The lifelike dead

When looking at pet obituaries and pet cemeteries, we see the practices of mourning human death transferred to animals, especially pets.  This can be seen as extending personhood to what may in other circumstances be deemed a possession.  Taking this the other way, we also see death practices which solidify the idea of pet as possession, for example taxidermy.  It would not even be considered appropriate in the western world (is there anywhere it would be? Hit me up, I’m intrigued!) to taxidermy a human loved one.

Taxidermy of pets likely originates from the Victorians when taxidermy more broadly was popular.  Stuffed animals were found in homes, hunting lodges and museums and to some extent were considered educational.  Taxidermy of pets turns a once living creature that was loved into an object, and often the people wanting to memorialise their pet would be the same people who’d argue that the pet had some degree of personhood.

“It is hard to imagine that the bereaved owners who arrange for their pets to be preserved in this way act from anything other than grief for and love of the animal they have lost; it can be equally hard to contemplate the finished product without discomfort.”
– How We Mourn Our Dead Pets

Taxidermy has historically been used for museum specimens – as a representative of an entire species – or as a way of marking human prowess when it comes to hunting.  In neither case is the life of the individual celebrated by the act of taxidermy and in both cases, a statement is made about man’s dominion over nature.  In hunting this is clear but in museum specimens, it is about the scientific knowledge that we gain and thus by gaining this we label ourselves above other species.

However, modern taxidermy is bucking the trend a bit and is more about the individual animal, or at least can be, especially when we’re looking at pet taxidermy.  Some taxidermists won’t take pets because they are challenging – customers are hoping for a simulacrum of their loved once and putting the appearance of life into a lifeless body is a big ask.

“Instead of representing humans dominating animals, performances of modern taxidermy show humans with animals, engaged in the taxidermic process as a way to work through and even critique several of the paradigms through which humans typically engage with animals.  Rather than forget or efface the lives of animals, then, modern taxidermy can facilitate the work of memory by emphasising an animal’s death and the particularity of the animal who died.”
Mourning Animals: Rituals and Practices Surrounding Animal Death, edited by Margo de Mello

Modern technology can take taxidermy and raise it, with the process of freeze drying which alleges to give a lifelike experience in a way that taxidermy cannot.  In the process of freeze drying, organs and eyes are removed, the corpse is posed and then freeze dried… And then you get to own your beloved forever!  And own it is, this is not a relationship any more, you cannot argue that it is anything further than ownership.  Your pet becomes your possession.  It is without doubt now an object.  I do wonder what happens when you run out of space for the freeze dried fido, or you pass on and your children decide to get rid of it…

There is another option if you aren’t ready to let go of your beloved pet and that is cloning.  It’s incredibly expensive, exploits grieve and won’t even ensure your “new” pet has the same personality as the one that’s died, or even the same markings.  It is also a cruel practice as the clone has to be incubated within a living animal and it reinforces the idea of pets as property.  When your tv breaks, you buy a new one.  When your dog dies, you get a clone.

“Bioethicist Jessica Pierce articulates the problem with seeing dogs as mere objects in her New York Times op-ed and notes that dog cloning “reinforces the status of dogs as things to buy and collect, and as sentimental tokens…  Dogs are valued for our feelings toward them, rather than for who they are as individuals.”
Jessica Baron

Whilst I understand the temptation to hold onto your pet for that bit longer, some of these options do make me wonder if they are a way to avoid facing the death.


Pet cemeteries

In 1886 a vet in New York State offered to bury his client’s dog and that would be the start of the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery.  Hartsdale continues to operate today and is the resting ground of thousands of buried animals (including a lion) and shattered ashes.  It is often seen as a better way of honouring your pet than what would essentially be getting rid of them as if they were waste.  Burial in a cemetery also gives space for death ritual and mourning in a more formal way than burial in the back garden.  It also means you can revisit your beloved pet if you move house.

Over time the nature of the burials have become more elaborate.  Headstones can be more moving and less constrained that those for humans, there is less tradition guiding them and this frees up space for expression, it also opens up space to ask things like do you gift your pet your surname and if you do or don’t do that what does that say about the role of the pet in your family unit

Over the Atlantic, in London, we find the Hyde Park Pet Cemetery from the 19th century.  In the same era a pet cemetery was established in Paris.  During this time, the status of domestic animals grew and in turn so did the desire to commemorate them in death.

