Whenever I give a talk about the history of pet keeping, people ask me to define “pet.” I recently published an essay where I worked out a definition that encompassed the wide variety of ideas and behaviors that are associated with keeping animals as pets. I suggested that the concept of the “pet” is dynamic, changing with the species of animal involved, the motivations for keeping the animal, and the life circumstances of the pet owner. The human and the animal “live” the definition together through daily routines and behaviors. So the definition of the “pet” is not only in our minds, it is displayed through our actions..
1) The pet animal is chosen by one or more people, who take responsibility (however imperfect or inadequate their efforts may be) for its well-being and intervene routinely in its life course.
2) The pet animal is kept in close proximity to the people who care for it, including residing in and around a dwelling.
3) The pet animal is not required to “earn” its living except insofar as it contributes to in the emotional economy of private life.
4) The pet animal is kept as a companion or the object of emotional ties.
5) The pet animal may be kept at least in part or wholly for the pleasure its beauty provides. This may be either physical appearance or some other characteristic, as in the case of birdsong.
6) The animal may be a source of leisure activity, which may include development of substantial expertise, as in the case of caring for reptiles, saltwater aquaria, or parrots.
7) The animal may be a source or a signal of social status. These animals may be exotic, “purebred” (created from a closed genetic pool of similar individuals), or have other special characteristics, as when their status is associated with the potential danger associated with ownership.
8) The status of the pet is contingent. An animal can be raised into the status of the “pet” or lose that status through abandonment or other failures of care.
9) Not every pet meets all these characteristics or conditions, although items 1 and 2 are fundamental to this animal category.
Because I know a lot about the artifacts associated with pet keeping, I can see that elements of the definition are embedded in their design and their use. I’ll try to share these observations with you in my blog postings. I’ll also point out how the definition has changed over time, and how pet keeping in 18th, 19th and 20th centuries changed in America.