We have no direct evidence proving that people living prior to 10,000 bce had pets. Any kept by hunter-gatherers must have included species tamed from the wild, which would leave little archaeological evidence: their remains would be impossible to distinguish from those of animals killed for food or kept for other — perhaps ritualistic — purposes.
Since we don’t have evidence from the prehistoric past, we must look to that gleaned from the past century. A remarkable number of hunter-gatherer and small-scale horticultural societies that persisted into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in remote parts of the world — Amazonia, New Guinea, the Arctic, and elsewhere — give us insight into the behaviors of earlier Stone Age societies. We can start by asking whether hunter-gatherers already kept pets when they were first documented, before they had time to acquire the habit from the West.
It turns out that many small-scale “Paleolithic” societies kept pets of some kind: sometimes dogs, but mostly tamed wild animals, captured when young and then brought up as part of the human family. Native Americans and the Ainu of northern Japan kept bear cubs; the Inuit, wolf cubs; the Cochimi from Baja California, racoons; indigenous Amazonian societies, tapir, agouti, coati, and many types of New World monkeys; the Muisca of Colombia, ocelots and margays (two local species of wild cat); the Yagua of Peru, sloths; the Dinka of the Sudan, hyenas and Old World monkeys; native Fijians, flying foxes and lizards; the Penan of Borneo, sun bears and gibbons.
To this list of pets we can add a host of bird species, valued as pets from Brazil to Mali to China. Many have particularly bright plumage, such as parrots, parakeets, and hornbills; others, such as the bulbul, sing. Selection of some — such as the cassowaries, large flightless birds, cherished by the original inhabitants of New Britain (part of New Guinea), and the pigeons kept as pets in Samoa — seems to have been more arbitrary. Nowadays, the availability of Western domesticated animals has reduced some of this diversity, but “traditional” societies, from the Toraja in the mountains of Indonesia to the Tiv of West Africa, still widely treasure animal companions.
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While traditional cultures do keep an extraordinarily wide variety of animals, a recent survey of sixty such societies finds that dogs and cats are nonetheless the most ubiquitous. This preference is clearly not traditional in most cases, since dogs and cats arrived in most parts of the world very late. Dogs were almost certainly domesticated (from the Eurasian wolf) by one or possibly several hunter-gatherer societies several thousand years before the dawn of agriculture and then gradually spread throughout much of the globe.
Because both dogs and cats have practical uses besides companionship, their status is not always easy to determine, given the cultural and linguistic barriers that often exist between Western researchers and traditional peoples. The survey found that about one-third of the groups in which dogs occurred treated them as pets; another third did not regard them with affection but simply used them as guards or for some kind of work. As expected, those groups that had cats regarded them as useful for the control of vermin, and two out of three such societies thus expected them to find their own food. In the others, however, certain individuals (“owners”) deliberately fed at least some of the cats and treated them as pets.
Orphaned baby monkeys and other young mammals and birds brought home from hunting expeditions are not merely tamed; they are adopted as members of an extended family with both human and animal members and fed choice fruits.
While widespread in these traditional societies, cats, dogs, and other familiar domestic animals represent only a minority of the vast range of species kept as pets. The survey recorded many kinds of tamed mammal, including primates of various kinds, foxes, bears, prairie dogs, and ground squirrels. Over a quarter of the societies also kept birds, which were even more varied than the mammals, including eagles, ravens, parrots, macaws, hawks, and pigeons. Although evidently valued for their appearance, most of the bird species kept had higher than average intelligence (for birds). Many clearly formed lasting relationships with humans: for example, the Yanomamo of South America taught their parrots to talk. Overall, the birds more obviously served purely as pets than most of the mammals: almost all received most of the food they needed, and many functioned as playthings for children.
Fish are the only class of pets almost entirely missing from traditional societies, presumably because appreciating them requires glass for aquaria. An exception: the Polynesians of Samoa capture and then tame eels, keeping them in holes in the ground and whistling to call them to the surface.