When Hyde Park Pet Cemetery opened it was illegal to bury animal remains in public spaces, meaning that most animal bodies, including pets, were left out with the rubbish or burnt.  This was starting to butt up against the idea of pets having more value than other animals.  Hyde Park was not run for profit and was almost solely for dogs, closing in 1902 as it was full.  Since then other animal cemeteries have popped up including one in Ilford which has memorials for individual animals deemed to have been heroes during the Second World War and the remains of thousands killed by their human ‘companions’ at the start of the war.

Of course, whilst pet cemeteries may be a relatively new idea, burial of animals is not.  It is possibly the most traditional way to deal with animal death, with the oldest known pet burial being 14,000 years old.  Evidence shows that cats and dogs have long been buried and it seems to be that this has been intentional and carried out because of a connection with the humans who buried them.  In the classical world, dogs were found buried with gravestones that carried touching messages, much as in the pet cemeteries of today.  More recently, urbanisation made burial harder as demand for land increased and many people didn’t have their own space they could use.

“Spatial limitations, as well as societal aspirations and emotional needs, were the key factors in the emergence of the contemporary pet cemetery… After the Second World War, however, pet cemeteries sprang up around the United States and Western Europe.”
– Michal Piotr Pregowski

Animal cemeteries are “a place of visible death” (Hilda Kean) which offers a role in the grief process akin to that of pet obituaries and today they can be found across the world.  There are about 700 across the US, about 75 in the UK and in 2009, the Australian Yellow Pages listed 138 pet cemeteries and crematoriums.  You can even visit the graves of celebrity animals at Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park.


Pet obituaries

Pet obituaries are a new phenomenon and are not free from contention.  They highlight the shifting status of pets and push against the idea of personhood and objects.

“A pet obituary raises multiple issues about the “appropriate” objects of mourning, of the “right” to mourn publicly, and of the ways that public mourning legitimates social relationships.”
– Jane Desmond

Obituaries were once reserved for rich, powerful, white men and whilst this has changed somewhat, pet obits seem to be, for some people, crossing the line.  Pet obits have been met with derision and mockery and this revealed that for some people, the mourning of pets is undignified.  Perhaps this is because it defies the hierarchy of value which is often at play in human-animal thinking.

“As one commenter noted in regard to the death notice of 10 year old German shepherd, Annie in the Las Cruces Sun-News, “What is this world coming to? I am as much a dog or pet lover as the next person, but I’m appalled to see a dog in the obituaries with people. I’m disgusted that you would think this is OK. Maybe your loved ones are on the same level as animals, but mine are not.””

Additionally, those mocking them, often see pet obits as overly emotional – the realm of crazy cat ladies – and thus there is a gendered aspect at play as well.

“Pet obituaries articulate an extended notion of kinship obligations and recognition by publicly recognizing this bond with non human animals… pet obits, which publicly commemorate a life and make that life part of the historical record, provide one of the test cases of this shifting positioning of the ‘pet’ in relation to human companions.  As with humans, pet obits assign value to a life, define its highlights, extol socially validated accomplishments, and serve as models of living.”
– Jane Desmond

By extending family to include pets, we are challenging the very idea of what a family is, something that has been changing for many decades and now includes single parent families and same sex couples.  For those against these newer models of family, adding pets into the mix might be one more aspect to push against.

Other arguments against pet obits include the idea that their inclusion would insult the human dead who appeared alongside them. Another is that obits have a certain form – they are a space to note the death of a person and to highlight their accomplishments.  With pets, we cannot really do the latter.  We cannot say that a pet graduated from a certain university or was really proud of their contribution to the world.  At best, we have pets who have carried out a heroic act or have worked through their life as a service dog etc.  Inherent in this idea is that animals, even pets, have less value than humans do.

“Beyond the challenge of translating the obit form from human to animal life is the issue of social value – of social worth – and this is an even more fundamental dividing line.”
– Jane Desmond

Humans are considered to be of social worth simply by being human, a lottery of birth, and this is generally only extended to animals who have done something heroic, and is only really extended to pets as opposed to wild or food animals.

