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What is a Pet? When is an Animal ‘Not a Pet’?


Is it a pet?

Forget the word games. Here’s a quick answer: if a human owns and cares for an animal THEN IT IS A PET!

This is true regardless of the animal’s species, disposition, size, ‘intelligence’ or ease of care.

Is that pet hard to care for? Then it is a high-maintenance pet. Does your pet hate you? (such as many naturally solitary species like iguanas) Then it’s a pet that hates you.

See? Is it really that difficult? Yet we still have people running around exclaiming that a certain type of animal is ‘not a pet’, and even the owners themselves are proclaiming their own pets aren’t pets! Why is this so?

'My pet is not a 'thing''

Well, for starters, many people have become very uncomfortable with the idea of the word pet. It used to be a harmless term describing the relationship of a human being keeping a non-human animal in confinement for enrichment and other benefits. Often times this relationship could be seen as a symbiotic one as the animal receives special benefits not available to it in the wild.

Then somewhere along the line the word pet became associated with ‘slavery’, ‘imprisonment’ and other emotionally-wrought terms that humans dread for themselves.

This form of cognitive dissonance might lead pet owners to declare that their pets are ‘not pets’. Such arguments for their non-pet status might include the illusion of their pet serving a ‘higher purpose’ such as being used for education or conservation. Others believe their animals are members of their family or that they themselves are ‘caretakers’ or guardians, not pet owners, which can still be true, but that doesn’t make pets not pets.


Only unconfined animals can truly be deemed non-pets. Some animals might be well-behaved enough to voluntarily confine themselves, but should that ever change, if the caretaker would have to force confinement, that is still a pet. The common practice of allowing cats to roam freely is an irresponsible and negligent form of pet ownership for many reasons.

What about exotic or so-called wild pets? When they are called ‘not pets’ it is a typical form of propaganda used by people who have an emotional objection to certain captive species to mislead others. In truth, there are different types of pets. Let’s discuss the different pet forms so we can avoid confusion.



Different type of pets

Companion Animal

The dominant form of pet in the United States is the companion animal, and this might be the reason people become confused about pets used for other purposes. Companion animals generally receive and return affection, accompany their owners during various activities, and are tame in nature in order to provide comfort to humans in the form of allowing a copious amount of petting and cuddling.

Dogs and cats, being the most popular pets in America, are the notable principal species here, but this definition can also extend to horses, rabbits, ferrets, and birds. Note: many non-domesticated animals make exemplary companion animals! If you don’t have pets like these and aren’t a farmer, some people might be uncomfortable with your pet choice.


Display Animal

Animals that just exist. Yes, you can have a pet simply just to observe its beauty/behavior and provide interest to a space in your home or yard (sometimes you can occasionally interact with these). Fish are the most obvious choices here and are generally accepted, as well as small birds and tropical frogs and lizards in terrarium set ups. Should you choose to have a similar set up with an animal like say, lemurs, you will face considerable backlash.

Reasons some pets aren't regularly interacted with:

  • They will get too stressed out
  • You'll get too stressed out
  • They hate you
  • They live in water
  • You'll spend 3 hours trying to apprehend them in event of an escape

It should be noted that somewhat dangerous or unsociable animals can be maintained privately no differently than how a respected zoological facility does it. Animals can be left to their own devices in well-furnished, spacious environments therefore, it is not always reasonable to assume that an anti-social or potentially dangerous animal maintained as a pet is being inappropriately treated as a domestic dog or cat.

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Business Animals

Some animals can be pets but are also used for business purposes. This description doesn’t make them any less of a pet.


Some pet owners exhibit their animals. Many smaller zoos and nature centers are actually privately owned and therefore they own the animals at the facility and often even live on the property. These animals are pets, like the aforementioned ‘display animals’. They don’t have to live in your living room in order to be a pet anymore than a horse does. Collecting money from people to see your pets doesn’t make your animals not pets, it just makes you lucky!

Jack Hanna just loves to 'borrow' private pets for televised presentations. Then he calls for exotic pet bans.


Zoo to You!

There are numerous businesses that bring animals to schools, charities, birthday parties, and other events and places. Sometimes they are referred to as ‘mobile zoos’ and they tout their educational value. I believe in this educational value with the right presentation.

In almost all circumstances the animals are referred to as ‘ambassadors for their species’. Sometimes people claim these animals are not pets, even going as far to say that you should NOT do exactly what they are doing. They are wrong.

If the animal goes back to live at your house and you have the same legal authority in the keeping and care of that animal that one has with a dog, it is absolutely your pet. I don’t care if you are lucky enough to have a permit for it. Count your blessings that someone arbitrarily made it that most people, regardless of their ability to care for the animal, unable to legally possess a species that you get the arbitrarily-awarded privilege of keeping.



Animals are still pretty much pets even when they are being utilized for breeding and farming purposes. Of course, emotionally, many people may elect for different terms. The word pet may also be used to distinguish permanent residents of the farm animal persuasion from owned animals awaiting processing.

“It’s not a pet, it’s a rescue!”

Hey guess what, it’s still a pet…a pet that you rescued. No different from my adopted dog. See how easy this is? Dogs desperately need people to adopt them because our society has allowed their populations to get out of control. I wasn’t a hero for adopting my dog, it just made logical sense. I want dog…dog available in rescue…so I went and got her. No one should ever obtain pets that they do not want.

