a frivolous and silly endeavour only the elite and aristocracy could afford. Prints and leaflets of the time satirise and mock the idea of keeping pets.

But something interesting happens as the late 18th century turns into the beginning of the 19th century.

Keeping pets starts becoming more culturally acceptable, and is no longer seen purely as the preserve of the rich. Class distinctions were still evident in the type of pets people kept, but pet ownership itself was now more widespread.

 

Working-class families would keep wild birds as pets. Blackbirds, linnets and thrushes were particularly popular, and the birds would be fed on scraps from the household.

Middle-class families displayed their higher status and wealth by owning pedigree dogs. Images and writings of the time show that in the perennial cat versus dog wars, the Victorians were firmly team dog.

One of the biggest reasons for the changing attitudes towards pets was the new moral code being attributed to them. As the Victorians became more interested in morality, domestic life moved fully into the spotlight and the best way to rear children became a central concern.

One of the strongest ways to build character, according to the Victorians, was to look after pets. As such, families were encouraged to allow their children to own pets, especially the sons.

Professor Jane Hamlett of Modern British History at Royal Holloway, University of London, spoke to The Guardian in 2019 of a research project into British attitudes towards pets that she was working on with Professor Julie-Marie Strange of the University of Durham.

“The Victorians were very interested in... domestic life, and bringing up children was seen as important for creating the right kind of morality in society,” said Hamlett. “And one of the things that children could do to develop morality was to keep a pet – so you get quite a lot of advice manuals from the mid-19th century onwards suggesting that children should keep pets to improve themselves and their moral qualities.”

 

People have always had ties to their pets

The study has shown that people have engaged emotionally with their pets for longer than we think they have. And Britain’s reputation as a nation of animal lovers is justifiably earned; the UK set up the world’s first animal charity in 1824 (the RSPCA).

Victorians had different reasons for keeping pets.

Status and class, as mentioned above, was one reason. Cats, while not as popular as dogs, were useful for catching rodents. Rabbits were a food source if a household fell on hard times.

But plenty of evidence from diaries, photos and articles at the time also show that an emotional connection with pets was a key reason for keeping them for the Victorians.

While the celebrity pets of Instagram may still have been a long way to come, the Victorians were devout in including their pets in photos and paintings.

A photo even exists of Queen Victoria in 1867 with her pet dog, called Sharp! 

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