In addition to formal obituaries in newspapers, there are less official spaces online which serve a similar function.  They are websites where a bereaved owner can post about their lost pet, knowing that in this semi-public semi-private space, their grief will be heard by like minded people.  Having your grief listened to gives it a legitimacy which isn’t always there in the ‘real’ world.  They tend to be places where humans are seen as survivors of loss, not just an owner, and as such are places of sympathy and understanding.  In contrast to this, the formal obits are public and there is a sense of exposure and vulnerability with that – people who view pets very differently can comment and criticise.

Creating a formal or informal obit can be part of the grieving process and in that respect, there isn’t a clear difference between the death of humans and animals.  There is merit in taking time to remember and celebrate your loved one and I think those deriding the idea of pet obituaries do need to consider this.  Those who want to write a pet obit, may want to think about where this is published, especially if they aren’t open to the potential of negative reactions.  I think this is where informal obituary websites shine.  They are a space to be heard by like minded people, to feel understood and to feel like you can grieve.  In this respect, pet obituaries are similar to pet cemeteries in that they mark a line between those people who feel compelled to (semi) publicly mourn and those who don’t.  Pet cemeteries will be the topic of my next animal and death blog post.


How we mourn (some) animals

If you have had a pet, it is likely that you know how strong the bond between human and animal can be, and how painful the death of a pet can be.  Some people have even said that they feel a greater loss when they lose a pet to losing a human loved one.  Either way, in the 21st century, the loss of a pet is often seen as akin to the loss of a family member.

With grieve tends to come a desire for ritual and remembering.  Whilst these paths are generally societally proscribed when it comes to human loss, when it comes to pets there is more freedom to choose what seems right to you.  This is reflected in the growing pet death care sector.

Options when your pet dies include: freeze drying your pet, pet cemeteries, taxidermy, cremation, burial in the garden, skull on mantlepiece, leaving them in the wood biostyle, funeral/wakes and much more.   You can choose to turn your beloved’s remains into jewellery, tattoos or artworks.  For the death itself, if a pet is being put to sleep, home euthanasia can be more personal but more expensive.  And the price of the after death options don’t come cheap either.

 “For some grieving pet owners, the combined costs can climb into the thousands—though for most, still below the $7,000 to $10,000 median human funeral cost. But while the options were once limited to burial in a backyard or abandonment at the vet’s for disposal, pet owners now can access a spectrum of services that rivals—and sometimes exceeds—those available to humans.”
Atlas Obscura

To help you through the grief there are apparently how social workers and counsellors who specialise in the mourning of pets.  There are classes for vets to attend to help their human clients with grief and pet psychics who can communicate on behalf of your pet to provide you with reassurance.

As I explore a couple of key options for pet death care in upcoming posts, we’ll see that the idea that pets can be legitimate objects of grief is becoming much more wide spread.  That’s not to say that it’s uncontested, but it does reflect a changing status of pets as more than objects.

There will be a short break in blog posts but when I come back, I’ll have a look at pet cemeteries, pet obituaries and a couple of other options and what they say about the status of pets and the meaning we imbue our animals with.  And note I say pet.  Animals are not all deemed worthy of grief and being mourned for and I aim to unpick that idea a little further.

What happens to animals when other animals die?

Before leaping into how we experience animal death, I wanted to take a quick look through the eyes of non-human animals.

“There is no question that animals grieve.”
– Marc Bekoff

“A growing body of scientific evidence supports the idea that nonhuman animals are aware of death, can experience grief and will sometimes mourn for or ritualize their dead.”
Jessica Pierce

Grieving animals may withdraw, seek time alone and not respond to attempts to draw them out.  They may sit, staring into space.  They may stop eating.  They may lose interest in sex.  They may attempt to revive their lost friend or relative.  In other words, they react to the death of a loved one as we do.

Grief is interesting as there is no evolutionary purpose to it.  In fact it goes against the behaviour we engage in to continue our species; it does not aid reproductive success and it can end up killing the affected individual.  There are cases where it seems an animal has died of a broken heart but even if we take those out of the equation, the behaviour of grief – not eating, not moving etc – opens up the individual to risks which could result in death.

