The Animal's Companion

People & Their Pets, a 26,000-Year Love Story


By Jacky Colliss Harvey

Formats and Prices




$36.49 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 2, 2019. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

A unique and compelling exploration of why humans need animal companions — from dogs and cats to horses, birds, and reptiles — through the eyes of a New York Times bestselling historical detective author.

In The Animal’s Companion, the acclaimed social anthropologist and author of Red: A History of the Redhead turns her keen eye for cultural investigation toward uncovering why humans have such a strong desire to share everyday life with pets. It’s a history that can be traced back to a cave in France where anthropologists discovered evidence of a boy and his dog taking a walk together — 26,000 years ago.

From those preserved foot and paw prints, Jacky Colliss Harvey draws on literary, artistic, and archaeological evidence to sweep readers through centuries and across continents to examine how our relationships with our pets have developed, but also stayed very much the same. Through delightful stories of the most famous, endearing, and sometimes eccentric pet owners throughout history, Colliss Harvey examines the when, the how, and the why of our connection to the animals we take into our lives, and suggests fascinating new insights into one of the most long-standing of all human love affairs.


My mother, me at age 3, and my cat Freddy, also age 3, in our garden in Suffolk.



In evolutionary terms, pet ownership poses a problem…

—John Archer, “Why Do People Love Their Pets,” 1997

A few years ago I wrote a book on the history of the redhead, as part of which I found myself in the Dutch town of Breda, at the largest gathering of redheads on the planet. And there I met Daniel and Joe—redheads the pair of them, and not only that but dressed to match as well: identical yellow bandanas round their necks and matching sunglasses. And we got talking—or rather I, in that entitled way that writers have, began asking questions, and Daniel did his best to answer them. Were he and Joe always dressed alike? I asked. How long had they been in each other’s lives? How did people react when they saw the two of them together? And given that what I saw was a settled adult pair, wholly at ease with each other and praiseworthily forbearing when it came to me, and that life for young redheads, especially young male redheads, can sometimes be a tad taxing, let us say, how had life been before they had each other, when they were younger and on their own? At which Daniel began describing the usual experiences of soft discrimination and of being marginalized at school, and Joe gave a wide, luxurious, and noisy yawn, settled his head on his paws, and went to sleep. Smiling, Daniel explained, “He’s heard all this before,” and reached out and patted Joe’s head. And looking at the two of them, I found myself begin one of those idle inner ponders—in this case why, for millennia, as members of the dominant species on this planet, we have been so impelled to take members of other species into our homes and lives and (hopefully) cherish and indulge and care for them as if they are the exact thing they so unalterably are not—like us.

Beware those idle inner question marks. They start out as such unassuming little sprouts, and just what social media was made for. Why do we have the pets we have, I asked, and within hours my readers were sharing with me the pictures and the stories of every beloved pet you can imagine, from ginger cats and dogs to strawberry-roan horses and ponies, from auburn guinea pigs and hamsters to a tiny Rhode Island Red chick and even a henna-colored bearded lizard. And that momentary ponder with Daniel and Joe has become what this book is about. Or to be specific, Daniel, and all the other Daniels there have been down the ages, has become what this book is about. Because this book is an exploration of the history not of the pet (the handsome red setter) but of the pet owner.

I come from a family of animal lovers within a nation, so we are told, of animal lovers; much as that description would for centuries have amazed and baffled our neighbors on the Continent. My favorite TV program as a child featured a man called Johnny Morris, playing a pretend zookeeper in a permanent, Columbo-style state of dishevelment, voicing the thoughts and opinions of the animals he encountered. My favorite childhood reading included James Herriot, the Yorkshire veterinarian, and the naturalist Gerald Durrell—any story with an animal in it always interested me far more than one without, but they had to be the right sort of stories, those dealing equally with people and animals, about the interaction between the two, not simply an animal being made by the writer to behave in a human way (Babar the Elephant, for example, I always found creepy as heck). Some of those stories stuck, and some seemed to relate to each other in that curious way of two plus two equaling five. This is, I appreciate, no basis on which to begin the research for a book, yet looking back I can see that’s what it came to be, and I was delighted to discover that when Katherine Grier began her research for Pets in America, it was by photocopying items of interest and stuffing the photocopies into a drawer.1 In effect, this book is an unpacking of a similar drawer of my own. Perhaps, with a subject as diverse and wide-ranging as this one has proved to be, it was after all a valid way to set about it.

