Defining Pets in the 18th and 21st Centuries: Pets as Surrogates
The degree of intimacy shared with an animal may exceed that shared with parents, spouses, friends or siblings. People may develop an attachment with an animal that transcends any relationship they share with another human being.
— Anna Chur-Hansen, "Grief and Bereavement Issues and the Loss of a Companion Animal," 14-15.
Today, there are many who refer to their pets a “fur babies” or “fur children.” There is the perception that owners use pets as surrogates for human relationships with friends, family, children, and intimate partners. In particular, female owners of all ages are cast dispersion, as intense relationships with pets reflect negative gender identities. As children, girls are often introduced to ideas of sexuality and concepts of sexual intimacy through observing animal behavior. As young women, individuals begin to view pets as preferable companions. A common colloquial quip among pet-owning young women is “who needs boys when there’s cats and (books, tacos, pizza).” If these same young women do pursue romantic relationships, some choose to have “fur children” rather than babies. Middle age women purchase small dogs to fill the affectional void left when their children move out. Older women who never married or no longer have partners to care for surround themselves with cats, becoming the proverbial “crazy cat lady.” At every age, these females potentially display a distorted view of the boundaries between human and animal, treating the later like the former. While pets also speak to concepts and issues of masculinity, they are most closely tied to issues of femininity.
These same conceptions of females using pets as surrogates are reflected in eighteenth-century literature, namely through the image of the lapdog, but cats, monkeys, and pets in general also speak to similar ideas.
Instead of devoting attention towards and bestowing affection on husbands and children, women with pets would be compelled to expend those same energies on their lapdog or any pet. At a time when female identity depended on the formation of these meaningful relationships, a failure to do so reflected a failure to control desires and affections (113). Lapdogs as surrogates are most readily apparent in eighteenth-century poetry through the use of rhymes. As literary scholar, Laura Brown describes, “typical rhyme words—nap and lap; miss, bliss, and kiss; or lies and thighs—give a series of verbal anchors for the ideas of sexual connection” between ladies and lapdogs.
In poetry, lapdogs were often portrayed as being in direct conflict with the males surrounding their female owners. Henry Carey’s 1713 poem “The Rival Lap-Dog” portrays this rivalry wherein the narrator inquires
Corinna, pray tell me,
When thus you repel me,
When humbly I sue for a Kiss,
Why Dony, at pleasure,
May kiss without measure,
And surfeit himself with the Bliss?
Lapdogs were also depicted as objects of male jealousy, with the male desiring to trade his unfulfilling status as a human with the dog's place of intimacy near the female. Conversely, while some males may be envious of lapdogs, others may find such affection towards lapdogs unattractive as described by Jonas Hanway who commented “a man of taste and sentiment…will be SHOCK’D to see a lady ravishing a dog with her caresses; and the more distinguished she is for her personal charms, the more shocking she will appear”.
In not forming male relationships in favor of pets, women would also forfeit the opportunity to perform the female role of mother. Instead, the attention reserved for children would be diverted towards and directed on pets, who are doted and fawned over and “ravished” with caresses.
Both types of meaningful relationships are connected to notions of sexuality. Because women who keep pets were not afforded the opportunity to engage in sexual relations, they were forced to substitute intimate partners with pets. This concept of pets, lapdogs in particular, as sexual surrogates applied to females of every age. In youth, pets introduced girls to ideas of intimacy and sexuality and gave them outlets for these innate, carnal desires which Thomas O’Brien MacMahon vividly described as follows,
"The Virginal Mistress of our animal is a Maiden, not so much through choice as compulsion. She longs for the most intimate familiarities, with those of the other sex…she will not, at present admit them. However, as she really loves the amorous intercourse, and that vehemently, she is desirous of indulging a representation, however faint, of dalliances, which so constantly occupy her thoughts, and which it is not yet her convenience to enjoy in reality. The caresses then she lavishes on her dog…frequently bring to her mind, and entertain there, thoughts of the embraces of men, which her polluted imagination is for ever painting in colours the most rapturously engaging. Hence the delight she takes in incessantly giving to, and receiving from, a beast, embraces which would certainly be extremely disgusting to her, did she not connect them in her imagination with ideas of the lustful pleasures, that have engrossed so many of her faculties."