“Some theorize that perhaps mourning strengthens social bonds among survivors who band together to pay their last respects.  This may enhance group cohesion at a time when it’s likely to be weakened.  Whatever its value is, grief is the price of commitment, that wellspring of both happiness and sorrow.”
– Marc Bekoff

In addition to grieving behaviour, we see ritualistic activity that could be described anthropomorphically as a funeral.  We know gorillas hold wakes, baboons seek comfort from friends after a death and there have been numerous cases of elephants showing concern for dead relatives, and even extending this beyond their family to nonrelatives.  Without this become a list of observed displays of what might be grief, I want to add that wolves, foxes and llamas have been seen grieving.

Corvids have been said to hold funerals, and it’s certain there is some prescribed behaviour surrounding death although we cannot know their motivation.  Some suggest it is a grieving process with others suggesting the birds are trying to understand why and how their friend has died.  Either way it suggests an awareness of the concept of death.  Magpies have even been observed laying grass over their dead comrades.

“We can’t know what they were actually thinking or feeling, but reading their action there’s no reason not to believe these birds were saying a magpie farewell to their friend”
– Marc Bekoff


Of course, the easiest animal grief to see is that in pets.  It is not unusual to hear people talk about how a pet grieved for another pet when it died, or there are cases where pets have died after their owners have passed, seemingly not get over their loss.

It is currently impossible to know where the line between accurate understanding of animal behaviour vs anthropomorphism lays but I am inclined to agree with Marc Bekoff and return to where I began in stating that

“There is no question that [at the very least some] animals grieve.”


Animals and death

In this post I’m going to highlight a few topics around animals and death which will be explored in more detail in later posts.

 ‘Animals become extinct. They are also killed, gassed, electrocuted, exterminated, hunted, butchered, vivisected, shot, trapped, snared, run over, lethally injected, culled, sacrificed, slaughtered, executed, euthanized, destroyed, put down, put to sleep, and even, perhaps, murdered’
Animal Studies Group

One of our most common interaction with animals, is through death.  We kill them to eat, to wear, for leisure and yet we also distance ourselves from animal death.  We call dead pigs pork, dead cows become beef, we take our pets to vets to have them put down in a clinical setting.  This isn’t all that surprising given how much we distance ourselves from human death – we get the body ushered off as soon as possible to be tended to by professionals and so on.

When talking about animal deaths, it’s important to note that, like in life, animals are not equal in death.  There are some which die without comment and others which we mourn and grieve for like kin.  We accept some animal deaths through wilful ignorance and justify others by putting human needs above animals.  Diana Donald noted that ‘perhaps the absolute basic distinction is between those kinds of killing that are wilfully invisible, removed from the consciousness of the perpetrators and excluded from the sight of anyone else, and those that are in some way commemorated or represented?’

We have selective empathy and that can be turned on or turned off depending on how we categorise animals; Are they useful to us? Are they wild or tamed?  Are they physically similar to us?  One simple example of this animals that are killed on the roads.  The reaction to roadkill versus the reaction to pets being hit by cars.  Another example to think about is the difference between swatting a fly and kicking a dog.

The majority of the animals we kill for meat are invisible.  They live and die out of sight, behind closed doors.  These are animals which only exist so they can die, for us.  And yet in contrast with these invisible, distant animals, we are living incredibly intimately with a different group of animals, namely our pets.  We share our houses and even our beds with our furry friends and this intimacy is reflected in how we feel when our beloved pets die.

The idea of who is grievable is cultural specific.  In the UK today, most people see pets as uniquely grievable within the animal kingdom whereas in Japan, ritual mourning for animals has been going on for thousands of years and was necessary to appease the spirits of the animals they hunted.  This respect for animals and the rituals around the kill is found in other hunting communities and often is part of thanking the animal for giving their life.

As is clear, killing animals doesn’t happen in a bubble, it happens in a society with particular attitudes and perceptions of the animals.  Quite often this is a society or culture in which man has dominion over nature and killing animals reinforces this hierarchy.  Hunting, and then killing, can bring with it status and thus the act of killing is imbued with meaning.