Most significantly, all the way through my childhood and my growing there were animals. The first that was truly mine was also ginger, a swaggering tomcat named Freddy, who had paws the size of my infant hands, a purr you could feel through the floor, and fur as perfectly marked as red onyx, and who is still, four decades after his death, there in the measure of all other cats for me. But there were also bantam chickens, deep-bosomed and high-sterned as tiny Tudor galleons, sallying forth across the lawn like a miniature feathered armada; guinea pigs with their squeaky Morse code of wheek-wheek-wheeeek; and two rabbits, one an albino and one as elegantly black-and-white as a two-tone brogue. There were temporary pets in the form of half-mangled fledglings and field mice still wet with cat drool; there were baffling pets in the form of silkworms, stick insects, and goldfish, and, at the other end of the scale entirely, an Irish wolfhound. My mother told me stories from her childhood of her animals, and on those joyfully grubby student train journeys across Europe, I in turn swapped tales with my girlfriends of the animals from their childhoods.

It was only as I began working on this book, and listening in that awakened, note-taking way, that I realized quite how frequently we animals’ companions tell such tales. People would ask me what I was working on, and half an hour later the stories of them and their animals would still be flowing. Nor had I truly reflected on how profoundly such stories connect us, even between generations who never met. Both my grandfathers died long before I was born, but now I know that my mother’s father, a sandy-haired man-mountain who went through the North Sea convoys of the First World War as a teenage sailor, and who was hard enough when fire-watching in the Second to pull out the severed tendons in his own forearm after he was hit by shrapnel, was also fond and daft enough where the household hens were concerned to walk around the garden summoning them by calling, “Come along, ladies!” Animals bond us—us to them and we to one another. If we are pet owners, that is true to the power of ten.

They also educate. The novelist Edith Wharton wrote of how ownership of Foxy, her first dog, made her a “conscious, sentient person,” and so it was with me as well.2 As I look back, all the most important lessons of my life were taught to me by animals: the realities of love and loss and the impenetrability of death, which could take a warm, breathing, living flank and overnight turn it into something lifeless, cold, and solid; the imperatives of sex; the largeness of care and of responsibility. The effortless teaching of these lessons was, I am sure, why my parents believed that to have pets was a good, indeed essential, part of any childhood, expanding the imagination and sharpening empathy, even if the precepts I drew from these experiences were not always those my parents had anticipated. Growing up with animals rounds out your understanding of the world. I had a glorious shimmering firebird of a cockerel who began building nests; while one of my rabbits, the black-and-white one, turned out to have a heart condition and every morning, after his daily digitalis tablet, which did indeed come in the form of a little blue pill and was served to him cunningly crushed up in warm milk, would leap aboard his guinea pig brother hutchmate. Animals are better educators, where sex is concerned, than any book. Growing up a redhead made me bold; but it was growing up with animals that made a liberal out of me.

They also made me a thinking, pondering, question-asking being. The animals I grew up with were like and unlike me at one and the same time. They didn’t have to go to school, wear clothes, sit up at the table; but they also ate, slept, spent their days out in the garden, often in company with me, and were subject to human rule-making in their world just as I, a child, was subject to adult regulation in mine. They were not me, but they made me think about myself. They made me study me.

