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Did Romans keep dogs as pets?

Dogs have been companions to humans for thousands of years. Their domestication dates back over 15,000 years ago. Today, dogs are kept primarily as pets and cherished family members in many households around the world. But what about in ancient Rome? Did the Romans keep dogs as pets like we do today?

The Role of Dogs in Ancient Rome

Evidence suggests that dogs did indeed hold a special place in Roman society, though their roles and treatment varied depending on the time period. Here are some of the main ways dogs featured in ancient Roman culture:

  • Hunting dogs – Dogs assisted in hunting game like hares, deer, and boar. Hunting dogs were highly valued for their tracking skills.
  • Herding and livestock guardian dogs – Various breeds were used to herd sheep, cattle, and other livestock. Livestock guardian dogs protected flocks from thieves and predators.
  • War dogs – Mastiff-type dogs were used in battle and to guard military camps. Attack dogs wore spiked collars and armor for protection.
  • Sentry dogs – Stationed as sentries, dogs could raise alarms and deter intruders at locations like villas, temples, and government buildings.

Additionally, some dogs worked alongside humans in everyday tasks. Butcher’s dogs turned spits in food shops, and dogs accompanied bakers, blacksmiths, and other tradesmen.

Were Dogs Seen as Pets?

The simplest answer is yes – there is evidence that dogs were kept as pets and companions during Roman times. However, the role and treatment of pet dogs varied greatly depending on the owner’s social status and personal preferences.

Among the Roman elite, small lapdogs similar to today’s Maltese were status symbols and fashion accessories. Ladies pampered these dogs, carried them, dressed them in costumes, and took them out in public. Lapdogs slept in their masters’ beds and even dined at the table. Elite Romans commissioned artworks depicting their favorite pet dogs.

More common were mixed-breed dogs kept by ordinary Romans as companions and home guardians. These dogs lived close to the family, offering security, play, and affection to adults and children. Table scraps and food waste sustained these housedogs.

Many Romans were fond of dogs and bred distinct types like sight hounds and flock guardians. Canine epitaphs also attest to affection people felt for their dogs. However, pet keeping was controversial, and some Romans saw housedogs as indulgent or wasteful. Strict Roman discipline imposed expectations even on pets.

Pet Dog Breeds in Ancient Rome

Various dog breeds and types were kept as pets or companions across Roman society:

  • Maltese – Tiny lapdogs popular with Roman ladies. Their long, white coats received intense pampering.
  • Shih tzu – Another fluffy lapdog breed favored as an amusing pet and status symbol.
  • Greyhound – Slender sight hounds used for racing and hunting by aristocrats.
  • Mastiff – Imposing guard dogs that also featured in blood sports in the arena.
  • Petronius dog – A light, swift hound breed described by the writer Petronius.

Legal Rights and Restrictions

There were no formal animal welfare laws in place in ancient Rome. However, legal codes did address specific aspects of dog ownership and treatment. For example:

  • Laws prohibited the poisoning of housedogs. Killing or injuring a neighbor’s housedog could result in stiff fines.
  • Mad or rabid dogs could be legally killed if they posed a public danger.
  • Owners were liable if their dogs killed livestock, damaged property, or bit people.
  • Dogs had no legal standing of their own and were considered property under the law.

Additionally, at various times, emperors imposed restrictions on pet dogs in Rome. Emperor Augustus banned them from public places except on leashes. Emperor Tiberius expelled all dogs from the city for a period.

Daily Life of Roman Pet Dogs

On a day-to-day basis, the life of a Roman pet dog depended greatly on its owner’s means and whims. But some common features of living as a Roman housedog included:

  • Sleeping on a pet bed or blanket, often indoors with the family.
  • Wearing a plain leather collar or more elaborate decorated collar.
  • Eating a varied diet of table scraps, bread, meat, bones, etc.
  • Drinking water from a bowl or fountain.
  • Playing with toys like knotted ropes or leather balls.
  • Going for walks in public with the owner when allowed.
  • Serving as a guard dog and barking to deter intruders.
  • Receiving petting, cuddling, and other affection from family members.

Wealthy Romans spared no expense to pamper their pet dogs. Ordinary Romans still grew fond of their dogs but had to balance practical considerations of space, food, and duty.

Veterinary Care

The Romans had veterinarians treating dogs, horses, and livestock. Dog ailments mentioned in surviving texts include distemper, mange, worms, eye diseases, tumors, and rabies.

Roman veterinarians prescribed various plant- and mineral-based remedies for dog illnesses. For example, cabbage and nettle seed treated dog bites, and iris oil soothed dog skin conditions. Vinegar doused on the coat combatted fleas and ticks.

Complex surgical procedures were also performed on dogs. Veterinarians used specialized tools like scales, hooks, and blades in their practices. One text describes spaying procedures carried out on female dogs to prevent mating behaviors.

Notable Roman Veterinarians

  • Apsyrtus – Author of the most complete Roman veterinary text surviving today. He prescribed dog remedies and discussed surgery.
  • Vegetius – Advised not feeding dogs before hunts to keep them eager. Recommended giving guard dogs bread soaked in wine.
  • Pelagonius – His veterinary works included ailments like heatstroke, parasites, and a collapsed lung in dogs.

