What’s the Difference Between Pets, Wild Animals, and Livestock?

If you’re looking for a brilliant explanation of why humans put other animals into categories, you won’t find it here. Sorry.

How are animals different?

How are they different? How are they the same?

My opinion is that people find it convenient to treat animals differently based on what we want from them. Do we want animals to keep us company? Work for us? Hold up a romantic ideal? Feed us? Then we put them in a category that makes us feel more comfortable about our decisions.

I’ve asked myself about the differences between animals in my past two years as the pet travel contributor for A Traveler’s Library. You see, there are only so many books about people who travel with their pets. Luckily, the site’s editor and owner, Vera Badertscher, gave me some latitude in choosing books that inspire us to travel with our pets.

In addition to reviewing books about people who travel with their dogs and cats, I’ve also considered livestock animals (The Horse Boy and Shepherds of Coyote Rocks). And also working animals (Sun Dogs and and Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback). And what about wild animals (Three Among the Wolves) or feral animals (The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill)? (affiliate links)

In fact, it was Mark Bittner, the human subject of The Parrots of Telegraph Hill, who convinced me that no matter how we categorize animals, there is one way we are all the same.

“They’re afraid of death. They’re afraid of injury. They’re afraid of being alone. Like us.”

Whether we are human animals, companion animals, wild animals, or livestock, Bittner’s words describe all of us.

Golden Retriver playing with her ring toy

Are you telling me I’m not a wild animal? Don’t you see these teeth?

Today I’m publishing my last post for A Traveler’s Library. I’ve appreciated the chance to contribute to such a wonderful website. I’ve learned a lot. After all, writing and travel, like building relationships with animals, makes us grow.

If you agree, please stop by to discover three charming children’s books that inspire pet travel. Or check out a diverse list of books that will inspire you to travel with your pet. And don’t forget to share the lessons I’ve learned from reading and writing about pet travel.

Of all the lessons I’ve taken from reading about animal-inspired travel, I can’t tell you the differences between categories of animals. But I can tell you that like traveling, trying to understand animals will change us. If we only let it.

Your Turn: Do you have a clear idea in your mind about how pets, wild animals, and livestock are different? Or do you think they aren’t different at all?

Disclosure: The book and film links in this post will take you to Amazon where you can buy them. Items will not cost you more but I will make a few cents to put toward the costs of publishing Something Wagging This Way Comes. Thanks for your support.
photo credit: angelocesare via photopin cc

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  1. I might draw the line between domestic animals of any kind, and wild animals. Though we now have deer and buffalo and ostrich ranches, but those animals are not famous for their trainability. Dogs are definitely not wolves, cows are definitely not antelope, and chickens are definitely not Canada geese. Animals that we’ve bred to live with us over the centuries are much better at it than the wild ones. Some are easier to housebreak than others…

    After that, a lot is in the eye of the beholder. You can eat all of them. Or none of them. You can try to make a pet out of any creature living, from what I gather! Very carefully, in some cases… but a lot of the wild ones can’t be as happy living with you as a cat or dog will be.

    We all share the will to live, that’s for sure. That’s the nature of life. Some wild animals are totally fine with being alone, however.

    • Drawing the line between domestic and wild animals gets me wondering about those feral parrots in San Francisco. They started wild, were turned into pets, and eventually returned to the wild.

      You’ve definitely given me food for thought, Sara.

  2. I own dogs and livestock (a horse), but feel my horse is less livestock and more a pet. I think the difference is in how we bond with the animal. Dogs and cats and birds are living in our homes and are interacting with us everyday. I feel most active horse owners also are interacting with them several times per week, and have a bond (we are riding them and trusting them not to hurt us after all!) I’ve known people who have treated their cows and alpaca and sheep as pets, too. I believe there is definitely a shift in mentality in livestock when they’re being kept in a commercial, farming as a living type way.

    • Most horse people I know talk about their relationships with horses much the way I talk about dogs. The big difference is that dogs and cats live in our homes.

      But with miniature horses being used as service animals, even that is changing.

      And yes, commercial farming definitely cuts people off from the reality of eating animals. As does meat packaged in cut up parts instead of being sold whole.

  3. I think the dog/livestock line is especially fraught for people. Because some of us have made our dogs basically family members, it’s heartbreaking for us to imagine people who don’t. Cultures who see dogs as food aside, it can even be hard to think about real working dogs, like those who guard livestock, that live their lives quite isolated from human contact. But we have to admit that it’s a fluid, fairly arbitrary boundary that we’ve set up around dogs. Pigs are as smart and sensitive as dogs, but my dog sleeps in my bed and eats pork. Sigh.