The strongest indicator for being a pet owner in adult life is to have had pets in childhood, but my adult life had also included an unplanned-for, peripatetic stage, of living emotionally as well as physically in rented space, where the less I was responsible for, I felt, the better. So while I was working on Red: A History of the Redhead, I was petless for the first time in my life, and writing that down, I share the astonishment of the writer Elizabeth von Arnim contemplating her own petless state at the beginning of her 1936 autobiography, All the Dogs of My Life. (“This, when I first began considering my dogs, astonished me; I mean that for years and years I had none.”3) Now that period too was done with, and here I was with a permanent roof once more over my head, and under that roof there was a lack. Sitting on the sofa with my laptop on my knees, I wanted to be interrupted. I wanted to have an animal come in and make the sort of noise I could interpret as asking me what I was doing. I wanted a head to be pushed into my hand if I let it dangle to the floor. I wanted to have some other creature in my life to be concerned about. What I needed, I decided, as many writers had done before me, from the ninth-century scribe who immortalized his cat, Pangur Bán, all the way through Joachim du Bellay (sixteenth century), Christopher Smart (eighteenth century), Alexandre Dumas (nineteenth century), and Ernest Hemingway and Colette (twentieth century), to name but five off the top of my head, was a cat. A sensible middle-aged cat who would understand that her mummy, or parent, or owner, or guardian or caregiver or indeed companion, or whatever term is most acceptable to you, had to go out to work and who would be content to engage with the world through a window. What I came back with from the local animal rescue center were two half-starved, half-bald, tiny little scraps of cat, one of whom, the moment I opened the cat carrier, shot into the kitchen, ascended the kitchen cupboards like Spider-Man, and took refuge behind the microwave, and the other of whom, just as smartly, galloped into the bathroom and wedged herself under the loo.

What is a pet? The dictionary definition speaks of “any animal that is domesticated or tamed and kept as a favorite, or treated with indulgence and fondness.” Samuel Johnson (noted cat lover) in his Dictionary defined “pet” in 1755 as “a lamb taken into the house and brought up by hand”; something orphaned or abandoned, and needing our human intervention if it is to survive at all. It’s a dialect word, from the Scots and the north of England, where the long winters and unpredictable springs still engender such tender care—thinking of a childhood Easter holiday on a Yorkshire farm sets loose at once the memory of watching the farmer’s wife striding down from the fell, wrapped up until she was as inflexible as a roll of carpet against the pelting sleety snow, and with her arms full of sooty-faced and sooty-footed lambs, still a little bloody from their birth cords. I remember how their black feet bobbed like musical notation against the whitening front of her khaki mackintosh and the whitening landscape. Following right on her heels (and right into the barn where a lamb nursery was speedily established), with their heads raised up and full of anxiety, came the lambs’ two mothers. If you were to ask my own mother now about the same event, that is without a doubt the detail she would remember most vividly: the focus of that pair of ewes, their fleeces also bright with snow, on their offspring, and the inevitable parallel between their role and that of the woman carrying their lambs downhill toward shelter and warmth. The fact that animals reflect back at us so many aspects of ourselves, the universal and the individual, is yet another part of our conjoined history. We also have the words “petty” and “petit” or “petite,” all three related one to another, and negotiating meaning between being little and being of little account. There is to pet, as a verb, meaning to pat or play with or fondle, and to be in a pet, or pettish, is to give way to the kind of behavior indulged in by the petted when that attention is taken away.

Our human activity around that word has expanded it enormously. Pets, after all, are made by us—they don’t come into being on their own. That should make deciding what a pet is or isn’t a simple matter, except that we not only define them, we define the definitions, too, which makes it anything but. This is rather fitting, in my view. Animal studies, which is where our activities as pet owners place us, is so new a field and is growing so rapidly that it can still almost get away with defining itself as it likes, so why should definitions of its subjects be fixed, either?

So: a pet is an animal we bring indoors—except when we don’t. It is an animal we never eat—except when we do. It is an animal we name as an individual, but not quite with a human name, except when it is. Its relationship with us is individual and unique—just as are our relationships with each other. It is yours—your cat, your dog, your parrot, your pig. It can be a hedgehog or a horse. It is a creature to whom we present belongings that don’t belong. It is animal-animal, distinct from us, who are human-animal, except that historically human beings have been kept as pets, too—the court dwarf in Europe, or in South America where the Aztecs kept human albinos in menageries, treating them as the kind of curiosities they would themselves come to be seen as by the Spanish conquistadores. It is a creature for whom the boundaries between human and animal have become blurred; and where it is we who do the blurring. We feed them in our kitchens, where we ourselves eat. They sleep with us on our beds, something that for most of us is a privilege granted to but one other member of our own species, but with our animals it is an intimacy granted without thinking (and certainly without being asked). Those, like me, who have a litter tray in the bathroom have created a variation on the animal latrine, or dedicated communal defecation site, behavior shared with horses, deer, raccoons, badgers, and dinosaurs. Our pet animals go with us from room to room, and when we go outside they frequently go with us there, too; we pick them up and carry them about with us; spontaneously caress them; and talk to them in what anthropologists term “motherese.” We attempt to control and supervise their sex lives, much like the conscientious parent of a teenager and very likely with more success; and when they die, we mourn and memorialize them as if they were members of our family. Indeed for most of us owners, pets are members of the family and there is no question about it. And although you could describe them as artificial hybrids manufactured by us, the best, most fulfilling relationships with a pet involve engagement, cooperation, and understanding that is conscious and mutual, that happens on both sides.

