Which Animals Were Kept as Pets in Ancient Times?

Discover the range of eclectic and exotic animals that people have called pets over the various civilizations of human society

May 12, 2023By Donna Hobson
which animals were kept as pets in ancient times

Throughout history, humans have kept animals as pets for various reasons. In ancient times, cats and dogs were some of the most common pets owned by people.

However, there were also more exotic animals kept as pets in ancient times, such as monkeys, birds, and even lions! This article will explore which animals were kept as pets in ancient times and why they were so popular.

Cats - Ancient Egypt

Bastet The Egyptian Cat God
Image Source: Bastet, The Gayer-Anderson Cat - Egypt Museum (egypt-museum.com)

Cats have been around for thousands of years and held in high regard by many civilizations throughout history. It's believed that cats domesticated themselves, initially making homes near human civilizations because they could find abundant food there. After proving themselves helpful companions, humans adopted these feline species into their lives, as they gradually evolved to become the domestic animals we know today.

Ancient Egyptians revered cats and believed them sacred. The goddess Bastet was the most prominent deity with cat-like qualities in ancient Egypt, and these felines were thought to bring good luck to households. In fact, cats were so highly regarded that it was illegal to kill a cat - even accidentally - and those who did faced severe punishment, including the death sentence. Cats were also mummified after their death, just like humans!

Snakes - Ancient Greeks and Romans

strap snouted brown snake
Image Source: Eight myths about snakes - Museums Victoria

Snakes were kept as pets by the Greeks and Romans for various reasons, ranging from their powerful symbolic representation in mythology to practical uses such as vermin control.

In many ancient cultures, people believed snakes could cure the sick - today, we still use their potent venom for treating several illnesses, such as arthritis, thrombosis, and even cancer.

They also served a practical purpose; snakes were good at catching rats, mice, and other vermin that could damage crops or spread disease. This made them a valuable tool for controlling pests in agricultural areas. As such, keeping snakes as pets was a symbolic representation of power and an effective form of pest control.

Monkeys - 19th century

young girl holding a monkey
Image Source: "Young Girl Holding a Monkey" Rosalba Carriera - Artwork on USEUM

Monkeys have been a part of the European landscape for thousands of years. It is believed that they thrived across Europe before the last ice age, some 110,000 years ago. However, when the ice age ended, and temperatures rose again, monkeys had to migrate back to Africa.

It wasn't until the Middle Ages that monkeys were reintroduced to Europe from Africa. They became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries and were kept as pets by many wealthy families because of their entertaining and human-like behavior; many people of the period viewed monkeys similarly to mischievous children, which is why they would often be seen in childless households.

However, we have since learned the cruelty of trying to domesticate monkeys; these animals are highly intelligent creatures and require special care that most people cannot provide. They need social interaction with other monkeys, so if kept in captivity, they can become socially deprived. And, as they reach adulthood, they can become aggressive, making them dangerous to have around humans or other animals.

Elephants - Roman

roman elephants in battle
Image Source: The Exotic Animal Traffickers of Ancient Rome - The Atlantic

The Romans were fascinated with exotic creatures, and elephants were no exception. They admired the strength and intelligence of these animals, plus they could strike fear in their enemies. (Imagine seeing an elephant ride into battle if the only animal you'd ever seen was a horse!)

The Romans used elephants in war, as well as in battles called venatios. A venatio was a form of Roman entertainment staged in an amphitheater where animals such as lions and bears would fight humans - or one another - to death.

Crocodiles - Egypt

saltwater crocodile
Image Source: Saltwater crocodile guide | Discover Wildlife

Ancient Egyptians had a unique relationship with crocodiles. For a short period, they kept them as pets and even dressed them in jewels. This was mainly related to their gods, particularly Sobek, who was depicted as a deity with the head of a crocodile.

The Egyptians saw these creatures as symbols of strength and power and fed them meat scraps from their meals (often providing better diets than many humans would have been accustomed to). Keeping pet crocodiles was seen as a symbol of wealth and status among the ancient Egyptians. Still, they soon realized these animals were far too dangerous to domesticate.

Falcons - Medieval

falcon with wings spread
Image Source: Ten Fun Facts About Falcons, the Birds | Science| Smithsonian Magazine

Pet falcons were incredibly popular in medieval times, as they symbolized power and strength.

Falconry was one of the most popular royal pastimes, and many people kept pet falcons to show off their wealth and status. Falcons were used for hunting, as their sharp eyesight and speed made them ideal for chasing down prey.

Polar bear - Henry III

HenryIII polar bear thames London
Image Source: Swimming in the River Thames used to be even more dangerous - as it was home to a polar bear - MyLondon

Henry III, the King of England in the 13th century, was known for possessing a pet polar bear that he received as a gift from the King of Norway. Henry kept the polar bear chained and muzzled but allowed it to swim in the Thames on a stout cord. This unique pet became one of Henry's most beloved companions and was often seen by his side during public appearances.

Throughout history, many royals have kept exotic pets as part of their menagerie. The Tower of London is a prime example of this, where King John kept lions and leopards in the 13th century. These animals were kept as pets and earned money through exhibitions and other events.

Eels - Romans

eel underwater
Image Source: The Utterly Engrossing Search for the Origin of Eels | Science| Smithsonian Magazine

In Ancient Rome, eels were a popular food source and were farmed in ponds. However, some Romans would take these eels and turn them into beloved pets. This was especially true for the wealthy, who often kept them as a status symbol. They sometimes even adorned their pet eels in jewels to show off their wealth and status.

Donna Hobson
By Donna Hobson

Donna believes that keeping a pet is the key to a happy life. Over the years, many creatures have passed through her home - Sooty the cat, Millie the rabbit, Stuart (Little) the guinea pig, and Trixie the tortoise, alongside her pet goldfish, Zippy, who lived to the grand old age of 24 years! She currently resides with her black kitten Jinx and an aquarium full of fish and snails to entrance them both. When she is not looking after her pets, Donna enjoys researching and writing the answers to all your pet-related wonders.