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Hunter-gatherers have a much more complex relationship with animals than we in the West do today. In their societies, animals serve both an essential function (as food) and a symbolic one. For example, caring for an orphaned baby animal may represent atonement for the harm done to its kin through the hunt. The Huaorani, an Amazonian people living in Ecuador, adopt baby monkeys and other jungle animals. When hunting adult monkeys, they use blowguns to shoot poison-tipped darts, then attribute the animal’s death not to the dart but to the plant from which they extracted the poison, as if to distance themselves from the deed. After killing a female monkey, they attempt to capture any young still dependent upon her. Orphaned baby monkeys and other young mammals and birds brought home from hunting expeditions are not merely tamed; they are adopted as members of an extended family with both human and animal members and fed choice fruits. Tame harpy eagles partake of the meat from adult monkeys killed in hunting expeditions. On their deaths, these animals receive ceremonial burials.
Such rituals occurred in the Paleolithic era. In one particularly striking example from 16,000 years ago in Jordan, archaeologists discovered the skull of a red fox buried next to the remains of a woman on top of a layer of red ochre, a pigment of special value and ritual significance. Even more remarkably, this was likely a reburial of both human and fox, since some parts of their skeletons remain in another grave close by. Whoever moved the body of the woman apparently knew of her relationship with the fox and moved the animal’s most obvious remains — notably the skull — with her. It seems implausible that the fox died coincidentally at the same time as the woman; rather, it was almost certainly killed when she died, presumably so it could accompany her to the afterlife. Though we may deem this unnecessarily cruel, it does indicate a very special relationship between the two. We will never know precisely what that relationship was, but as no evidence exists of domestication of foxes there or anywhere else for another 12,000 years, we can reasonably assume that this fox had been obtained from the wild as an unweaned cub, in the style of other Paleolithic pets. Red foxes, tamed or otherwise, have no known use in hunter-gatherer societies except as sources of fur, so this individual was likely no more and no less than a much-loved companion.
Beliefs about animals form an essential part of the spiritual life of such small-scale societies. The role of the animal, and therefore its treatment, can vary widely, depending on a given society’s traditions. For example, in Amazonia, the Aché make pets of coatis (group-living racoon-like carnivores), believing that their wild relatives transport human souls to the land of the dead. By contrast, the neighboring Arawete believe that coatis feed on human corpses. They not only do not keep them as pets but set fires around newly dug graves to drive any nearby coatis away.
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The path from wild wolf to domestic dog, the first domestic species, cannot have been straightforward and was likely not deliberate: no precedent would have existed for the idea that a wild animal could reproduce in captivity. The current prevailing theory holds that dogs domesticated themselves, descending from an unusual type of wolf that no longer exists in the wild. These wolves would have differed from their wary modern-day counterparts in being sufficiently tolerant of humans to spend much of their time scavenging around their camps. Adopting their cubs as pets would then have been easy, beginning the process of genetic selection toward tameness and, eventually, trainability. Initially these early “proto-dogs” might have served as early-warning devices (accounting for why dogs are much more prone than wolves to bark) and possibly as waste disposals. Not until they had become capable of forming social bonds with humans would they have been sufficiently controllable for useful service on hunting expeditions. Although utility would have provided the usual motivation for keeping a dog in the Paleolithic, that usefulness would have stemmed from the ties of affection. The slavering, perpetually chained guard dog aside, dogs’ effectiveness stems from their attentiveness to and desire to please people. The loved puppy that has become well adjusted to the humans with whom it will spend the rest of its life will be the most attentive and easiest to train. Unlike with most of the other domestic animals that came along later, the relationship between dog and master is fundamentally an emotional one.
In four cases, the dogs were buried alongside people, though most had their own graves, mainly at the edge of the cemetery in an area where the graves of children were also concentrated — as if dogs and children were somehow considered equivalent.
The enormous number of dog burials unearthed from the period between 14,000 and 4,000 years ago indicates the esteem preliterate societies had for dogs. One of the earliest and perhaps best known comes from the upper Jordan Valley, where archaeologists discovered the skeleton of an elderly human (although both skeletons were mostly well preserved, the pelvis of the human was too badly damaged to determine its sex), with its hand resting on the chest of a puppy, which may have been killed for burial. Dating to some 12,000 years ago, the culture that buried this pair, the Natufians, were on the cusp of the transition from hunter-gatherers to settled agriculturalists. The positioning of the two skeletons strongly suggests a very close and affectionate relationship between the human and the animal — as if the puppy was intended to accompany its owner into the afterlife.
