From work to home
It was in the Victorian era that the idea of domestic animals as pets, purely for companionship and/or entertainment, began to take root. In the past, animals such as horses and dogs were considered as working animals, with their skills used as a contribution to the family household. The animals were destined, amongst other things, as hunting dogs, sheepdogs, and guard dogs, cats caught mice and other vermin, and horses were a means of transport. In the 1880’s dogs were also used to collect money for charitable organisations, and were licensed to move around trains and railway stations.
This does not mean that people did not love or look after their animals, but these creatures were expected to earn their keep.
Queen Victoria’s pets
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, relationships between animals and humans began to change. A great example of this was Queen Victoria and her family, who were closely monitored and copied by the British public who could afford to do so.
Victoria appears to have been a great animal lover with various species of dogs, a donkey, goats and a number of pet parrots forming part of the royal household throughout her reign. It would seem that the queen was not enamoured of cats, although she was gifted a kitten shortly before her coronation.Not only did she accept the feline, but also sent two five pound notes to its previous owner as a way of thanks. Victoria’s love for these creatures and their status as family members to be cossetted and petted undoubtedly influenced the fate of many other animals owned by well-heeled families.
Cats and dogs
During Victoria’s reign, dogs were by far the most popular animals, and Victoria herself had several canine pets during her monarchy.
Both the aristocracy and the newly wealthy middle class were eager to emulate the Royal Household and dogs were placed into the heart of a family with no strings attached, as opposed to having a function within the house. In addition, dogs were seen as a status symbol and there were were many sentimental stories and anecdotes about canine feats.
Every dog has its day
Dogs also became a fashion item.
Any Victorian lady who aspired to be fashionable and show off their status would have their lapdog in tow and these dogs would accompany their mistresses everywhere. Lapdogs, as the name indicates, were small enough to sit in a lady’s lap and were the only type of dogs to be allowed in a parlour at visiting time. The poor dogs were often deprived of exercise, and sometimes even dressed in miniature gowns and bonnets to be caressed and tickled. Many veterinarians of the era were concerned that this was no way to treat a dog.
Photographs were costly at the time. However, many dog owners were photographed with their furry friends, confirmimg the high importance of their dogs in their lives.
The first modern dog show was held in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1859. It was a low key event which focused on working country dogs. But the world of dog shows was to grow rapidly, focusing on all types of breeds and competitions began to be held throughout the country. Although Mr Cruft had always been involved in the dog trading business, it was in 1891 that the Cruft`s Dog Show as we know it today was born.
Dogs were now being bred purely for aesthetic reasons and these shows developed a public preference for pedigree dogs over mongrels although all types of dogs were included ; a reflection of Victorian hierarchy in society. . There were still dogs for every taste and budget, and these exhibitions contributed to dog ownership becoming widespread as people’s lot improved economically and the expense of a dog became more affordable.
Care for dogs
The RSPCA (Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals) was founded in 1824, the first animal welfare organisation in the world, and still active today. The NSPCC ( National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children ) was established in 1895. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that.
But back to the matter in hand, it was recognised that animals should be treated with care and kindness.
When Queen Victoria’s beloved dog Dash died in 1840, she had a marble image of the dog placed over his grave.
The first pet cemetary in Western Europe appeared in Hyde Park in 1881, where about 1,000 animas were buried. It was closed in the 1910’s and is no longer open to the public. The epitaphs on the gravestones reflected fidelity and obedience – both highly valued traits by the Victorians. The pet cemetary was controversial – at the time society was not too comfortable with the religious connotations of giving animals a Christian burial, also bearing in mind that a lot of people were still destined for a pauper’s grave.
The Victorian age was a time of travel, discovery and exploration. This meant there were opportunities in Victorian Britain to see exotic animals too. Regent’s Park Zoo opened in 1828 and there was another short-lived zoo, the Surrey Zoological Gardens, in today’s Southwark, which opened in 1832 to around 1856, housing the menagerie of Edward Cross.
This collection of animals included lions, tigers, a rhinoceros, giraffes, monkeys, elephants, camels, zebras, llamas and an aviary with exotic birds such as ostriches and pelicans. Queen Victoria and her family were also frequent visitors to the St. Regent’s Park Zoo which has survived until the present day – now known as London Zoo.
The Victorians may not have shared contemporary thinking on zoos and over-cosseted lapdogs, but they did set us firmly on the road to keeping house pets and enjoying their companionship for its own sake. Dogs and cats and whatever other pets you may have) were, are and will continue to be man’s best friend.