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Ancient Civilizations and Pets

Posted on August 24 2016

Today, we have the easy convenience of buying pets at a local pet shop or shelters. And thanks to vets and other animal experts, we also have more effective ways of treating our pets. Have you ever wondered where and how the ancient civilizations kept their pets? In this article, we will be going back in time to discover how pets were treated and cared for during the early years of civilization.

Pets in Ancient Mesopotamia

Known for being the "cradle of civilization," Ancient Mesopotamia is one of the first to domesticate animals. Dogs were one of the earliest domestic animals and primarily protected herds and houses against enemies. They were treated and cared for similarly as they are today. Earliest inscriptions and inlaid plaques depict dogs waiting for their masters and listening to their masters play music. Mesopotamians used dog saliva as medicine to heal wounds. Dogs were sacred animals of Gula, the Goddess of Healing and were often depicted in images alongside the goddess. Other popular pets were birds such as ibis, crane, heron, and pelicans in which the latter was trained to catch fish.

Pets in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt has a fascinating history with animals. Dogs, cats, baboons, monkeys, fish, gazelles, birds, lions, mongoose, and hippos were often viewed as pets during this time. Dogs served their usual role in hunting, as a guard, or as just a household pet. The Basenji breed, one of the oldest dog breeds in the world, is considered by experts to be the model for the god Anubis. Anubis is believed to have guided the souls of the deceased in the afterlife. Deceased dogs were often mummified. Grief was displayed over the death of the family dog that included family members completely shaving their bodies, including their eyebrows.

Cats, deemed as the most popular pets in Egypt, were also kept as household pets to keep the home clear of rats and snakes. They are often depicted through various forms in painting, statues, figurines, amulets, earrings, pendants and so on. Deceased cats are taken to Bubastis, where they were embalmed and buried in sacred tombs.

Other exotic pets, such as falcons and crocodiles, were kept by royalty to symbolize their divine power. Some were even fed better than most humans of the time. Monkeys and baboons were trained to retrieve objects and were often associated with wealth and power. Though regarded as a status symbol, many were found out to be treated in less favorable manners than other pets. Bones from mummified monkeys and baboons revealed that they were frequently punished and beaten. This may also suggest they were kept firmly on leashes to limit their movement inside the house.

Pets in Ancient Greece

Unlike Egypt, the ancient civilization of Greece was not fond of cats. Dogs, birds, mice, and goats were common pets. Dogs were valued companions and hunting partners. In fact, Greece's deep relationship with the dogs is evident in some of the most notable works of philosophers. In Book II of Plato's Republic, Socrates claims that the dog is a true philosopher because it can distinguish the face of a friend and of an enemy only by the criterion of knowing and not knowing. Homer's epic poem Odyssey depicted a dog loyally waiting for his master to come back home even with passing its last breath.

In the same poem, Odysseus's wife Penelope kept geese or ducks to help ease her heart while waiting for her husband to return. This depiction showed the importance of birds as pets to the ancient Greeks. Birds were commonly used in numerous grave stelae and vases. Less common pets, such as cheetahs, were kept by the upper-class and were believed to have been purchased from Egypt. Some even had collars and leashes.

Pets in Ancient Rome

Known for their extravagant city and equally lavish lifestyle, Ancient Romans developed a strong and lavish relationship with their pets. Like the Greeks, Romans favored dogs and birds but disliked cats. A famous mosaic called Cave Canem, literally translated to "beware of the dog," was found in the ruins of Pompeii. The mosaic depicts a guard dog on a leash. Dogs were often depicted as guardians of the home and farm, which was their primary role mentioned in the Roman law code. There are some accounts similar to that of the Greek literature that portrays the faithfulness of dogs. In 28 A.D, a dog jumped into the river Tiber to save his master, senator Sabinus, who had been pushed in by an angry Roman mob.

Birds were the among the most beloved pets for children in Ancient Rome. In fact, they were inscribed on the gravestones of children, mosaics, and in sculptures. They were also used by priests as a tool to convey prophecy and divine interpretation. Emperor Augustus would pay large amounts for birds such as parakeets and ravens.

Pets in Ancient China

Ancient China had a love-hate relationship with their pets, particularly  dogs.  Dogs were the earliest domesticated animals in China (c. 12,000 BCE), and were used in hunting and kept as companions. The fiercest ones were known as lion dogs and were the most popular. Many even had statues depicted of them. Dogs were also honored by the Chinese as one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac.

Some ethnic groups, such as the Yao and She, worshiped a dog named Panhu as their ancestor. According to one of their myths, Panhu was a loyal dog owned by the legendary Emperor Ku. It is said that Panhu helped the emperor get out of trouble by killing one of the enemy's generals. As a reward, Emperor Ku gave his daughter to Panhu to become his wife. They decided to live in the mountains in southern China and eventually raised many children.

 Though they are celebrated as loyal companions, Chinese also used them as sources of food and as sacrifices. They were thought to be a sacred gift from heaven. Their blood was one of the most important components when sealing oaths and allegiances. There are some accounts that state that during the Shang dynasty, dog sacrifices marked the conclusion of every palace, tomb, or royal building. Over time, however, the practice of sacrificing dogs became less popular and straw dogs were used instead.

According to a latest archaeological evidence found out in a Chinese village, cats had been used to ward off rats away from village grain supplies. Eventually, they became more domesticated and become pets of the people.

Pets in Ancient Mesoamerica

The ancient Mesoamericans, such as the Mayans, had a similar relationship with their pets as the Chinese. They bred dogs and turkeys differently depending on whether they are going to be companions or a source of food. The most popular dogs that they had were Chihuahuas and Mexican hairless. When their owners died, dogs were also killed since the ancient belief was that dogs would guide their human companions to the afterlife. They were also used in hunting other animals such as alpacas and llamas. Aside from being a pet, dogs were used as a source of meat. Most owners would overfeed their dogs in order to fatten them. They would then kill the dog and use the meat to feed the tribe. However, the tribe considered killing the dog a sacrifice, so they would make a sculpture of the dogs honoring their sacrifice.

Though many of the ancient practices are considered unacceptable nowadays, it is clear that these ancient civilizations held a high regard of their pets. Pets are known for being loyal and kind. Always appreciate them by giving them the love and care that they deserved.


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