Since time immemorial, humans have kept animals for companions. Pets are known to provide physical and emotional benefits, not only in terms of companionship, but also in terms of outdoor adventure, exercise, and socializing with other pet owners. As Sigmund Freud once said, “Time spent with cats is never wasted.” Dogs and cats have been particular favourites throughout the ages, with cats commonly thought to have been domesticated in ancient Egypt, and dogs from the time of the hunter-gatherers. There is a special bond between every owner and their pet, but what exactly is it that brings us so close?
To understand the bond between humans, our cats, and our dogs, we decided to look at the letters left by historical pet owners, to see what lies behind this time-honoured pairing. From David Hume’s troubles with his friend’s dog, to Laurence Sterne’s protection of his beloved cat and Alexander Pope’s moving contemplation on loss, discover more about our relationship with our four-legged friends…
Laurence Sterne (1713–1768), the clergyman and author best known for his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy clearly loved his “poor cat.” In a letter of 24 August 1767, he chastises his daughter for the unruly behaviour of her dog, as he would not have his cat “abused” in such a manner:
My poor cat sits purring beside me—your lively French dog shall have his place on the other side of my fire—but if he is as devilish as when I last saw him, I must tutor him, for I will not have my cat abused—in short I will have nothing devilish about me—a combustion would spoil a sentimental thought.
William Cowper (1731–1800) was one of the most popular English poets of the eighteenth century, famed for his depictions of everyday life and the British countryside. Just like Laurence Sterne, Cowper also contended with a dog and a cat under the same roof, but their relationship was far more amicable. On 17 December 1787 he wrote to his cousin, describing his beloved pets:
My dog, my dear is a spaniel…he is really handsome; and when nature shall have furnished him with a new coat, a gift which, in consideration of the ragged condition of his old one, it is hoped she will not long delay, he will then be unrivalled in personal endowments by any dog in this country. He and my cat are excessively fond of each other, and play a thousand gambols together that it is impossible not to admire.
Like any pet owner today, Alexander Pope (1688–1744) would have been devastated at the loss of his dog. Best known for his satirical verses and translations of Homer, as well as his inspired used of the heroic couplet, Pope elucidates the high esteem in which he held his closest companion:
The loss of a faithful creature is something, tho’ of never so contemptible an one: and if I were to change my dog for such a man as the aforesaid, I should think my dog undervalu’d.
Akin to Alexander Pope, John Boyle, 5th Earl of Cork and Orrery (1707–1762) much preferred “man’s best friend” to a great deal of his human associates. In a letter to Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), the famed author of Gulliver’s Travels, Boyle puts forward his dog’s viewpoint:
My dog Hector bids me ask you if it is not hard that bad men should be called beasts and dogs when there are no instances to equal their inhumanity among the whole brute generation.
Love me, love my dog? Unfortunately, not everyone is destined to get along. David Hume (1711–1776), the great Scottish philosopher, was certainly not a fan of his friend Lord Elibank’s “mangey cur.” Indeed he said so in no uncertain terms, declaring that whilst he had “great respect for your Lordship” he had “none at all for this dog of yours“:
It is an old Proverb, Love me, love my dog: But certainly it admits of many exceptions: I am sure, at least, that I have a great respect for your Lordship; yet have none at all for this dog of yours. On the contrary, I declare him to be a very mangey cur: Entreat your Lordship to rid your hands of him as soon as possible: And think a sound beating or even a rope too good for him.
Featured image credit: “Animals, Dogs, Cat” by Gellinger. CCO Public Domain via Pixabay.