It is a thing we know when we see it. Poor Baa-Baa-Black Sheep, obediently producing all those bags of wool, never attains the status of pet (any more than would my newborn Yorkshire lambs), but Mary’s Little Lamb undoubtedly does, first because of the Möbius-strip equation of Lamb loves Mary ergo Mary loves Lamb; second, because he is allowed to follow her into human space—her school—from which Baa-Baa would have been shooed; and third, because in Kate Greenaway–esque illustrations in children’s books without number, he has a bow of ribbon round his neck, like a collar, and the end of the ribbon is in Mary’s hand, like a leash.

This business of connection, whether through a leash or no, is very significant, and is an excellent indicator that the creature attached to the other end is a pet, no matter how unlikely. Images of St. Margaret of Antioch (a sort of female Jonah, who probably never existed at all but who is nonetheless a favorite of mine) often show her with a fearsome dragon curled at her feet, from whose belly, according to her legend, she rose unharmed. In 1525, Girolamo Savoldo took this imagery the logical step further when he created a portrait of a matronly Italian noblewoman about to rise from her reading to take her eager greyhound for a walk. There he is, in the bottom left-hand corner of the painting—one of the traditional places for pets to find themselves—joined to his owner by a chain looped around her waist. Only when you register his strangely frilly ears do you realize who this “pet” and owner are meant to be.4

We have an almost constant experience of this type of physical connection with our pets, which of course means that they have an almost constant experience of contact with us. You might say the clue is in the name here, with “pet” being both noun and verb. This includes flourishing brush and comb to groom them, as if we were their animal, rather than human, parent; but then thousands upon thousands of us also brush our pets’ teeth, as if it’s they who were human instead. The fluidity of who is what in the relationship of pet and owner, the way in which each side contributes to it, the overlaps in behavior and the mirroring in our experience of each other recur over and over again, as true for an owner a thousand years ago as it is today. We choose them; but they seem to choose us, too. We make a noise to communicate with them; they make a noise to communicate right back, even if neither party, frankly, has a clue as to what has been said. We love them; they behave with trust and affection toward us in turn. And we lose them, but they lose us, too. And it is our pets, our companion animals, who in turn make that fascinating thing the animal’s companion out of us.

To add even more variety to the mix, by no means all these definitions need be met all the time. As I researched this book I was often asked whether horses and ponies qualified as pets. They certainly don’t share domestic space with us (something granted even to St. Margaret’s dragon) but they are named, cared for, and communicated with, and anyone who has ever ridden a horse will know how profound the physical connection with them becomes. Moreover the outrage over the 2013 horsemeat scandal in the United Kingdom, where foodstuffs masquerading as beef were revealed to be anything but, left no doubt that in the public mind, horses, ponies, and donkeys too were covered by exactly the same taboo as cats and dogs, a taboo that had been quite horribly breached.5

Perhaps the only constantly reliable definition of a pet is that it is so to you, its owner. The 1854 letters home from the Crimean War of Lieutenant Temple Godman, one of the owners looked at in this book in detail, demonstrate how his three horses, to him, were not anonymous and replaceable beasts of burden but named and known and carefully tended individuals, which is how, in so brutal a conflict, all three survived.6 (The letters also show how absolutely Godman’s survival, in turn, depended upon them.) In the same way, the correspondence of historical owners often makes reference to indoor-living “house-dogs” and “parlour cats,” within which groups the named and cherished pets were to be found.7 These were exactly the same creatures as the anonymous mousers and moochers hanging around the stable or scullery door, except that to their owners, they were not. Some achieve pethood; some have it thrust upon them.