“It is possible to argue that the killing of animals deconstructs, redefines, or reshapes the social order between humans and animals… in the case of human-animal relations, the human need and ability to kill animals and the general acceptance or tolerance of the violence of killing is fundamental to the creation of the social order between these sets of creatures; such killing constructs, defines, and shapes this order.”
Garry Marvin

So, that’s a bit of a taste of what I’m hoping to look at in the next few posts and hopefully it gives you some ideas and concepts to mull over.  I will specifically be looking at who is grievable and how we mourn for (some) animals as well as any other rabbit holes I fall down!

(Also, an apology if this isn’t as coherent as normal, or has mistakes, I’m not on top form so it’s not been as carefully edited as normal.)


Sharing space: Dogs

Dogs are strange beasts; they are the wolves which lay down with lambs, the predators which do not bite.  And our relationship to dogs has been one that has taken us from prey to predator to care taker.

As I said in my post about cats, I’m very much a cat person and much less of a dog person… You can get a sense of this in my animal spirit card posts… Take one and take two

But dogs are very important to a lot of people, both in terms of companionship and in terms of what they can do for us.  Here I’m going to look a little bit at how we got to where we are today, at puppy farming, at dogs which are labelled dangerous and at how we speak for our dogs.

A bit of background

Dogs have been with us for thousands of years and may well have contributed to our success as a species, allowing us to venture into parts of the world where we would have struggled to survive without “man’s best friend”.  Undisputed evidence shows our relationship started at least 15,000 years ago, with disputed evidence more than doubling this.

But dogs are not a fixed concept.  Since the early days of domestication, we have bred and manipulated the species to meet our needs. Some we have bred to be cute and friendly, others to be tough and fierce and some we’ve bred to excel at very specific roles.  Today we have over 300 breeds of dog (some people argue it’s less, it seems to be a controversial area…).  And as with most other things in our human world, there are fashions and trends in dog breed popularity.  Right now, pugs and miniature dogs are in vogue but who knows what the next fashionable dog will be?!

Sometimes the choice of dog is down to personal preference or trends, but sometimes prospective owners are looking for particular characteristics as they have a particular job in mind for the dog.  Examples of these jobs include:

But where do these dogs come from?  Well, a certain number of them are unlucky enough to start life in a puppy farm…

Puppy farms

In the UK, we spend £10.6 billion pounds a year on our dogs.  A lot of which goes towards buying puppies.  But despite this vast amount of money changing hands, we don’t necessarily know where are beloved pets are coming from.

You might think it’s easy enough to go online, search for a puppy, see a picture and buy it from a stranger, meeting to exchange money and puppy.  Easy.  But there is a huge puppy farming industry and they know how to make sales.  Adverts are put online as if they are different individuals selling dogs from good homes, photos are included which give the illusion of a household environment and the dealer may even make your life a little easier by offering to drop round with the puppy or meet you somewhere.  The phone numbers for these adverts will be different as will the names of the sellers.  And if you are buying a purebred, you will be given fake paperwork as well.

According to the Kennel Club, in 2014, 41% of people who bought a puppy did not see the puppy with its mother and 53% did not see its breeding environment, meaning those puppies are highly likely to have been bred by puppy farmers and sold by third parties.

These puppies may be born on farms in the UK or abroad, indeed it is estimated that 50,000 puppies come over from Ireland each year and almost that many from Europe.  The puppies imported tend to arrive starved, dehydrated, with a low immune system, ill and without the appropriate injections.  They are likely to have been taken away from their mum too early and about 10% of them die despite getting vet care.  Of those dogs which aren’t found by customs and which get sold, about 20% die within the first six months.

The mother gets impregnated, gives birth and very shortly after her babies are taken away and she gets hormones and impregnated again.  It’s a vicious cycle which ends with the mum dying after about 3 or 4 years because of exhaustion.  In this time, she is kept in a tiny cage, fed mechanically and doesn’t get the level of care that we require of our food animals.

If someone is found guilty of puppy farming, they receive 6 months in prison, in a cage which doesn’t even compare to the cage that the dogs are kept in.

Dangerous dogs: an unfair sentence?

The cycle of abuse can understandably lead some dogs to behave badly and illegal breeding of illegal breeds can mean that some animals are considered dangerous from birth.  These dogs don’t stand a chance and should never have been bred as the law requires them to be put down because of their breed.  No humane person would breed these.