Some dog burials formed part of a sacrificial ritual. The ancient Egyptians, notorious for breeding, killing, and mummifying domestic cats by the millions, did the same to dogs, though to a lesser degree. At roughly the same time, some 2,500 years ago, the Persians living in today’s southern Israel created vast dog cemeteries. Archaeologists have excavated over 1,200 dogs and puppies from one site at Ashkelon, concluding that the majority were not pets but “feral” street dogs, many of which apparently died from natural causes. No written records indicate the spiritual significance of these interments or why the Persians had stronger feelings for strays than for their own dogs. During the millennium before the birth of Christ, conceptions of dogs evidently varied widely: it is thought that the Hittites, who inhabited what is now eastern Turkey, attached special healing powers to puppies, both living and deliberately sacrificed. Dating to 1,000 years earlier, one graveyard in China contained over four hundred dogs, each beneath a human, indicating that these dogs had been killed when their masters died and interred with them. In the oldest dog cemeteries discovered in the United States, in Tennessee’s Green River valley, some dogs were buried alone, while others were buried alongside people.
The details of the interment sometimes enable us to guess at why a particular dog was buried. At one of the earliest European sites, Skateholm in Sweden, archaeologists discovered fourteen dog graves dating to around 6,000 years ago. In four cases, the dogs were buried alongside people, though most had their own graves, mainly at the edge of the cemetery in an area where the graves of children were also concentrated — as if dogs and children were somehow considered equivalent. At least one dog had received an elaborate burial, its grave strewn with ochre. Alongside it lay grave goods, usually only found in human burials, precious items provided to accompany the animal to the afterlife. In this case these included three knives made from flint and an elaborately decorated hammer made from a red deer’s antler.
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While dog burials continued throughout recorded history, the practice seems to have diminished as societies became more settled and adopted agriculture, with few recorded in Europe since the end of the first millennium. One theory holds that many of these more recent European burials reflect the special relationship between dog and hunter rather than pet and devoted owner.
The majority of dogs given special burials may have been, rather than pets first and foremost, either favored hunting companions needed by their masters in the afterlife or unowned dogs sacrificed for some spiritual or superstitious purpose. A few examples do point, however, to a primarily affectionate relationship. One of the dogs buried some 7,000 years ago at an ancient cemetery in Anderson, Tennessee, had suffered several injuries during its lifetime, each of which had healed. This dog had grown old enough to suffer from arthritis and at least the last few years of its life would have made a poor hunting partner. This suggests that the dog’s owner took care of it out of pure affection.
Although women generally played a lesser role in hunting than men, dogs were interred with them too. One such burial from just over 4,000 years ago, found in today’s United Arab Emirates, is remarkably reminiscent of the Natufian grave from some 8,000 years previous. Dating from roughly the same era but halfway across the world, in Indian Knoll, Kentucky, one graveyard contained six dogs buried with women, six with men, and eight buried alone. Dogs buried with women would most plausibly have been pets.
Other signs suggest that in some cultures dogs were becoming, if not pets as we think of them today, then at least creatures with personalities of their own. Around 3,000 years ago, the Egyptians buried some dogs in a manner indicating that they were treasured more for their companionship than for their practical uses. The hieroglyphs on their gravestones tell us that the Egyptians gave some of their dogs human, rather than distinctively animal, names, echoing the replacement of “Fido” and “Buster” with “Max” and “Sam” in the West toward the end of the twentieth century.
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What of cats? Cats first became domestic, in the sense that they hunted within human settlements, somewhere in the Fertile Crescent about 10,000 years ago, but the first evidence of fully domesticated pet cats appears only about 3,500 years ago, in Egyptian artworks. The ancient Egyptians kept many kinds of exotic animals as pets, including monkeys, cheetahs, and small deer, but were nearly obsessed with domestic cats. Their more formal art often depicted cats as the companions of aristocratic women — their husbands preferring to pose with their dogs — but we also have evidence that pet cats became a feature of many, perhaps most, households in all strata of society, since they often feature in sketches done by temple artists for their own amusement. The Greek historian Herodotus reported 2,500 years ago that the Egyptians so venerated their pet cats that when one died from natural causes, the whole family shaved their eyebrows as a mark of respect. The ancient Egyptians undoubtedly also valued cats for their skills at controlling vermin — seemingly finding their ability to deter snakes especially impressive — but prized them equally as pets.
