We often divide pet lovers into two categories: cat people (introverted and intellectual) and dog people (fun-loving and loyal). But would these distinctions and associations hold true in countries outside the U.S.? While cats and dogs still reign supreme as the most popular pets in the world overall—in a study that surveyed 22 countries, 33% of the population owned a dog, and 23% owned a cat—statistics do not tell a complete story.
Pets not only differ by type, but the very meaning of "pet" can vary depending on the country or even the specific region. In the U.S. we typically think of our pets as members of the family, but in Peru, a pet can also be a helpful farm animal. Likewise, where we might think of a dog as "man's best friend," in countries like Bhutan wild dogs roam the streets in packs. Pets reveal a lot about a place and its people, including a country's values, national symbolism, socio-economics, history, and mythology. A look at the pets people own around the globe paints a fascinating picture and can foster cross-cultural understanding when you travel.
Here are the top unusual pets (to us at least!) that are popular around the world.
Japan: from owl cafes to giant beetles
While dogs are immensely popular in Japan, Japan's pet culture does differ from ours in distinct ways. A popular trend includes pet cafes, shops that have owls, cats, reptiles, rabbits, or monkeys. Patrons can pet the animals, usually for 30 minutes or less, while they have a cup of tea. Because living spaces are often very small in highly populated cities, it can be difficult for people to care for pets in their homes. Pet cafes are places where people can temporarily enjoy something cuddly. While Japan and the U.S. have a similar affection for pet-able animals, Japanese pet owners have an interest in something we don't: beetles. Giant Horned Beetles and Stag Beetles are popular, low-maintenance household pets that don't take up too much space.
China: creatures by land and sea
Pet ownership is increasing in China as a middle class with disposable income grows, and there is interest in not only cats and dogs, but also in goldfish. Originally from China, goldfish came to the U.S. in the 17th century, though our idea of goldfish—small, orange, and found in baggies at county fairs—differs from the many exotic breeds of goldfish in China. Goldfish, which symbolize bounty, were popular among the aristocracy beginning with the Song Dynasty (960-1279), but have become common household pets in recent history. Also popular in China are crickets, which are beloved for their singing and fighting abilities (apparently they're quite strong!).
Middle East: not our NYC pigeons
Since the Mughal Empire in the 16th century, pigeons have been bred for racing competitions in countries across the Middle East, from Egypt to Kuwait and Pakistan. Since then, pigeons have retained their status, and pigeon breeders are esteemed figures. It's even been said that a love of pigeons crosses national and religious borders in the Middle East, uniting a region that otherwise has many cultural differences. Now, pigeons are not only used for racing, but they are also kept as household pets. There are different varieties of pigeon that are quite beautiful and elegant looking, and nothing resembling the fat, grouchy pigeons we're familiar within the U.S.
Taiwan: the tortoise has deep cultural roots
In Taiwan, tortoises are treasured for their cultural and mythological significance. In ancient China, some of the first messages were written on tortoise shells in Shou script, a type of pictograph that predates Mandarin. Known as oracle bone script, this Chinese writing was discovered on the shells of tortoises in Taiwan and dates back to the 2nd millennium BCE. Now, most indigenous tortoises are protected by the government—more so as environmental awareness increases—but they are nevertheless popular pets. Tortoises are space-efficient, which is important in a packed city like Taiwan's capital, Taipei, but they also require very specialized environments, with adequate humidity and UV lighting, which can be pricey.
Peru: the alpaca is a family favorite
Alpacas have been domesticated for hundreds of years, and in Peru, where 90% of the world's population of alpaca reside, they are not only profitable for families in the mountains but also much-loved domesticated pets. As they require little food other than grass and hay, alpaca are cheap to own, but they also help turn a profit. Many families use their alpaca for their fiber, which makes a wool similar to sheep's wool, only flame-resistant and hypoallergenic. Though alpaca don't live inside, they are just as cuddly and pet-friendly as dogs—one Peruvian dog trainer even taught his pet alpaca, Pisco (named after the Peruvian corn liquor), how to surf.
Next time you find yourself abroad, be sure to ask what kinds of pets the locals have--it's one fun way to immerse yourself in another culture and place.