    • “Pigs are as smart and sensitive as dogs, but my dog sleeps in my bed and eats pork. Sigh.”

      Yep, that’s the crux of my questions.

      When I went to BlogPaws, I thought that there would be a high percentage of vegetarians and vegans. But it didn’t appear to be any higher than in the normal population. I think my question is one that most people prefer not to ask.

      • It is, honestly, a muddle.

        I buy the most humane pork for Silas I can afford, so it’s at least cage-free. (I had no intention of feeding him pork, which bothers me particularly. Best laid plans, etc.) I don’t eat meat at home, but I will do it occasionally in restaurants, especially if I know their meat was humanely raised. Our eggs come from “happy” chickens raised by a local farmer, and my milk comes from a small local dairy.

        The place where things get muddy for me, and the reason that I still carefully buy animal products, is that I am, to trot out that old saw, voting with my dollar at the grocery store. I want my local dairy farmer to keep raising his cows, because I know they’re better off than their peers at the factory dairy. I don’t think people at large are in a rush to stop eating eggs and bacon and steak, and I want to help the little, more humane, guy have a share in that market. I also suspect that the environmental math between a small, local dairy and commercial soy production probably comes out in favor of the dairy.

  4. My dogs are my pets. I do not expect them to provide me with anything other than companionship. I think what classifies an animal as “livestock” is that it provides the caregiver with something, be it meat, milk, eggs, fur, wool, labor, etc.

    I am getting day old chicks next month. I have not quite decided if they are livestock (they will be providing me with eggs) or pets…

    • I suspect your chicks will become pets if they have friendly and curious personalities. My only experience with chickens was with a breed that was very aggressive. But I understand that some are quite charming.

      I can’t wait to see how it works for you.

  5. It’s not travel-related, but have you seen this book: Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals? I haven’t read it, but I saw it at the library and it seems to tackle this very question. I plan to check it out next time I go because it sounds like a fascinating discussion.

    • I’ve picked up the book twice and not dug into it yet. Perhaps my own form of denial?

      If I think about it too much I know I’ll be compelled to go vegan. And frankly, the thought of giving up butter, cheese, and eggs makes me a little ill.

  6. There is an entire field dedicated (more or less) to this question: anthrozoology. It’s the study of human and non-human animal relations, throughout history an across cultures. There’s also cognitive dissonance, which I believe plays a huge part…. As an animal lover, I can’t make the distinction. Why can one person be prosecuted for mistreating a dog, but there’s a whole badly-regulated industry in which other animals are treated as commodities (and often so very cruelly) so we can have cheap meat, milk, etc? I find it impossible to answer the question, so I avoid all animal products as much as I can.

    • Yes to the cognitive dissonance. I deal with it myself.

      In the summer, being a vegan is easy. There’s such an abundance of wonderful food. But in the winter, I crave animal fat. Bring on the butter and cheese.

      I’m making an effort to support local farmers who treat their animals humanely. But while artisan cheese is everywhere, sometimes I just want a big old block of cheddar. Does everything have to be so “foodie-ish?” 🙂

      I appreciate the way you’re consistent with your values. I hope to someday get there myself.

      • I think every little helps, and even asking the question is a good thing! Maybe I find it easier because it’s never very summery here in the North West of England 🙂

  7. I think “pets” enjoy more protection from cruelty because we live so closely with them and often assign human characteristics to them. It’s very easy to feel protective about our pets who depend on us. Wildlife and livestock animals, not so much. Most people don’t “know” them as well or have personal interaction with them, so there’s a disconnect (imho) For me it’s about the circle of life – how all living things are connected and deserve compassion.

    • And yet if people got to “know” wild animals more by spending time in nature, our very presence would do harm to them also.

      It’s never easy, is it? And yes, ” it’s about the circle of life – how all living things are connected and deserve compassion.” Very well put, Sue.

  8. I think there is very little difference between them, which is why I think they deserve our utmost respect. Especially any animal which we are going to eat, hearing horror stories of their death is just wrong!!

    • I find it very interesting that Temple Grandin has spent her life finding humane ways to slaughter animals. She doesn’t fight the idea that people should eat meat. She just creates tools that keep meat animals calm so they don’t suffer.

      Interesting approach, huh?

      • Brilliant, and I think every slaughter house should be kitted out in this fashion!! After all they are doing us a massive service by sustaining us, the least we can do is make it as pain free and stress free as humanly possible!

  9. You wild wild thing…you’ve been domesticated!