Cats subsequently spread from Egypt around the Mediterranean and, thanks to Phoenician traders, had reached England by 2,300 years ago. People valued them foremost as hunters, however, not as pets. Still, it is difficult to imagine that the off-duty cat snoozing by the fireside did not engender affection wherever and whenever it found itself.
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As civilization proceeded and small-scale hunter-gatherer societies gave way to urban elites and subservient rural populations, pet keeping entered a completely new phase. In the generally egalitarian communities of the Paleolithic everyone could keep animals as companions, whereas in the highly stratified societies of the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman empires, right up until the twentieth century, the poorest had little opportunity to acquire pets for their own sake. That’s not to say that they didn’t feel affection for dogs and cats, but those animals had to earn their keep. The surviving evidence generally suggests that from the classical period (fifth and fourth centuries bce) until the end of the nineteenth century, pets played a part in the lives of the wealthiest members of society. As the less well-off inevitably left fewer traces of their lives, we can only guess at how they interacted with their animals; no doubt they had less time and fewer resources to devote to them. Not until the nineteenth century, with the rise of the middle classes, did the keeping of pets for their own sake become widespread once more.
In the generally egalitarian communities of the Paleolithic everyone could keep animals as companions, whereas in the highly stratified societies of the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman empires, right up until the twentieth century, the poorest had little opportunity to acquire pets for their own sake.
The visual arts of the classical period reveal the elevated status of domestic pets, especially dogs. Greek tombs depict dogs and occasionally cats gazing adoringly at their masters, while children’s tombs sometimes include representations of birds. Greek art of the period includes representations of cats — for example, a kitten sitting on a child’s shoulder — that clearly indicate their occasional status as pets. Ancient Romans who bred toy dogs can only have intended them as companions (the well-known Pompeian mosaic of a chained dog, inscribed cave canem, shows that many other dogs served primarily as guards). A carving on a Roman tomb depicts a fashionable lady with what looks like a lapdog peering out from under her armpit. Dogs also appear on children’s tombs, some quietly curled up, others seeming to invite the child to join in a game. On the opposite side of the world, in China, the aristocracy kept lapdogs that bear a striking resemblance to today’s Pekinese.
The switch from hunting and gathering and nomadism to settled agriculture and animal husbandry seems to have brought about a profound change in people’s treatment of animals. Certainly the major monotheistic religions of the Fertile Crescent — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — all emphasize dominion over animals: “God blessed [the humans] and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” The Christian Church generally looked askance at any display of affection toward animals in general and pets in particular: in the thirteenth century the Franciscans (founded by the animal-loving St. Francis of Assisi) were taken to task by the authorities for their fondness for dogs, cats, and small birds. The reviling of cats as potential agents of Satan apparently stemmed from the “pagan” worship of cat gods and goddesses in rural areas of Europe. While generally regarding dogs as unclean, Islam viewed cats rather more positively, with the earliest cat sanctuary reputedly founded in Cairo in 1280. Only Buddhism consistently emphasized respect for nonhuman animals, embedded in its concept of reincarnation. Whether this institutionalization of monotheistic attitudes brought about a change in attitudes toward animals or merely legitimated a new necessity for productivity in societies that now relied heavily on animals for both food and transport, the result was a great deal of what we today regard as cruelty.
During the early middle ages (fifth through tenth centuries ce) attitudes toward domestic animals were largely utilitarian, at least in western Europe. The ninth-century poem “The Scholar and His Cat, Pangur Bán,” written by an Irish monk, compares the poet’s struggle to find insight with his cat’s mousing:
’Gainst the wall he sets his eye, full and fierce and sharp and sly
’Gainst the wall of knowledge I, all my little wisdom try
The poem’s eight stanzas mention no affection he might have felt for the cat, only admiration for his prowess as a hunter. Tenth-century Welsh statutes valued a female cat at four pence, but only for her mouse-catching and breeding abilities — not for her readiness to purr on someone’s lap. An untrained dog went for four pence, but the price doubled after its training, implying its value lay in the tasks it could perform.