For those dogs which are not illegal breeds and which are labelled as dangerous, their status may be temporary, but can come with a life sentence.  For example, in one programme I watched, there was an extremely aggressive dog which strongly resisted being taken by the dog warden but within a week, having been cared for and fed, it was ready to be rehomed and showed virtually no aggression.  It had acted as it had because it was scared, hungry, abused and had been trained to defend the house it was it.  It was not a malicious creature, it just found itself in a bad situation.

Because illegal breeders don’t care about where the dog ends up, they can find themselves with bad owners who may abuse or neglect them.  Then when the dogs behave inappropriately, they are labelled dangerous dogs and suffer the consequences whilst the human gets off fairly lightly.  And unlike the animals we saw in the past, these dogs rarely get the respect of a trial.  If they do, it’s likely to be trial by media and in some rare circumstances, public outcry and pressure has meant that a fair hearing has been given. But this is far from the norm and in most cases there is no one to speak for these dogs, unlike for their more loved and cared for canine siblings.

Speaking for Fido

We do not know what are dogs are really thinking or experiencing but that doesn’t stop us from projecting.  How often have you heard someone refer to a dog feeling guilty because they ate the cake from the worktop or destroyed your favourite shoes?  Research shows that dogs do not experience guilt, it is far more likely that they have picked up on your mood and are afraid.  The “guilty look” may be something they’ve developed because it means they are less likely to feel the wrath of your temper.

Alexandra Horowitz delivers an excellent talk about how we anthropomorphise dogs behaviour and has done research which tries to test out these assumptions.  I’m not going to repeat it all, you should watch the talk, but she debunks the idea that dogs feel jealousy as well as guilt and thus challenges our assumptions that we can speak for our dogs and understand what they mean.

She also discusses the very different perspective of the world that dogs have to us.  They live in a scent-centric world instead of our vision-centric one.  They see from a different height and have different priorities and this informs how they perceive the world.  If you go into a room, you might be more attuned to finding a chair, whereas a dog might be more attuned to the crumbs of food under the table.  We have different lives and different things are important to us and this shapes our experiences of being in the world.  And this is often neglected when we take on the task of speaking for our dogs.

In The Divinity of Dog Writing, Nathan Goldman asks:

Can we encounter dogs in their otherness? Or are we doomed to see them as, at best, versions of ourselves?

The article poses humans as interpreters, as flawed interpreters, of our dogs and how our human-centric existence essentially means we are speaking for them through human-tinted glasses.  How often do we misunderstand our beloved pets? And what are the consequences of this?

For [Donna] Haraway, to truly love dogs is not to treat them like furry children. Dogs “are not a projection,” she writes, “nor the realization of an intention, nor the telos of anything. They are dogs”.

After writing this post I got an email directing me to Are dogs trying to tell us something with their expressions? which may be of interest.

Sharing space: Cats and dogs

I will be looking at dogs but first, lets have a look at cats and dogs together, their relationship and cross over areas.  It is a bit random in places but I’ve watched and read some interesting and less relevant things that I’d like to share.

In 2011, Americans spent $7.4 billion pounds on their cats and $19.2 billion on their dogs.  56% said their cats were family members and 66% for dogs. 


Apparently there isn’t much research about cats and dogs in the same home, instead it tends to focus on one or the other despite the high number of households which have both.  However, anecdotally, we know that owners tend to treat them differently and the stats above back this up.  Where dogs are expected to interact with their owners outside the house in a variety of situations, it is generally the case that cats are not.

Fighting like cats and dogs?

You might wonder why cats and dogs always fight, well a story from Taiwan has the answer for you.

Actually, in reality, the idea of cats and dogs always fighting is a stereotype and not true, as owners of both will back up.  When I was growing up we had a cat and then got a dog as well and they didn’t fight and the cat wasn’t scared of the dog, as most cat owners will testify, the cat became top dog.

In a study which looked at the interaction between cats and dogs in the same household, it was found that there was a high degree of amicability.  They stayed in proximity to each other even if they didn’t have to.  75% showed nose to nose contact which is a sign of affection and it has been shown that they understand each others body language, even in cases where what the dog is conveying by doing x has the opposite meaning when the cat does it.  Perhaps predictably, the most successful cat dog relationships occur when they meet when they are young.

