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Dogs, Cats, and Horses - Oh My! The Evolution of Pets in the Arab World

posted on: Mar 9, 2021

Dog & Cat

By: Holly Johnson/Arab America Contributing Writer

From the heroic actions of Lassie, hilarious shenanigans of Scooby-Doo, and the fast-talking breeziness of Mister Ed (for anyone under 55, he was the talking hooved palomino who dominated TV screens in the early 1960s) animals are revered in American culture. According to a 2020 survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association, over 85 million people own at least one pet in the United States.

Dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, ferrets, hamsters, and mice are among the most common, with horses not far behind. In rural America, where farming is the predominant way of life, it is not uncommon for children to keep cattle, pigs, goats, chickens, or donkeys as beloved extended members of the family.

However, pet ownership in the Arab world has a different kind of connotation. Traditionally viewed as uncommon in Arab society, ownership of any type of animal is rare, however cats are most often found in homes while dogs are largely viewed as either hunters, guards, or pests. In Islam, dogs are viewed as ritually impure, with even the sight of a dog during prayer thought to wield power that nullifies the most fervent of prayers.

Children in Yemen play with puppies

Interestingly, it seems that dogs were not always viewed as repulsive, as Prophet Muhammad himself is recorded as having played happily with puppies. In the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, the second holiest sight in the world for Muslims after the Kaaba, dogs were regularly seen frolicking about for centuries after the Prophet’s passing.

If dogs were good enough to be companions to the revered Prophet, you mind find yourself questioning exactly how the perception of the furry four-legged creatures changed so drastically. As with many aspects of life, modification seems to have taken place, in part, due to modernization and urbanization of major Arab hubs.

Although dogs were hailed historically as protectors and beacons of light that provided hunting efforts which kept nomads properly nourished, as cities began transitioning from rural parcels to urbanized epi-centers, dogs became a type of living garbage disposal, viewed as a vessel which would keep the heavily crowded streets clear of unwanted rubbish. From Istanbul to Cairo, and even Damascus, city leaders encouraged the canine population by constructing water troughs near butcher shops, and punishing humans who committed violence against the furry trash compactors.

Nonetheless, as technology often does, the widespread inception of motorized trash collectors eradicated the need for urban canines, leaving the population destitute and unwanted as germ theory became more pronounced throughout society. Once seen as useful and productive residents, dogs were now viewed as dangerous, disease-ridden, and expendable.

Adoption Event

While some fervent followers of Islam continue to refuse to keep dogs, many Arabs (both in Arab countries and living abroad) are branching out and enjoying the unique companionship that only the love of a canine can offer. Both the Qur’an and sunnah tell that animals are cherished companions, workers, and helpers of humans, with several younger Muslims taking that to heart; although it should be noted that some continue to keep their dogs outside due to concerns of cleanliness.

Arab cat

By contrast, cats have long been hailed as ritually clean, and mysteriously agile in defying traditional laws of physical safety. Thought of as having nine lives, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have had 10 cats, as their presence provided him with knowledge, good luck, and reverence to God. In keeping in line with the Prophet, love of cats is now seen as a loyalty to the Islamic faith in several Middle Eastern cities, with many families keeping cats indoors.

Wild Arabian horse frolicking

While few in the Arab world can be found harboring a rodent or reptile as a pet, horses are more common, with the elegant gait of the Arabian horse among the most prized breed. For Palestinians, breeding, selling, and showing Arabian horses is not only a legitimate business, but a passionate hobby, as well as a sign of societal elitism. Particularly revered in the United Arab Emirates, competitions such as the yearly Abu Dhabi International Arabian Horse Championship and Fujairah Arabian Horse Show draw thousands of visitors to the country’s rich soil.

Today, stray dogs, cats, and even horses are often seen roaming the streets of Arab countries, with the Canaan Dog, and the Abyssinian cat among the most common in the region.

Al-Rahmeh Association for Animals in Jordan

Although ownership of domesticated dogs and cats was once banned in Saudi Arabia in 2006, the invention of animal rescues, dedicated to ensuring the welfare of animals in crisis as well as advocating for their rights, has become a mainstay in Arab culture. From shelters in Dubai to protection agencies in Amman, the healthy and safety of our furry friends has become a top priority, showcasing the compassion and commitment to humanity that Arab society is famously known for.


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