JiffPom tops list of furry, social media stars

Whizz: JiffPom first made headlines in 2014, when he set a record for the fastest run on hind legs. © @jiffpom

Are pets good for us? Humans and their love for animals have a long history. The internet has reinforced our obsession with them. But experts have struggled to establish what lies behind it.

If Lizzo woke up this morning and checked her number of Instagram followers before getting out of bed, she would have been delighted to see that it stood at 7.8 million. But the singer might have been less delighted to find that she had been overtaken by a dog.

According to figures just released, JiffPom the Pomeranian has 9.8 million followers. And there are plenty of other animals who have become social media stars, from Nala the cat (3.5 million followers) to Jill the squirrel (700,000). It is a modern way of measuring a very old obsession: people’s love of animals.

The earliest indication of keeping a pet dates from around 10,000 BC, at a grave found in what is now Israel, containing the remains of a puppy cradled in a human’s hand.

The Ancient Egyptians considered cats to be sacred and did paintings of them.

In England in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote of a meeting with Charles II: “All I observed there was the silliness of the king, playing with his dog all the while and not minding the business.”

It is hard to say how many pets there are in the world today, but the USA is thought to have the most – around 86 million cats and 78 million dogs. Britain has perhaps 10 million cats and seven million dogs.

It was probably mutual interest that created the first pets. Wolves or wild dogs may have approached human settlements in search of food, learnt to trust the inhabitants, and ended up hunting with them. Cats were useful in protecting stores of grain from rodents.

But this does not explain why we love animals. Most dogs and cats – apart from guide dogs – are of no particular help to us. It used to be thought that owning a pet was good for mental health, but the latest studies suggest that this is untrue.

One theory is that humans, like dogs, feel at home in packs.

Few of us like to be entirely alone, and for those who have no family or friends, a pet can provide companionship that they would otherwise not have. And even if you do have a family, a pet is often easier to deal with: just look after it and you can be sure of its affection.

So, are pets really good for us?

Man’s best friend

Some say that life would be miserable without pets. Everyone knows the joy to be had from stroking a cat or playing with a dog, and schemes to bring them into hospitals to cheer patients up have been very successful. Animals provide companionship for people who might otherwise be desperately lonely. And looking after a pet is a valuable lesson in taking responsibility for others.

Others say that keeping pets puts us at odds with the natural world. Animals are meant to live in the wild, with their own kind: keeping them in cages is particularly cruel. Any relationship we have with them is a poor substitute for one with humans. If the love and care we give them – and the money we spend on them – were instead directed towards people, the world would be a better place.

You Decide

  1. If you could have any animal as a pet, what would you choose?
  2. Is it cruel to make a pet of an animal instead of leaving it to live an independent life?

Activities

  1. Invent an Instagram account for a pet. Write a two-sentence description of the animal, then draw six pictures that it might post.
  2. Imagine that your school has been given a pet elephant. Write a one-page announcement for the noticeboard explaining how it will live at the school, its daily schedule, and the role different classes will have in caring for it.

Some People Say...

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), Indian lawyer and political activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Lizzo has 7.8 million Instagram followers. JiffPom is a dog with 9.8 million followers, and Jill the squirrel has 700,000. Ancient Egyptians treated cats as sacred animals. Charles II had a pet dog. Samuel Pepys kept a diary. Cats are good at catching rodents. The latest research suggests that pets do not help mental health.
What do we not know?
Exactly when humans started keeping pets, and what animals they chose. We can’t be certain that the puppy found in a grave in Israel was, in fact, a pet. We don’t know who painted cat paintings that survive from Ancient Egypt. It is impossible to know exactly how many pets there are in any one country, or in the world.

Word Watch

Pomeranian
A small dog known for its thick fur, particularly around its neck. Queen Victoria adopted one as a pet in 1888.
Samuel Pepys
Author of the most famous diary in English, which he wrote in code. It includes eyewitness accounts of the devastating plague of 1665, and the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Charles II
King of England (1660-1685). He was forced into exile in 1651 after the royalists were defeated in the Civil War, but was later invited back to the throne.
Mutual
Shared by two or more people.
Wolves
Dogs evolved from wolves at least 20,000 years ago, according to recent research.
Rodents
A type of animal with sharp teeth, such as a mouse, rat or hamster.

Subjects

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