When it comes to the enjoying the company of animals, we humans have forged bonds with other species for thousands of years. We delve into the fascinating history of some of our favourite pets…
Dogs – our faithful companions for 40,000 years
Canines are, of course, our longest-known companions, evolving from a shared ancestor with wolves and becoming domesticated somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. The oldest dog fossil (from 14,000 years ago) was discovered in Germany in 1914.
By around 7,000 years ago, canines were pretty much everywhere on the planet. Researchers from Stony Brook University in New York studied DNA from three dog skeletons found at archaeological sites in Germany and Ireland that were between 4,700 and 7,000 years old. They discovered these ancient hounds share ancestry with modern European dogs.
However, it wasn’t until Victorian times that dogs were bred for their skills as hunters, herders or as gundogs, eventually creating the hundreds of modern breeds we know and love today. Find out more about dogs here >>
Cats – hanging out with humans for 9,500 years
Tomb paintings from around 3,500 years ago reveal that cats were household pets and an integral part of ancient Egyptian family life – but the connection between humans and felines could be much earlier. The carefully interred remains of a human and a cat were found buried together with seashells and polished stones in a 9,500-year-old grave in Cyprus, perhaps suggesting the feline was a much-loved pet.
After being domesticated by the first farmers, felines spread across Europe and other parts of the world via the trade hub at Egypt, when migrating farmers took their cats with them. Romans valued cats highly and the Roman Legions would have certainly taken cats with them as they marched through Gaul (modern day France) and into Britain in 43 AD.
When the Romans left, many of the cats they owned stayed. And, when the Vikings invaded Britain around 1,000 years later, it’s thought that they took some of these Roman cat descendants back to Norway with them – indeed bones of cats with an Egyptian signature have even been found at Viking sites near the Baltic Sea.
However, between the 13th and 17th centuries, lucky black cats ran out of good fortune – felines became associated with witchcraft and few people dared to keep them. Thankfully, by the 18th century, the spooky connection had diminished and cats became popular as pets once more. Find out more about cats here >>
Ferrets – furry friends for 4,000 years
Images of ferret-like animals on leashes have also been discovered on the walls of Egyptian tombs. It’s thought that they were first introduced to Britain around 2,000 years ago by the Romans.
Ferrets are domesticated animals – which means they have been adapted from wild species (most likely the European polecat and the Steppe polecat) by humans to fulfil specific requirements. For centuries, ferrets have been effective hunting partners, highly skilled in the art of flushing out prey.
Ferrets also appear in historical documents as pets, particularly of the wealthy and even with royalty, including Queen Elizabeth I. In recent years, their charming, cheeky character has ensured their continued popularity. Find out more about ferrets here >>
Rabbits – our cotton-tailed companions for 2,000 years
The Romans also brought rabbits to Britain. A bone found at a Roman palace in the UK revealed that it belonged to a rabbit that may have been kept as a pet by the villa’s owners in the first century AD – making it Britain’s first pet bunny.
However, having rabbits as pets effectively began during the Victorian era, when a lot of selective breeding went on for size, body shape, coat type and colour and markings. Rabbit shows started to become widespread in the 1920s, and the British Rabbit Council (BRC) was founded in 1934. Find out more about rabbits here >>
Guinea pigs – 500 years of piggy love
Spanish, Dutch and English traders brought guinea pigs from South America to Europe in the 1500s, where they quickly became popular as exotic pets among the upper classes and royalty, including Queen Elizabeth I, who was obviously an early adopter of the latest in pet trends. A recently discovered Tudor portrait (on display at the National Portrait Gallery) features three wealthy Elizabethan children with their pet guinea pig. The National Cavy Club (NCC) was established in 1889 and these chatty little animals continue to go from strength to strength in the pet popularity stakes. Find out more about guinea pigs here >>
Rodent chums – pets who’ve made more recent debuts
- Many varieties of mice were domesticated as pets in China and Japan in the 1700s, and Europeans imported favourites and bred them with local mice. In Victorian England, ‘fancy’ mice were prized, and a National Mouse Club was founded in 1895. Find out more about mice here here >>
- In 1901, Miss Mary Douglas, the ‘mother of the rat fancy’, wrote to the National Mouse Club and asked whether they would consider opening their doors to rats. The club agreed, and the first classes for Fancy Rats were staged in the autumn of 1901. By 1912 there was enough interest that the club’s name was officially changed to the National Mouse and Rat Club. Find out more about rats here >>
- In the 1920s, an American mining engineer named Mathias F Chapman fell in love with chinchillas (then under the threat of extinction) and received special permission from the Chilean government to import a small group into the USA. He slowly acclimatised the animals to a lower altitude and thoughtfully brought along their natural food for the journey. It’s believed that nearly every pet chinchilla is a direct descendant of the 11 ‘founder’ animals Chapman imported. Find out more about chinchillas here >>
- In 1930, zoologist Israel Aharoni led an expedition to look for Syrian hamsters in Aleppo – returning with a family of them. The offspring were then sent to different universities and institutions, including London Zoo, and from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s started to become popular pets in the UK. Find out more about hamsters here >>
- The first known mention of gerbils was in 1866 by Father Armand David, a well-travelled priest with a fascination for the natural sciences. He sent ‘yellow rats’ from northern China to the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris. In 1935, a Dr C Kasuga captured 20 pairs in Eastern Mongolia. Almost 20 years later, in 1954, a Dr Victor Schwentker obtained 11 pairs from Dr Kasuga’s original colony and started another gerbil colony in New York state. It didn’t take long before their intelligent and inquisitive nature made them sought-after pets and they first appeared in the UK in 1964.
- First discovered in Chile in 1850, degus were initially brought to the UK in 1950 to study diabetes (degus are unable to regulate glucose concentrations and are prone to developing diabetes mellitus when fed on diets high in sugars). Unsurprisingly, they’ve recently been taken to heart by lovers of lively and sociable small animals. Find out more about degus here >>
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Sources: lib.dr.iastate.edu, vettimes.co.uk, bbcnews.co.uk, nationalgeographic.com, thehealthypetclub.co.uk, wikipedia.org