Historically, if you could move an animal into this category, you could also move it out. Neither of my grandfathers would have hesitated at any point in their lives to translate the rabbits and chickens and ducks with which they shared their back gardens from pet to pot, yet by the time of my childhood, seventy years after theirs, the idea of any of “my” bantams ending up on the dinner table was unthinkable. When my bantams died they were buried with honors. Go back to the time of my grandfathers’ grandfathers, and the first animal welfare acts in the United Kingdom were being battled through Parliament, and both bull-baiting and cockfighting were still legal (just). The ways we think about pet owning are changing even as you read this; the casual understanding that these animals were for eating while those were not, that these mattered while those were expendable, which has carried the human race more or less comfortably through so many centuries, is today being closely and ever more anxiously examined, and the gap dividing us and our companion animals in terms of moral and even legal rights is in flux as never before.

Indeed, our relationship with the entire non-human world is being re-examined. Like many pet owners I find it absolutely abhorrent that dogs are farmed for meat in Korea (although Korea is not alone), primarily because the conditions in which the dogs are kept are so unnatural and so cruel but also because cultural taboos against eating dog go back centuries in Europe—it simply never happens, unless all social norms, as in time of warfare and starvation, have completely broken down. But here in the United Kingdom we farm pigs—animals that are also very smart and highly social—in conditions just as inhumane as those of a Korean dog farm; likewise chickens, ducks, rabbit, and calves for veal; and the United Kingdom is certainly not alone in doing so, either. There’s a strange little moment in the movie Moana (2016) when the heroine, who has both a chicken and a pig as pets, praises the quality of the pork she is eating in her pig Pua’s presence, and then apologizes to him. There you are, he has a name, he is a pet, and he is also food, and if the questions this raises about the categories we slot animals into can feature in a Disney cartoon, or in the universe of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), where the puffin-like Porgs present Chewbacca with a similar dilemma, then they must have risen near the surface for us all. It is a challenging and fascinating time to be an animal’s companion, and you’re telling me that thinking begins here. My great-great-grandfathers, all farmers, would never have believed the natural world could fail; we know not only that it could but that if it does, it takes us with it, and one recent change in our awareness can be seen in the fact that sentimentality and its more scientifically minded cousin, anthropomorphism, both of which used to be thoroughly sneered at, are now being put forward as valid ways of entering and investigating that world.8 I am unashamed in my use of both of them.

Inevitably, there is a Tweedledee, a contrarywise left hand to all this. Johnson’s Dictionary also defines “tame”: “not wild, domestick, subdued, depressed, dejected, spiritless, heartless,” and the business of taming as “to make gentle, to subdue, to crush.” There is an argument, passionately held, that to make any animal a domestic pet automatically means even the most loving owner is guilty of subtle cruelty. There are people to whom the term “owner” is offensive—to you I apologize, as after much head-scratching it is the term I find myself using most frequently here, and I ask your tolerance of it on the grounds that much of this book deals with periods when no concept other than “owner” existed. On the other hand, if you are dismissive of the idea of a sheep expressing anxiety, or of an animal coming to see what its owner is doing, I make no apology, and this book is not for you.

However, if you have ever heard yourself ask an animal where one of his or her possessions might be; if you have ever felt mysteriously flattered when an animal grooms you or reacted with delight when one appears to recognize you and to be happy to see you; if you carry a picture of your animal with you on your phone; if a line you have used on an animal has ever had you cackling at your own wit (and even more if you are in your most secret self somehow convinced that the animal got the joke); if you have ever insinuated yourself back into bed in the dark with the care with which a hot dog might squeeze itself into its bun and thought these contortions completely worthwhile if greeted by the thump of a tail or a purr, then this book is yours, and in it you will find yourself among very good company—adults and children, bohemians and bourgeoisie, artists and chroniclers, churchmen and aristocrats, naturalists and urban literati from one side of the planet to the other: all with this one thing in common—they were all pet owners, just as you are.