Thanks to Roman veterinarians, many useful canine medical treatments and principles emerged. Their expertise reflects how valued dogs were in Roman society.

Dog Training and Handling

Good training was crucial to make dogs perform their functions in Roman society. Farmers, herders, hunters, and the military all employed specialized methods to train dogs for required tasks.

Guard dogs around homes and estates were expected to be obedient and not leave the property. Watchdogs learned to patrolling premises and aggressively confront intruders when commanded. Owners could opt to send difficult dogs for professional training.

Pet dog training focused more on instilling good manners around people. Handlers taught dogs to respond to commands like “sit,” “heel,” and “quiet.” More advanced training involved teaching dogs parlor tricks to entertain guests.

Physical force served as the main tool for dog training in ancient Rome. Beating dogs, using choke collars, and shouting reprimands were conventional ways of teaching discipline. However, some writers urged more patient, positive techniques to earn a dog’s affection and trust.

Notable Dog Trainers

  • Marcus Varro – Advised farmers on selecting dogs based on traits like temperament, parentage, and appearance.
  • Lucius Columella – Stressed humane treatment of cattle dogs and recommended rewards over beating.
  • Publius Flavonius Vegetius Renatus – His guide for training war dogs urged motivational methods like playing, petting, and feeding.

While harsh by modern standards, Roman dog training laid foundations for specialized breeding, conditioning, and handling techniques still used today.

Dog Breeding

Romans engaged in selective dog breeding to reinforce desired physical and behavioral traits. This was done systematically to produce specialized breeds for functions like:

  • Hunting – swift sight hounds to spot and pursue prey
  • Herding – agile herding dogs that nimbly circled flocks
  • Guarding – heavily built, protective dogs that defended property
  • Companionship – small, sociable lapdogs with endearing features

Romans also crossed some breeds to blend favorable qualities. The classic Roman犬> molosserGuard dogs resulted from breeding native British dogs with Greek molossers. This combined the strength of molossers with the temperament and stamina of British breeds.

Careful selection of studs and dams was important in Roman dog breeding. Experts advised meticulously choosing parent dogs free of defects and with outstanding traits to pass down.

Notable Roman Dog Breeds

Some major dog breeds that emerged from ancient Roman breeding include:

Breed Characteristics Purpose
Molossus Large, muscular, broad-headed Arena combat, guarding
Vertragus Speedy, athletic sight hound Hunting, racing
Petronius dog Elegant, energetic hound Aristocratic hunting
Maltese Tiny, long-haired lapdog Companionship, status symbol

Through innovative breeding, Romans considerably influenced the development of modern canines from companion breeds to working dog types.

Dogs in Roman Art and Literature

Dogs frequently appeared as subjects in Roman art and literature, reflecting their presence in daily life. In art, dogs were depicted in mosaics, wall paintings, sculptures, and carved gems across Rome.

Dogs of various breeds were shown in many activities. Hunting dogs pursued hares or accompanied nobles riding to the hunt. Lapdogs lounged in ladies’ arms or at their feet. Farm dogs herded goats and sheep or guarded homes. Sight hounds raced across circus mosaics.

In writings, Roman poets, playwrights, and satirists included dogs for literary effect. Watchdogs barking at night were a common image invoking city life. Pet dogs served as symbols of loyalty or as foils for fickle, false friends.

Notable Examples

  • Cave Canem – “Beware of Dog” mosaic signs displayed at Roman homes and shops.
  • Venus and Mars – Fresco depicting the goddess Venus with an attentive Maltese lapdog.
  • Epitaphs – Poems written by owners lamenting the loss of beloved pet dogs.
  • Columella – Wrote detailed guidelines for selecting dogs based on physical and behavioral traits.

This cultural emphasis reflects the daily familiarity and fondness Romans had for dogs in the home, work, art, and literature.

Dogs in Entertainment and Spectacle

Romans utilized dogs in public spectacles and entertainments that exploited their abilities.

At amphitheaters and gladiator events, dogs were forced to perform or fight, often brutally. Large dogs like mastiffs were pitted against other animals like wild cats or bulls in vicious combat. Smaller dogs were deployed to harass and nip at chained criminals, hunters, and gladiators.

Circus dog acts involved dogs trained to chase hares or work together pulling chariots at breakneck speed around the track. Performing dogs dazzled crowds by walking tightropes, dancing on hind legs, and jumping through hoops.

Hunting hounds accompanied aristocrats to specially constructed hunting parks to chase and corner wild game for sport. The hunts served as both recreation and display of elite power and mastery over nature.

These displays exploited dogs for entertainment and profit, often cruelly. But they also demonstrate Roman interest in dogs’ abilities and delight in their natural behaviors.


The question of whether Romans kept dogs as pets invites a nuanced look at canine roles throughout history. While dog uses were wide-ranging, evidence confirms that many Romans did form close bonds with dogs – so much so that their loss was grieved. The care, training, breeding, and commemoration of dogs in Rome laid foundations for modern pet keeping and cynology.