The History of Household Pets

Humans seem to have a need to bond with animal friends. In my own household, we have had experiences with a myriad of pets. Some of these are common choices like dogs, cats, and birds while others are a bit unusual like seahorses and hermit crabs. I thought it would be interesting to explore how the types of pets in households evolved over time.

Most Americans love their pets. Our first settlers came here with dogs, cats and farm animals. During the early days of our country, most pets were both farm workers and pets. They were often known as favorites. By the 18th century, the settlers had also begun to tame wild animals. Visitors to America were shocked to deer wearing fancy collars and kerchiefs walking the streets and even meandering through homes. Ironically, many Americans saw no problem in hunting the very same kinds of animals they kept as pets.

Squirrels on leashes followed their owners and sat placidly on their shoulders. If they were caught when very young, they were easy to tame. Squirrel nests were frequently robbed of their young babies which were sold in the city markets. Because squirrels gnawed wood, tin cages with metal bars were developed. The fact that squirrels liked to run led to cages with mills and waterwheels. Does this sound remarkably similar to pet hamster cages used today? Children particularly loved flying squirrels. The well-known painter, John Singleton Copley painted a portrait of his half-brother, Henry, playing with his pet squirrel in 1766.

Wild songbirds like cardinals and mockingbirds were frequently sold in the city markets for use as pets. Wealthy citizens could be observed playing organs and flutes while standing in front of caged wild birds trying to make them sing songs to classical music. Many owners believed songbirds could be taught to sing to a tune. If a song were played over and over, birds would imitate the music. Peter Kalm, a Swedish-Finish explorer of the 18th century writes in his accounts that turkeys, wild geese, pigeons, and partridges were often let free in the morning being so well tamed that they flew back home in the evening.

Kalm talks about other wild mammals as well. He says beavers were tamed to bring home their fishing catch to their owners. Some otters were observed to follow their masters. When the master went fishing in a boat, otters were seen jumping into the water and coming up with a fish for him. Kalm remarked that raccoons appeared domesticated, yet at night continued to kill poultry. Owners needed to carefully hide sugar and sweets from them. Kalm mentions a deer in New Jersey so tame that it runs into the woods for its own food, but at night brings wild deer home to its master providing him the opportunity to hunt deer at his doorstep! Indeed, the deer was a very common pet in the early to mid 18th century. A 1730 painting in the New York Historical Society depicts a young boy from Manhattan with a pet deer wearing a collar. In Virginia, the Revolutionary War hero, Dr. Benjamin Jones kept more than one hundred deer to amuse the family children and grandchildren. As time went on, Americans learned that as they become older, deer became troublesome. Increases in population and traffic particularly the invention of automobiles led to the elimination of deer as pets.

Today we are attached to more domesticated pets such as cats, dogs, and birds. It is hard to imagine the energy it must have taken to tame the wild mammals most of us now view as animals to hunt or nuisances in the 21st century.

Barbara Ann Mojica

Author of the Little Miss HISTORY Travels to….children’s book series