These 5 Ancient Civilizations Treasured Their Pets

The human-animal bond has been around since antiquity. Learn more about the ancient cultures and civilizations that cherished their animals — not for their practicality, but for their companionship.

By Sam Walters
Jan 11, 2024 2:00 PM
A funerary stele from Thassos, 480-450 B.C.E.
A strangely familiar detail, this 2,500-year-old funerary stele from Thasos depicts a dog scrounging for scraps underneath a dinner table. (Credit: Gokhan Dogan/Shutterstock)


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Taking your dog on a walk or tossing around your cat’s favorite toy may seem like a uniquely modern activity. But humans have lived alongside animals for a long time — and have loved them for almost as long.

In fact, it was as many as 40,000 years ago that the first animals began to be tamed and domesticated through their interactions with our ancient ancestors, transforming from wild beasts into beloved friends and, in some instances, family.

But a domesticated animal and an adored pet aren’t always the same thing. Discover the difference between domesticated and pet animals, and explore the ways that these animals — especially dogs and cats — were treated in cultures and civilizations all around the ancient world.

Read More: Did Ancient Humans Actually Have Pets Just Like Us?

What’s the Difference Between a Domesticate and a Pet?

Specialists say that a domesticated animal, also known as a domesticate, is an animal that’s domesticated for food, for work, or for any other purpose (practical or otherwise), while a pet is a uniquely impractical indulgence — an animal that’s been domesticated for the purposes of pleasure or play alone. It’s the difference between a farm animal that’s cultivated for consumption and a dog whose biggest responsibility is fetching their favorite ball or finding the biggest stick.

When Were Dogs Domesticated?

As the world’s first domesticates, dogs were tamed and domesticated gradually through the generations. Archaeologic analyses demonstrate that their domestication was well underway around 14,000 years ago, and genetics indicate that it began between 14,000 and 40,000 years ago, when human hunter-gatherers started to meet and make mutually beneficial bonds with wild gray wolves.

But while it is apparent that grey wolves were transformed into domesticated dogs after years of interaction with humans, it isn’t apparent where, specifically, this transformation took place.

Where Were Dogs Domesticated?

Recent research in Nature suggests that domesticated dogs arose from separate wolf populations in eastern Eurasia and western Eurasia, with dogs being “overall more closely related to ancient wolves from eastern Eurasia.” This may mean that the animals were domesticated in both places, with the populations mixing afterwards, though this may also mean that dogs were domesticated in eastern Eurasia, only to mate with wolves in western Eurasia in the aftermath, as they traveled west with humans.

Read More: How Dogs Have Uniquely Co-Evolved With Humans Like No Other Species

When Were Cats Domesticated?

Cats, on the other hand, were a much more recent domestic development, with their domestication beginning around 10,000 years ago, according to another paper published in Nature. At that time, humans in the ancient area of Mesopotamia were just transitioning from hunting and gathering to farming.

Where Were Cats Domesticated?

As these humans settled in villages, then towns, then cities throughout the Mesopotamian region, situated in and around West Asia's Tigris and Euphrates rivers, they warmed up to the rodent-chasing cats that roamed their streets, acting as a free and convenient form of rat- and mice-control. This relationship then gave rise to the gradual domestication of the cat.

Read More: Cats First Finagled Their Way Into Human Hearts and Homes Thousands of Years Ago

Ancient Animals Around the World

For all their clues about when and where dogs and cats were domesticated, scholars still struggle to determine when and where dogs and cats were first treated as pets — nourished and nurtured purely for the purpose of companionship. That being said, dogs and cats were being buried with opulent offerings or alongside their owners starting some 12,000 and 9,500 years ago, seemingly as a testament to the close bond between owner and animal.

1. Animals in Ancient Mesopotamia

Inscriptions on figurines such as this nearly 3,000-year-old figure from Nimrud included "Expeller of Evil" and "Catcher of the Enemy," indicating that the tiny sculptures served a protective function for ancient Mesopotamians. (Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Accession Number: 54.117.23)

While cats roamed the streets in the ancient cities of Mesopotamia, dogs were working as hunters and protectors of herds and homes. Their reliability in these roles was so well-regarded that many ancient Mesopotamians carried around amulets and figurines of dogs, including the almost 3,000-year-old figurine pictured above, as articles of personal protection and as tokens of health and healing.

But dogs were also much more than hunters, healers, and protectors to the people in the so-called Fertile Crescent. They were also pets. While Mesopotamian myths describe dogs as companions to gods and goddesses, Mesopotamian art depicts dogs as companions to mere mortals. Further demonstrating to their domesticity were widespread Mesopotamian superstitions, including those in the approximately 2,700-year-old Šumma Ālu tablets, that depict dogs as a regular presence in Mesopotamian homes.

There’s even evidence that Mesopotamian dogs were adorned with what appear to be the world’s first dog collars, some of which were simple and some of which were ornate, suggesting that some ancient Mesopotamians thought their canine companions deserved to be spoiled.

