New Exhibit Showcases History of Pets in America

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. households have pets, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, and owners are expected to spend $43.4 billion this year on buying and caring for them, nearly twice as much as was spent on pets a decade ago. While pet pampering climbs, an exhibit making its way across the country displays the simpler attitudes—and relative extravagances—of yesteryear. "Pets in America" opens at its next stop, the Stamford Museum and Nature Center in Stamford, Conn., on Sept. 13. Katherine C. Grier, the show's curator and author of the book "Pets in America: A History," spoke with NEWSWEEK's Samantha Henig about old-fashioned novelty pet products, Mark Twain's love of cats and the latest in cosmetic surgery for dogs.

NEWSWEEK: What kind of pets did you have growing up?
I grew up with cats and dogs and guinea pigs and hamsters and an aquarium—the usual array, except that my dad was friends with a guy who owned a pet store, so after he had gone to visit Mr. Rosenberg, he would bring home something different, like an African diving frog for the aquarium. He brought a horned toad home once, and that didn't last too long, I'm afraid. Nobody knew what to do with it.

Is there one time period when you think the relationship between pets and owners was particularly interesting?
I think there are two moments that are really interesting. One of them is right around the mid-1800s, when pet keeping really becomes part of the ideal family. And that's a period of time when the United States is commercializing really fast, so you start to see the beginning of many of the pet products that we have today: patent medicines, flea remedies, special foods, toys. The second period that's really interesting is in the post-WWII era, when Americans are prosperous. That's when you see people starting to spend more on veterinary medicine, and you start to see lots and lots of strange products that reflect the kind of consumer novelties that you see in the marketplace generally.

What are some of the strangest novelty items?
In the "Pets in America" exhibit, we have a vibrating electrical pet brush called the VIP pet brush that was put out in the early 1960s. I can't imagine any animal would stand still to be brushed with it; the thing buzzed like a hornet.

How do the pet products of today compare?
I would say in the last 10 to 20 years we're going through an explosion of products. The dog I grew up with had two toys: She had a sock that was stuffed inside another sock with a knot in it—whenever the kids in the family put a hole in a sock, it would become a dog toy—and she had a ball. My dog now has a giant basket full of partially dismembered stuffed toys. Different world now.

Do you think dog people of the 1800s had some of the same traits as dog
people of today?

It's true that people tended to favor one or the other. Mark Twain was this huge cat fan. He loved cats; he had lots of them, and he gave them all kinds of unusual names and carried them around draped over his shoulder.

I would actually have pegged him as a dog person.
I know, isn't that funny? He was a cat lover. The family did have some dogs, but his personal favorite was cats. But really cats were less likely to be pure pets than dogs. Cats often, until fairly recently, have had a job to do in the household. I call them contract workers. They were really important for rodent control.

What about people making their dogs do tricks—when did that originate?
That's really old. It's amazing how old it is. People have been performing with dogs at fairs and eventually in the theater for hundreds of years, and in the 1850s, you start to see dog-training books that are not focused just on training hunting dogs, but that also have sections on how to have a trick dog.

In recent years, there have been a few notable pet oddities, like Michael Jackson's chimp and lama. Historically, have there been any trends of people having unusual pets?
By the 1920s, the Anolis lizards, what we used to call chameleons, were a fad in pet stores. Very few people kept reptiles as pets before the 1920s. One of the factors is that people couldn't keep them warm enough; you had to have central heat and electric heaters. About 10 or 15 years ago, the sugar glider got introduced, a little marsupial from Australia. It's almost like the world gets ransacked periodically, a species will turn up and someone will say, "Oh, that seems like something you can keep in a cage."

Toy dogs have been a pretty hot commodity recently. Is there any old-time equivalent of Paris Hilton walking around with a tiny Chihuahua tucked under her arm?
People kept small dogs as house dogs or lap dogs for hundreds of years. You'll see them in Renaissance portraits. But the sort of fashion-accessory dog, where someone is keeping a Chihuahua or miniature poodle under their arm while they run errands, really starts in the '50s. That's the era where women are dying poodles the same color as their hair or dying them pink to match their clothes.

The website for the exhibit has a section on the future of pets in America, but it's more questions than predictions. Do you have any guesses about the next big wave in pet culture?
Well, I think we're in it right now, and it's one that's going to continue into the foreseeable future: the incredibly dramatic expansion of health care and medical treatment for pets. Canine oncologists are actually adapting treatments that have proven to be successful on people. It's sort of a circular thing, where people have done animal models for research, then it gets applied to people, and now it's going back around to pets. Things like kidney transplants, chemotherapy and radiation, and even some cosmetic surgery.

Really? Like getting rid of a bulldog's wrinkles?
The funniest one is there is a product called Neuticles that's artificial testicles, so that after you've neutered your dog he can still have a set of balls. It just blows my mind.