The phrase itself apparently dates back to around 1550 when I suspect the relationship between cats and dogs and owners was very different.  As we saw in the post about cats, this was a period in history where pets weren’t common so the dogs were probably kept as hunting dogs or for protection whilst the cats may have been kept for pest control.  It is highly unlikely that they were pampered and food could well have been scarce.  In these circumstances, the relationship between cats and dogs is likely to have been more competitive and less amicable.

Another popular phrase, raining cats and dogs, has a possible origin which is a bit grim.  If you want to venture forth, you can do so at the Phrase Finder.

Scavenger or hunter?

This is the random part!  Cats and dogs, whilst we often treat them similar, are very different.  Cats are fine tuned hunting machines who capture their prey with skill and finesse.  It’s actually quite fascinating and Dr Frank Mendel talks about it in detail as part of the cats in context symposium.  Dogs on the other hand are much more generalist and, as any dog owner knows, will eat pretty much everything and anything.

Until I started this project, I hadn’t given a second thought to the pet food industry.  Admittedly I don’t have a pet but once I started to learn about it I was shocked.  Do you have a pet?  If you do, have you ever read the ingredients on the pet food or looked at the use by date?  In some cases, the food has such a long date on it that it will outlive the actual animal…

Anyway, before we get on to that, I want to give some context.  I’m including pet food here because it turns out that households with both cats and dogs tend to give them both the same feeding experience.  By which I mean they may have the same food, they may be fed the same amount, and fed in the same place.  But because of the differences in the animals, we’ll see that that is not appropriate.

Dogs Cats
Scavengers who eat virtually anything Obligate carnivores and finicky eaters on top of that
Social feeders Solitary feeders
Need a minimum of 18% of their calories from protein, 22% for puppies Need a minimum of 23% of their calories from protein, 26% for kittens
Burn protein at different rates depending on circumstances Burn protein at a high and fixed rate
Dogs eat quickly and often all at once Cats tend to be nibblers, eating little and often throughout the day
Will happily eat with other dogs but because of this they do have a tendency to guard their food Prefer a quiet spot to eat alone

Because of the above, the type of food we feed cats and dogs needs to have a different make up.  For example, cats do not need carbohydrates in their diet.

How we feed our pets is based much more on emotion than science.  When choosing your pet food, have you read each bag or given up, overwhelmed by choice, and chosen the one that looks good?  You wouldn’t be alone if you did.  And actually, pet food labels are not that easy to understand. Marketers use shiny labels and feel good pictures and words to get you to buy their brand.

The documentary I watched, Pet Fooled, was based on American pet food which seems to be a shocking state of affairs and the UK industry does seem to be better.  When they looked at different brands, the main ingredients were fillers that were not nutritionally needed by the animals.  They also use a variety of words which have technical legal meanings which do not correlate with how the average person interprets them.  For example (in the US):

  • Chicken flavoured food means there can legally be 0% chicken in it.
  • Food with chicken, means has to be at least 3% chicken. So “tasty food with chicken” may not have very much chicken in, and “chicken” says nothing about the quality or type of meat.
  • Using the word dinner, nuggets or formula means 25% of the product is the cited meat, again no guarantee about quality or part of the animal.
  • Natural – this was a ridiculous one. Basically it was the meat in question but it could legally be processed in many different ways, including cooked at excessively high temperatures.  The only thing that wasn’t allowed was chemical alteration.

In the UK, the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, a voluntary membership scheme, is one way of quality checking your pet food.  Their members follow nutritional guidelines and there’s lots of information for pet owners on their website about what different pets should be eating.

Pet foods are subject to stringent legislation in the UK to ensure safe products of high quality. For instance, the legislation covering pet food ingredients requires that when manufacturers use by-products of the human food industry they come from animals slaughtered under veterinary supervision.  The industry has also adopted a number of Codes of Practice which support and in some cases exceed legislative requirements.

So whilst things are better on this side of the ocean, I think awareness still needs to be raised about what we are feeding our animals.  At least have a look at the ingredients and see what it is you’re feeding your precious pet.  Also, whilst we’re looking at advice, in the wild cats get most of their water from their prey so they aren’t natural drinkers, however a dry food only diet may dehydrate them so if you can, feed them wet food too!