2. Animals in Ancient Egypt

This sleek statuette from the Ptolemaic Period (305 to 30 B.C.E.) was intended as a container for a mummified cat. (Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Accession Number: 56.16.1)

Canine companions were also common in ancient Egypt, where they were treated as full-fledged members of the family. After their deaths, for instance, dogs were frequently mummified and buried by their owners in an attempt to smooth their transition to the afterlife. Potentially encouraging this practice was the god Anubis, the guardian of tombs, the guide to the afterlife, and the deity most associated with dogs.

Cats were tied to their own deities, including Bastet, a fierce goddess of protection and family. As such, mummifying and burying cats was also common in Egypt. Egyptians were known throughout the ancient world for their anguish over fallen felines, with the Greek historian Herodotus claiming in 430 B.C.E. that the death of a cat “plunges the Egyptians into deep grief.”

Whether dog, cat, or any other creature, companion animals were often buried alongside their masters to continue their companionship after their deaths. The intimate relationship between pet and pet owner is also stressed in inscriptions in tombs and on steles, where animals were named according to their traits, with titles including “Blacky,” “Brave One,” and “Reliable,” as well as “Pleasant One.”

3. Pets in Ancient Greece

The ancient Greeks made rhyta vases and vessels, including this terracotta vessel, fashioned from a mold between 350 and 300 B.C.E., for funerals and sacrificial rituals. (Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Accession Number: 41.162.249)

In ancient Greece, dogs were also seen as companions, cherished for their commitment to their owners. They frequently feature in Greek myths, with the most celebrated mythical canine being Argus. In Homer’s Odyssey, written around 2,700 to 2,800 years ago, Argus’s owner, Odysseus, returns home after two decades of travel and is immediately recognized by a faithful Argus. Fulfilling his duty to his owner, the old dog then descends into “the shadow of death,” having “seen Odysseus after twenty years.”

In Greece, some dogs were not put to work as hunters, herders, and guards but were bred without a practical purpose in mind. Represented in vase paintings and relief sculptures, these companion animals are shown accompanying masters, young and old, at home or in the hustle and bustle of town.

4. Pets in Ancient Rome

The world's first "Beware of Dog" warnings appeared in ancient Rome, with mosaics and signs of this sort materializing all throughout the streets of Pompeii and other cities, commonly accompanied by the words "Cave Canem." (Credit: Giannimarchetti/Shutterstock)

As in ancient Greece, Romans of all ages treasured their canine counterparts. The Romans’ devotion to their dogs shines through in inscriptions dedicated to those who died. In fact, in both Greece and Rome, dogs were interred with inscriptions to mark their names and their merits, just as they were interred in ancient Egypt.

One Roman inscription reads, “I am in tears, while carrying you to your last resting place, as much as I rejoiced when bringing you home in my own hands fifteen years ago.” Another mourns, “What a loved companion have we lost!” Interestingly, no such inscriptions commemorate cats in Greece or Rome. Much more seldom in ancient Greek and Roman sources, companion cats were apparently a relatively rare occurrence in these cultures.

5. Animals in Ancient Mesoamerica

Many canine figurines from ancient Mesoamerica show the animals in simple sitting or standing poses, including this figure from Colima, fashioned between 200 B.C.E. and 300 C.E. (Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Accession Number: 2007.345.1)

Typically represented in a standing or sitting position, ceramic canine figurines — including the approximately 2,000-year-old figure pictured above — appear in many Mesoamerican tombs from antiquity. Most abundant in the Mexican state of Colima, these figurines testify to the importance of dogs in the many cultures and civilizations of ancient Mesoamerica.

There, domesticated dogs were valued in a wide variety of ways. Some were bred as workers, watchers, and guard dogs, while some were appreciated for their merit as food. Others were intended for their use as animal sacrifices, while others still were treated as pets, coddled and cherished by their caretakers, or respected as representatives of the afterlife.

In fact, many cultures and civilizations throughout ancient Mesoamerica thought that dogs accompanied dead humans as they transitioned to the afterlife, guiding them and guarding them against danger. Canine figurines were frequently interred in human tombs to fulfill this function, suggesting that their companionship lasted longer than a lifetime.

Read More: What the Animal Kingdom Meant to Ancient Societies

Other Ancient Animal Companions

In this funerary stele from around 2,500 years ago, an ancient Greek girl says a gentle goodbye to two beloved pets: a pair of doves. (Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Accession Number: 27.45)

Though dogs and cats were common in these civilizations, they weren’t the only animals that were adored. Tame, or tame-adjacent, animals, such as wild parrots, peacocks, sparrows, and apes, were housed in ancient Roman homes as a form of amusement. And animals as wild and wide-ranging as monkeys, crocodiles, and gazelles played a part in the pet culture of ancient Egypt.

In ancient Greece and Rome, stories abound about Alexander’s beloved horse, Bucephalus, and Crassus’s esteemed eel was said to come when the wealthy statesman called. In ancient Egypt, pharaohs were known for keeping falcons, and Amenemhat III famously cared for a crow, consecrating a monument and a tomb to the bird’s memory.

All this is to say that the adoration of animals — furry, feathered, or otherwise — is a part of our history, tracing back thousands and thousands of years.

Read More: What the Animal Kingdom Meant to Ancient Societies

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