And owners, moreover, whose praise for and plaints concerning and lamentings of and celebrations honoring their animals have been constant from one age to the next to an extraordinary degree. That’s the reason for this book being arranged not chronologically but by theme. If you look back at society through a telescope, then yes, there have been enormous changes, particularly in the last 250 years or so, in the way we behave toward and think about all animals, pet or no, but look through a magnifying glass at the individual owner, as this book sets itself to do, and our consistency is remarkable. Has the temporary disappearance of a pet ever thrown you into an undignified panic? Here is the diarist Samuel Pepys, writing on April 8, 1663:

… after dinner, by water towards Woolwich, and in our way I bethought myself that we had left our poor little dog that followed us out of doors at the waterside, and God knows whether he be not lost, which did not only strike my wife into a great passion but I must confess myself also; more than was becoming me.9

Have you ever raised an animal’s paw to another member of your own species, to pretend it was waving hello? Thomas Gainsborough painted the mild-looking 3rd Duke of Buccleuch doing exactly that in c.1770 waggling his dog’s paw in greeting to the artist (one dog-man to another) as he encircles it in his arms and thereby created an image popular enough to be disseminated in a fittingly soft and furry mezzotint in 1770.10

Have you ever been placed in the dreadful situation of having to choose between pet and place to live? Here is Sir Walter Scott, author of Ivanhoe, contemplating the enforced sale of Abbotsford, his home, in 1825. Is it the loss of his house that troubles him the most? No, it is not:

… the thoughts of parting from these dumb creatures have moved me more than any of the painful reflections I have put down—poor things, I must get them kind masters… I must end this, or I shall lose the tone of mind with which men should meet distress.11

And if you have ever made the tearstained journey from vet’s surgery back to your car, heart-, brain-, and soul-shocked at the profundity of what you have just done and carrying what will now never respond to being carried by you again, you will understand exactly the agonies recorded by this owner—

I am in tears carrying you to your last rest place as much as I rejoiced when bringing you home in my own hands fifteen years ago.12

—even if they were writing in Latin, and more than two thousand years ago.

A biologist would argue that the earlier a particular mechanical skill develops, the more fundamental its importance; perhaps we might also guess that the more unvarying a response, the further back its human history might reach. There were owners two, five, or ten thousand years ago whose relationships with their animals would be entirely recognizable as those we have today, and maybe further back even than that.


  • " engaging, insightful consideration of how anthropomorphism, cruelty, egocentrism, empathy, realism and sentimentality have blended and blurred across centuries -- teaching us a vast amount about animals, and even more about ourselves."—The Irish Times
  • "When you read a book by Jacky Colliss Harvey, you learn a lot. And with the way she writes, deeply researched and with wit and erudition, you also have fun as you learn.—Veteranscribe's
  • "[Jacky Colliss Harvey] writes, with affection and wit, of man and beast's enduring relationship, focusing on all aspects of our bond - from choosing to losing - and has great stories about notable people and their animal companions."—Toronto Star
  • [A]...lively exploration of people and their pets... Numerous colourful animal tales enliven Colliss Harvey's latest book, but her real subject is their human companions, whom she considers through a lens of history, literature and art, as well as smatterings of science and psychology, all interwoven with diverting personal reminiscences... Colliss Harvey has an eye for surprising details and a lovely way with a description."—The Sunday Times
  • "[Jacky Colliss Harvey]'s beautifully illustrated book is organized thematically and is perhaps best thought of as a series of essays on the various themes that the relationship between kept animals and humans throw up, such as choosing, naming, communication, and losing. However, for all its research into deeper matters, the real pleasure of The Animal's Companion lies in its stories. And they come thick and fast."—The Spectator
  • "A well-researched, deeply crafted, wry and witty compendium on the importance of pets in our lives.... Our species' fondness for pets seems to be the one clear distinction we can claim as our own -- indeed, a case can be made for pets making us human. We urge you to read (or listen to) The Animal's Companion. You will come away as enthralled and entertained as we were."—

On Sale
Apr 2, 2019
Page Count
304 pages

Jacky Colliss Harvey

About the Author

Jacky Colliss Harvey is a writer and editor. She studied English at Cambridge University and art history at the Courtauld Institute. She has worked in museum publishing for the past 20 years and is a commentator and reviewer who speaks in both the U.K. and abroad on the arts and their relation to popular culture. Her red hair has also found her an alternative career as a life model and a film extra playing everything from a society lady in Atonement to a Parisian whore in Bel-Ami. She is the author of My Life As A Redhead: A Journal and the forthcoming book The Animal’s Companion. She splits her time between New York and London.

Learn more about this author