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Miniatures of Canis Maior (Larger Dog) and Canis Minor (Smaller Dog), in tables from Ptolemy’s Almagest. (Source: Medievelists.net).
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by Archaeology Newsroom

Pet Care Advice from the Middle Ages

Pet keeping in the Medieval world

“Unless need compels you, my dear sisters, and your director advises it, you must not keep any animal except a cat…Now if someone needs to keep one, let her see to it that it does not annoy anyone or do any harm to anybody, and that her thoughts are not taken up with it”.

This is an excerpt from a medieval guide for nuns, regarding the possibility of keeping a pet and they way this pet should be cared for and treated in order not to make life difficult in the convent. Reflecting a view that pets are too frivolous and a waste of food that could have gone to the poor, church officials seem to advise nuns and monks to avoid keeping them. However, as the guide refers to the case someone wanted to keep a pet, it seems that rules were to be broken regarding this sensitive part of everyday life…

Pets were a rarity in the medieval world – people in the Middle Ages did keep domestic animals like dogs and cats, but most of them served a purpose. Dogs would be used to guard homes or assist in the hunt, while cats were needed to catch mice and other vermin. Moreover, in the Muslim world during that same period, it was not accepted to keep a dog as thay are considered unclean by Islamic law.

Still, the relationship between these animals and their keepers was often an affectionate one. Apart from the monks and nuns wanting to keep pets in their monasteries, many significant personalities of the Middle Ages are known to have had pets, such as the poet Petrarch who had dogs and the noblewoman Isabella d’ Este who kept cats in such a luxury that she gave a proper funeral to one of them when he died.

By the end of the Middle Ages, having a pet was normal for the rich. Along came the first books on animals and pet care.

The 13th century scientist and philosopher Albertus Magnus wrote a book On Animals that details the characteristics of various creatures, and includes some helpful advice on their care. Dogs, for example, should not be fed the food right off the dinner plate or be petted constantly, if you want them to be effective guard dogs. Otherwise, these canines will “keep one eye on the door and one on the generous hand of the master.” Meanwhile, the cat “loves to be lightly stroked by human hands and is playful, especially when it is young.” Albertus advises that you should clip the ears of the felines so that night dew does not get into its ears , and that if you cut off the whiskers around their mouth “they lose their boldness.”

At the end of the 14th century Gaston III, Comte de Foix (1331-1391) wrote a book about hunting called Livre de Chasse, which included a section on how he took care of the greyhounds he used in the hunt. Gaston explains that their kennels should be built of wood and at least a foot off the ground, with loft where the dog could be cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It should also have fresh straw added to its floor each day and have a door that opens into a sunny yard, so that “the houndes may go withoute to play when them liketh for it is grete likyng for the houndes whan thei may goon in and out at their lust” . The servant in charge of the dogs would be kept very busy – they were to clean the kennels each morning and give fresh water twice a day. The hounds also needed to be taken out once or twice daily for walks and allowed to play “in a fair medow in the sun.” Besides being fed bran bread, the dogs would also get some of the meat from the hunt. If a dog was sick, he would get better food, such as goat’s milk, bean broth, chopped meat, or buttered eggs. When training these dogs, Gaston explains that you need to reward them for good deeds and punish mistakes, but when talking to them you must always be truthful. He adds, “I speak to my hounds as I would a man…and they understand me and do as I wish better than any other man can make them do as I do, nor peradventure will anyone do it more when I am dead”.

In a funny way, books for the care of dogs also come from the Muslim world as, despite the Islamic aversion towards them, they were used for hunting, guarding or herding animals. Accodring to such works, dogs should sleep close to their handlers (although not in the same bed) as it will make them friendlier, more obedient, and even make them smell more pleasant. The dog should also have a soft bed of their own to lie on, and have them avoid living closely with other dogs, as they can spread disease to the other animals.

During the fall and winter months, dogs should be fed only once a day, around sunset – otherwise the writers believe the dogs will not be fit enough when the hunt begins the next morning. However, during the much hotter spring and summer months, dogs were to be fed small portions several times a day. The food was usually meat soaked in a beef soup, but could also include bread and milk, and would be served tepid or cold so that dogs would not vomit it.

Islamic writers, “emphasized that the dog is an animal that demands special attention, which includes stroking and combing its fur with pleasant caressing materials such as silk. The authors write that stroking with the hands, scratching, touching and suchlike basic actions that every dog handler has to perform in his daily care of the dog help to ensure the dog’s good health”, write Housni Alkhateeb Shehada in his book Mamluks and Animals: Veterinary Medicine in Medieval Islam.

So, it seems that during the Middle Ages, in the East and the West, pet care must have been a practice which was developed against social and religious norms, to reflect the most sensitive, cultured and finally human part in people’s characters.

NOTES