In his long poem The Rival Lapdog and the Tale, Stephen Fox illustrates just how lapdogs enabled girls to act on those “most intimate familiarities” described by MacMahon,
…Breast to Breast, incorporate
Almost,—He lay like Dog in State;
Fair-Lady, all in Raptures, to go
Be so caress’d by such a Beau;
She hugg’d, and kiss’d and cry’d, and clung,
And He return’d all with his Tongue;
Put Lady-Fair quite out of Breath,
And buss’t her, e’en a’most to Death;
Sir Lick Lips was so tir’d too,
He fell a sleep while One tell’s Two.
As ladies, women with pets likely preferred them to males and any children resulting from a matrimonial union. However, as illustrated by Alexander Pope’s Belinda when she exclaims “not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav’n are cast,/When Husbands or when Lap-dogs breathe their last”; “Sooner let Earth, Air Sea, to Chaos fall,/Men, Monkies, Lap-dogs, Parrots, perish all!” wherein she equates pets with men, the devotion to pets, while problematic, was to be expected from frivolous young females (113).However, if such women acted on their preference for pets and did not marry then "the love of pets…became in old maids a demonstration of their failure to achieve full womanhood" (113).
These discussions of female sexuality and pets were tied to the boundaries between human and animal that governed foundational socio-cultural institutions. Women who were seemingly willing to break these natural barriers reflected new conceptions of the human-animal bond that pushed individuals, to move “further away from an awareness of the distinction between human and animal (98)" into the realm of immoderate love.
 Tague, Ingrid H. Animal Companions: Pets and Social Change in Eighteenth-Century Britain. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015.
 Brown, Laura. Homeless Dogs and Melancholy Apes: Humans and Other Animals in the Modern Literary Imagination. Cornell University Press, 2017, 71.
 Henry Carey, Poems on Several Occasions. J. Kent; A. Boulter, and J. Brown, 1713, 25.
 Hanway, Jonas. Journal of Eight Days Journey. H. Woodfall, 1756, 71. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
 MacMahon, Thomas O’Brien. Man’s Capricious, Petulant, and Tyrannical Conduct Towards the Irrational and Inanimate Part of the Creation, Inquired into and Explained. G. Riley, 1794, 12-13.
 Fox, Stephen. The Rival Lapdog and the Tale. W. Smith and G. Greg, 1730, 39.
 Pope, Alexander. A Key to the Lock. Or, a Treatise Proving, beyond All Contradiction, the Dangerous Tendency of a Late Poem, Entituled, The Rape of the Lock. To Government and Religion.Second ed., J. Roberts near the Oxford-Arms in Warwick-Lane, 1715, 3-4. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
1Williams, Glenn Scofield. “Crazy Cat Lady, Mom Edition.” Flickr, 2 May 2011, www.flickr.com/photos/glennwilliamspdx/5495441340/in/photolist-bf8uez-9nBzfC-9iSrf5-uPMhbb.
2Istolethetv. “Lazy Corgi.” Flickr, 15 May 2010, www.flickr.com/photos/istolethetv/5624163644/in/photolist-3AfN5k-3AfFx2-3AfUmH-3AfZJP-9yZiUG-qZo4Y-aM2KZc-3AijEZ-3AnBLh-g5uur-g5uu1-6Yuw9b.
3Van Slingelandt, Pieter Cornelisz. “Lady with a Pet Dog.” Wikimedia Commons, 6 May 2011, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Slingelandt,_Pieter_Cornelisz_Van_-_Lady_with_a_Pet_Dog_-_1672.jpg.
4Reynolds, Joshua. “Lady Delm and Her Children.” WikiArt, 5 Mar. 2012, www.wikiart.org/en/joshua-reynolds/lady-delm-and-her-children-1780.
5Fragonard, Jean Honore. “Girl in Bed Making Her Dog Dance.” Wikimedia Commons, 18 Dec. 2010, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1770_Fragonard_Maedchen_mit_Hund_anagoria.jpg.
6Fragonard, Jean Honore. “Young Woman Playing with a Dog.” Wikimedia Commons, 1 Sept. 2009, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jean_Honore_Fragonard_Young_Woman_Playing_with_a_Dog.jpg.
7Scheffel, Johan Henrik. “Portrait with a Lady with Lapdog.” Wikimedia Commons, 11 Feb. 2018, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johan_Henrik_Scheffel_-_Portrait_with_a_lady_with_lapdog_-_S-2010-204_-_Finnish_National_Gallery.jpg.