The period between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries saw little change in attitudes toward animals in general, and pet keeping remained limited to those who could afford it — and could afford to ignore the disapproval of the church. Fashionable ladies continued to keep lapdogs. Any praise of working dogs for their faithfulness may simply have reflected how easy this made them to train. Farmers often gave names to individual animals, sheep for example, but not necessarily out of any particular affection. Cats became identified with their agricultural function, not as household pets, as in this passage from Daniel of Beccles’s book of advice for aspiring noblemen, the Urbanus: “Let not a brute beast be stabled in the hall, let not a pig or a cat be seen in it; the animals which can be seen in it are the charger and the palfrey, hounds entered to hare, mastiff pups, hawks, sparrow-hawks, falcons, and merlins.” Monks especially valued cats for their fur, which, being cheaper than fox fur, did not violate their vow of poverty: fourteenth-century East Anglians fixed the price of 1,000 cat skins at just four pence.
During the sixteenth century pet keeping continued to thrive among the well-to-do, especially women, and the word “pet,” in the sense of animal companion, first appeared in the English language. John Caius’s 1576 book Of Englishe Dogges divides the species into two kinds: peasant dogs, or “curs,” and “noble” dogs, which included dogs for hunting and retrievers for hawking (both largely the province of men) and lapdogs, which noblewomen continued to favor. Caius’s description leaves little doubt that the latter were pets in the modern sense of the word: “These puppies, the smaller they be, the more pleasure they provoke, as more meet playfellows for mincing mistresses to keep in their bosoms, to keep company withal in their chambers, to succor with sleep in bed, and nourish with meat at board, to lay in their laps and lick their lips as they ride in wagons.”
Cruelty, even to dogs, was widespread during the Renaissance. The term “hangdog” derives from the habit of killing old or injured dogs by hanging. People subjected cats to all kinds of treatment that we would condemn today. By no means the most extreme was a form of entertainment known as “Katzenmusik,” which consisted of tying strings of bells to several cats, cramming them into a sack, and then letting them out in an arena to fight, their growls and howls accompanied by the jangling of the bells. Going to bear- and bull-baiting events that used dogs was a perfectly acceptable alternative to attending the theater for a performance of William Shakespeare’s latest play.
Not until the seventeenth century did pet keeping become widespread. Before that, houses in towns, like those in the countryside, had been full of animals — pigs and poultry as well as dogs and cats — blurring the distinction between companionship and cohabitation. Yet church strictures against feeling affection for animals remained uppermost in some people’s minds: in 1590, even as she lay dying, Katherine Stubbes beat her favorite puppy, believing she and her husband had “offended God grievously in receiving many a time this bitch into our bed.”
The Christian Church generally looked askance at any display of affection toward animals in general and pets in particular: in the thirteenth century the Franciscans (founded by the animal-loving St. Francis of Assisi) were taken to task by the authorities for their fondness for dogs, cats, and small birds.
A gradual change in the perception of animals accompanied progressive urbanization: rather than seeing them as mere machines, as René Descartes and other philosophers suggested in the mid-seventeenth century, the general public widely accepted them as capable of not just receiving but returning affection. Thomas Bedingfield first proposed the benefits of harnessing this sentiment for practical ends: in The Art of Riding, a 1584 translation of an Italian manual, Claudio Corte’s Il Cavallerizzo, he told horse trainers that ensuring their charges’ love for them was more effective for training than the previous harsh methods based on “mastery.” Monkeys were popular pets, valued for their ability to “ape” human behavior. For the first time, cats became popular companions, especially for women, but small dogs were still more prevalent, frequently appearing in portraits. The practice of burying favorite dogs in special cemeteries reemerged. Whatever the species of animal, the concept of mutual affection came to be widely accepted.