Sharing space: Inviting animals into our homes

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”
– George Orwell

Over many thousands of years, we have let more and more animals into our homes to live with us.  And as we do so, the line between pet and humans continues to blur with dogs being taken to yoga, given shoes and coats and doggy day care and so on.

In the UK, in 2017:

  • 44% of all households have pets (12 million households with 54 million pets in total)
  • 24% of these are dogs
  • 17% are cats
  • 8% are indoor fish
  • 5% are outdoor fish

Pets provide us with comfort, they fulfil our need to be needed, we can interpret their behaviour as love and affection and who doesn’t want someone/thing that loves them unconditionally and doesn’t hold a grudge.

Animals comfort us, show us loyalty and joy and model forgiveness for us.  They are somewhat like children, somewhat like friends and in some cases somewhat like colleagues.  They meet our innate need for positive interactions.  One study even found that people with pets spend more time laughing than non pet owners… a sad fact for those of us with allergies…

We use pets to make ourselves feel better; in hospitals, care homes schools and therapy situations.  We use them to help children who are struggling to learn to read.  By reading to a gentle dog, they get the stress relief benefits of the pet whilst also having a non judgemental audience to practice and build confidence with.  We use pets in disaster relief to comfort victims.

Studies show that petting, playing and gazing at a pet releases oxytocin which helps us feel loved and nurtured and is good for our mental health.  Whilst on mental health, some people have said that having something which relies on you for its basic needs can be really helpful in motivating them to do things that their depression wouldn’t allow otherwise.

[Pet animals sometimes] “bear more than their natural burden of human love”
– George Bernard Shaw

The relationship between pet and owner forms a powerful dyad, especially in the case of dogs where strangers may experience you as a couple.  You are inextricably linked with your pet when it comes to your identity.  Animals can change how a human is viewed, for example a few studies have shown that when disabled people are out with helper dogs, they receive very different attention to when they are out on their own.

Pets are a way of showing that you are kind, caring and sociable and a study showed that a man with a dog in a park was more successful at getting dates or phone numbers from women than he was without the dog.  The pet also gives strangers a pivot around which to interact.  You can comment on what a lovely dog the stranger has or how good they are and break the ice and dog owners have been shown to spend more time with strangers in parks than those without.

Caring for pets however, does not automatically make you a nice person… The Nazi Party was particularly concerned about the welfare of animals.  When they came into power in 1933, they introduced a range of animal protection laws.  Mistreating your pets could see you in jail for two years.  The production of foie gras, docking ears and tails without anaesthesia and mistreating animals used in films were all banned.  Human slaughter was required for food animals and the treatment of animals was added to the school curriculum.  In 1934, they hosted an international conference on animal protection.  They were without a doubt treating and valuing their pets above Jews, practising humane killing for the animals and inhumane methods for humans. I haven’t read it but Animals in the Third Reich: Pets, Scapegoats, and the Holocaust by Boria Sax looks an interesting read on the subject.

The nature of pet ownership has changed considerably over the years… to be able to keep a pet, you need to know that food supplies are reliable and you need to have enough time for it, so this, for much of history, meant pets were for the higher classes.  The church denounced pet keeping in the middle ages, deeming it to be heresy as it blurred the line between humans and animals.  However, the ecclesiastical elite and nobility could defy this.  Lower classes were prohibited from owning certain types of dog, namely hunting dogs, presumably to protect the sport of hunting…

In the last 150 years, we have bred dogs for certain characteristics and the same continues today for a wider range of species.  In order to meet our own needs and desires, we are harming our allegedly beloved pets, causing breathing difficulties, joint problems, pain and much more.  I suspect we don’t even know the half of the damage we are doing to them through over breeding.  Pets are also subject to unnecessary cosmetic procedures such as tail docking, ear cropping and declawing.  They are shaped, like a commodity, to be most convenient to humans.

The relationship between pet and caretaker and their identities is an interesting one and is explored in Actions Speak Louder Than Words although I may return to the topic myself at some stage.  The paper looks at things like naming of our pets, our presumptions about what their species or breed means in terms of their identity and how the caretaker shapes the pet’s identity.

Whilst dogs might on the whole be more popular, I’m going to kick off with a look at my favourite pet, the cat.