Animal rescues should make efforts to adopt their inhabitants out for two reasons; create more space for animals that need to be rescued, and to place animals with people who would otherwise fuel the trade. Real rescues that indiscriminately take in animals that literally have nowhere else to go are of high value to our society. Still, all of their permanent residents are pets if they are directly owned by someone.


So as you can see, the word ‘pet’ might not be an exact science but there is literally no reason why these common animals—dogs, cats, goldfish, horses, and hamsters—can all be considered pets despite their vast differences but other animals that happen not to be very domesticated should not. A pet isn’t ‘not a pet’ because it’s not cuddly, or doesn’t prefer to cuddle with you. It’s still a pet if it lives outdoors, and it can even be a pet if you rarely or never directly interact with it.

“Wait, you’re just saying this because you're an exotic pet owner!”



Tevin Woods on August 19, 2019:

Sense you talked about Wolves,Coyotes and hybrids of which. What about Coywolf hybids as pets.

GalaxyRat on May 12, 2017:

Good Hub! People say, "Animals should not be kept as pets, BLAH BLAH", but if that animal is trained and won't hurt you intentionally or only out of denfense (or because he is stressed), why not? And if you own and care for him, he's a pet, like you stated. Interesting!

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on September 01, 2015:

OK...thanks Larry!

Larry Fields from Northern California on August 30, 2015:

Hi, Melissa. I'm in a minority here. I think that your definition of "pet" is too restrictive. People also qualify as pets. Say what?

You heard me. Some companion animals are far more intelligent than we are. They make use of Jedi mind tricks, in order to manipulate us into providing food, shelter, and sometimes even cushy bedding for them.

This decreases the amount of time needed for mundane, survival-related activities. Thus they have more time for telepathic communion with related species on other planets, who would otherwise wage war on us if certain of these Earthly species went extinct.

What? You want evidence? Get real. There was even a Star Trek movie with this theme. Is this proof, or what?

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on July 09, 2015:

Thank you Skylar.

Skylar on July 09, 2015:

Great hub! People have the right to live with their fellow non-human companions in which both living beings, pet and owner can be happy. A symbiotic relationship! Thank you for writting this hub. My parakeet died this morning and it really relieved me from dejection reading this this morning.

Very interesting hub!

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on June 30, 2015:

Yes Frida, the problem with the word pet is that everyone has a different idea of its meaning, so it's best to just stick with the all encompassing one. Because I would be deemed an 'adventurous' pet keeper, a good pet is just an interesting one that lives well in captivity.

Frida Nyberg from Sweden on June 28, 2015:

Nice one as usual.

I have rejected the word "pet" for years, and I wasn't sure why... maybe it somehow feels like it means "owned object which happens to be an animal", or something. But I looked up the definitons for my own site on this topic, and this is some of what I wrote:

"The common, everyday definition of the word “pet” tends to be a sweet, easy-going, low-maintenance animal that is the perfect companion. By that definition, a parrot is most definitely not a pet. Hell, even many dogs aren’t really pets by that definition!

Or, as Scott Shoemaker said in Elephant in the Living Room: “If your definition of pet is something that you throw food at, and it’s nice and docile - okay, that’s not a tiger.”

But as for real, dictionary-level definitions… I use two different sources, and there are both animal-related meanings and a non-animal related meanings, but the former first:

1) a domesticated animal kept for pleasure rather than utility

2) any domesticated or tamed animal that is kept as a companion and cared for affectionately.

The first definition implies that the animal is domesticated, which makes a difference, and that would mean an exotic (wild) animal can indeed not be a pet. The second definition however, also includes tamed animals, which is very different from domesticated. (Tamed = An individual animal that’s handleable to humans. Domesticated = A type of animal that has changed genetically through artificial selection.)

By the second definition, exotics can indeed be called pets, by being tame animals that are kept as companions. The non-animal related definitions also include this:

1) a pampered and usually spoiled child

2) a person who is treated with unusual kindness or consideration

3) a person especially cherished or indulged

4) a thing particularly cherished

Oh wow, that sounds so cruel and demeaning, doesn’t it?"

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on June 10, 2015:

Haha what do you mean not a good thinker? Schreibvogel, sad as he is, supports exotic pet ownership, sorta.

ManNewt on June 10, 2015:

An insightful hub (just like your other hubs that I found that gave me an insight a few weeks ago). When your hub reminded me that Jack Hanna opposes exotic pet ownership I started to "think" that he is like Carole Baskin (for being a hypocrite, as they both keep "wild" animals while they say no to "wild" animal ownership) and Joe Schreibvogel (for bringing animals that are a real public threat such as a panther or a mandrill into the public) combined. Please correct me if I could not get my facts straight (I am not a good thinker.)

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on June 09, 2015:

Thank you Bob, prettynutjob30, glad you have a reasonable view on pet ownership. I too have seen exotics better behaved than my dog.

Bob Bamberg on June 09, 2015:

Good hub, Melissa, and you make good points. It seems the word "pet" has become anthropomorphized (for lack of a better term) and associated with a relationship that's detrimental to the animal. And of course there are those who believe that any human interaction with animals is detrimental to the animals. But animal owners are acutely aware of the special bond that can form between us and them. Voted up and interesting.

Mary from From the land of Chocolate Chips,and all other things sweet. on June 09, 2015:

Great hub, voted up, shared and so much more. Any animal can be tamed, if you get them when they are babies. I know people who have a pet raccoon, and I thought they were crazy at first. But their raccoon is tamer than most dogs, I have never seen anything like it.

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