Host pets: An integral part of the study abroad experience

May 29, 2013 | New York, NY

Man's best friend? 

Like almost anything else, pet ownership is cultural. Attitudes regarding the domestication of animals are often defined by religious beliefs and vary from one cultural context to the next. For example, Judeo-Christian tradition paints dogs in a favorable light, while Islam considers them unclean.

Thus, aside from offering companionship, comic relief and ample cuteness, host pets can be an eye-opening component of studying abroad. In some cases, they are a student’s first exposure to domesticated animals and present an opportunity for host families to teach students about the beliefs and customs that underpin pet ownership.

Moreover, forming a relationship with a host pet can lead students to rethink notions about animal intelligence, animal rights and the human-animal divide.

In recognition of host pets and their impact on studying abroad, we examined pet ownership as culture, across regions and throughout history.

A brief history of pet ownership

Dogs were one of the earliest animals to be domesticated. Ancient Greeks and Romans used dogs for hunting, as well as to watch over the house and livestock. In ancient Egypt, killing a greyhound was equivalent to killing a man.

Ancient Egyptians also revered cats, which they considered to be demigods. They began domesticating African wildcats as early as 3500 BC.

In the 7th century, Buddhist monks in China began to raise goldfish, and by the 1300s they were keeping them in bowls. During this period cats were also favored as pets for their ability to catch rats.

Europeans in the Middle Ages, however, feared cats. Dogs were favored, but were the exclusive property of the elite, who could afford to feed an extra mouth.

During the 1800s, as a large middle class emerged in Europe, pet ownership grew. Birds were especially popular due to their singing ability.

Reptiles became regarded as pets in the 1920s, and in the 1950s, small dogs such as poodles became fashion accessories for women.

Current trends around the globe

North America
Pet ownership is common throughout North America, but especially in the US. 

US: Most pet-owning Americans regard Fido or Fluffy as a legitimate member of the family. In fact, in 2006, more US households had pets than kids.

Europe is generally very pet-friendly, but some European countries go above and beyond with regard to prioritizing their furry friends. 

Switzerland: Roughly 90% of all families in Switzerland have a cat or a dog.

Norway: Norwegians spend more money on dog food each year than any other country.

Pet ownership is rare in many Asian nations, but a few countries have started to jump on the trend.

Singapore: Fish ownership is popular in Singapore, which hosts the biannual International Ornamental Fish and Accessories Exhibition. Moreover, a striped tabby cat named “Duke Orange” has managed to win the hearts and minds of the entire country, maintaining its own blog and being dubbed, “Singapore’s National Online Cat.”

China: The dog is one of the 12 animals honored in Chinese astrology, and yet pet ownership is still unpopular throughout China. The exception is Shanghai, where dog ownership has become so popular that the government issued a “One-Dog Per Household" policy.

India: India has had one of the world's lowest percentages of dog ownership, averaging just 4 dogs per 1,000 people. However, between 2007-2012 dog ownership grew at an alarming rate of 58%. 

Middle East
In both Sunni and Shi’a Islamic tradition, dogs are considered unclean. Since most Middle Eastern countries are predominantly Muslim, dog ownership is rare in this region, as is pet ownership overall.

Latin America
Latin Americans have long been dog lovers. Incan dog owners were often buried with their canine friends, and today four Latin American countries - Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico - rank in the world's top 10 dog-owning countries.

Brazil: Brazilians have the most small dogs per capita of any other country, with nearly 20 million small dogs being kept as pets.