Of course, the increasingly tight bond between some humans and some animals did not put an end to animal cruelty (nor has it still). The burning alive of cats enjoyed wide acceptance up to the seventeenth century, and until 1817, the Festival of the Cats, celebrated to this day in the Belgian city of Ypres, featured the throwing of a bag full of live cats from the top of the church tower (nowadays the bag contains soft toys). In the countryside, attitudes toward dogs could be far from sentimental: in 1698 a Dorset farmer recorded his satisfaction at having extracted eleven pounds of grease after killing and then simmering his elderly dog.
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When pet keeping for its own sake began to expand during the eighteenth century, the choice of species was if anything greater than it is today. The majority of animal companions were not domesticated species but tamed wild specimens, an unwitting reflection of the habits of hunter-gatherers in distant and still uncharted parts of the world. Pet tortoises, monkeys, otters, and squirrels were all readily available for those who could afford them, but perhaps most popular in eighteenth-century London were caged songbirds (canaries and chaffinches were particularly affordable) and talking jackdaws, magpies, and parrots. The poet William Cowper (1731–1800) kept three pet hares that he named Puss, Tiney, and Bess (only to discover afterward that they were all male). His devotion to them extended to having a snuff box made with an engraved lid depicting the three and listing their names. They were evidently less devoted to him, since Puss in particular made regular escapes requiring forcible retrieval. Cowper later kept a series of three pet dogs: Mungo, the Marquis, and then Beau; his biography describes the latter as follows: “Whether frisking amid the flags and rushes, or pursuing the swallows when his master walked abroad, or whether licking his hand or nibbling the end of his pen when in his lap at home, Beau ofttimes, like his predecessor, the hare, beguiled Cowper’s heart of thoughts that made it ache, and forced him to a smile.”
Dogs kept exclusively as pets were still probably rare, but some owners evidently regarded their working dogs with affection. By the early eighteenth century, a farmer’s favorite hound might live indoors: “Caress’d and lov’d by every soul, he ranged the house without control.” By the end of the nineteenth century cats had become popular pets, made fashionable in the United Kingdom by Queen Victoria. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Mark Twain wrote, without irony, in an essay published after his death in 1910, “When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.”
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Over the broad sweep of prehistory and then history, pet keeping went through two distinct stages. Even prehistorically, mankind had a far more complex perception of animals than simply that of the predator for his prey, the hunter for the hunted. Though always a valued source of protein, animals at some point — perhaps as sophisticated consciousness first evolved in the hominid brain — took on other significances, if the customs of surviving Paleolithic peoples are anything to go by. Humans chose some animals to share their living spaces, even integrating them intimately into the family. The widespread breast-feeding of young mammals, shocking to modern sensibilities, might superficially suggest a bond very different from that between today’s pet and its owner. However, it probably arose as a straightforward nutritional necessity — as the only way to raise baby mammals captured before weaning. The practice does, nevertheless, point to a powerful and apparently near-universal instinct among hunter-gatherers to extend their most intimate caring to and expend essential resources on young animals.
This first stage gradually phased out as hunter-gatherer groups gave way to societies stratified into rulers and subjects. In the second stage, pet keeping became the privilege of those with money and influence. A common thread runs through both: a difference between the sexes in their fundamental attitudes toward animals. In small-scale societies, women and children often took the most care of captured wild animals. In the Middle Ages, while aristocratic men valued hounds and hawks for their utility and the prestige they conferred, their ladies demonstrated affection for specially bred small dogs.
While frowned on for much of recorded history by the (almost entirely male) authorities, pet keeping continued in everyday life, sustained largely by women and primarily, but probably not exclusively, by the well-to-do. Societies occasionally attempted to suppress this: in medieval Germany, thousands of women stood accused of witchcraft based on their affection for their cats. Even in the late seventeenth century, those condemned during the Salem witch trials included two dogs “possessed” by the Devil.
By the eighteenth century, attitudes had begun to change, paving the way both for a much more humane approach to domestic animals in general and for the third stage of pet keeping, its universal acceptance in the West.
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John Bradshaw is the foundation director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol, and author of the New York Times bestsellers Cat Sense and Dog Sense and coauthor of The Trainable Cat. He lives in Southampton, England.
Excerpted from The Animals Among Us: How Pets Make Us Human by John Bradshaw. Copyright © 2017. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Editor: Dana Snitzky