Protectors of home and hearth…herders of sheep…hunting companions…rodent control…it’s pretty clear that the role of pets has been ever-changing since we domesticated them thousands of years ago. Beginning nearly 30,000 years ago, dogs (and thousands of years later, cats) emerged as human helpers in a co-evolving partnership.

To this day, many cultures still rely upon these traditional animal roles, viewing them as important to livelihood and worthy of care, but not necessarily equal to human family members. In many westernized societies, pets may be viewed as individuals and cherished companions, worthy of their own rights and freedoms.

To better understand how our views of four-leggeds have changed over the years, let’s consider the role of pets in prehistory and throughout modernity.

Consider Many Factors

While animals have lived with us for thousands of years, the idea of animal companionship for the simple joy of pet-keeping didn’t come into fashion until the 17th century in Europe. In fact, animal menageries were a symbol of wealth and power and often included wild and exotic species.

Because the concept of pets seemed to coincide with civilization, it would appear that pets are indicative of the wealth, leisure, and stability of an established nation. Yet, progress isn’t the only factor in why certain cultures have integrated pets into the family dynamic.

The Role of Pets in Religion and Myth

Throughout the centuries, animals were instrumental in how we related to the web of life and our role therein; what we understood about ourselves and the stories we created to make sense of our place in the cosmos. Cats, for example, were often found buried in caves and tombs with their owners during Neolithic times, as companions in the next lifetime. In ancient Egypt, cats were given special status as the physical embodiment of the goddess Bastet.

Dogs were also placed in high esteem by the Aztecs in Central Mexico, as well as by the Greeks. Unfortunately, both cats and dogs were also feared during historic periods. In fact, many were killed during the middle ages by the Church, particularly during the inquisition, when they were associated with heresy and witchcraft.

Hunters, Herders, and Helpmates

Animals have been instrumental in the development of technology and civilization. Evidence shows that before they were cuddly pets, most dogs were used to help humans hunt while cats kept rodents and other vermin out of granaries and dwellings. Given the number of breeds that are specific to their “jobs,” (think working breeds like border collies and Shetland sheepdogs), we continue to value dogs for the important jobs they do.

As we moved from smaller bands of hunter-gatherers into agrarian communities, it’s likely the role of cats and dogs was vital to our success. For example, settled groups required assistance controlling the pest population and in guarding the domestic animals used for food and clothing.

The Modern Day Human-Animal Bond

Today in the United States, the pet industry is a multibillion dollar enterprise. Not only do we provide better health care, nutrition, and in-home accommodations for pets, we also leave them inheritances, dress them up in designer clothing, and take them with us on vacation.

Understanding the complex emotional lives of animals and the many ways they benefit us has been essential to their evolving role. There’s no doubt this human-animal bond will continue to deepen as pets live longer, healthier, and more connected lives with their human families.

At Beverly Hills Veterinary Associates, we marvel at the incredible role of pets in shaping human culture while still making their way into our hearts and homes.