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Africans do not (often) keep dogs as pets

Actually many Africans do keep dogs and it is not just the white Africans that do so. There are stereotypes that abound, but like many stereotypes they do not exist in a vacuum. Many Zulu people do not have dogs as pets. Some of the rural peoples do have dogs that they keep for hunting and while they do love them as dearly they do treat them differently than I would. Affection is rare and they are often poorly fed if at all. Much of that is due to poverty, but does intersect with other attitudes towards animals. When I did my fieldwork among a Zulu community in the Drakensberg, my host family expressed shock and surprise at my stories of family dogs being allowed to enter the home. The dogs here were used for hunting and were not that common and definitely were not allowed inside. My experiences in parts of Zululand and the Kalahari made me want one of these Nguni hounds.

In fact the Nguni or Africanis dog is a local breed that is quite a nice pet. My own is named Lily (I know my brave hunting dog is named after a flower)) and she is quite, clean and non-destructive compared to her boisterous kennel mate Ajax (Border Collie/German Shepherd cross). Most often the Nguni hound is seen skulking around townships and trotting behind his/her master in rural spaces. They are very common in the Kalahari and the San/Bushmen have been hunting with them for about 2000 years. It seems they originally came down with the Bantu speakers and were readily adopted as excellent hunting companions. See my other blog for information on Bantu ethnogenesis in the region.

In the Kalahari the dogs quarry prey for the San. The Gemsbok is fairly aggressive and will turn on a dog that is nipping at its heals. The Gemsbok, tired and angry from the chase is then able to be speared at close range by the hunters. It of course, may also be shot, but with hunting rights controlled by the government many San poach and do not risk the sound of a rifle shot to give away their activities. They do have limited hunting licences that are used up to quick or held in reserve only to be used when confronted by a wildlife officer. But that is another story for another blog.

These brave dogs are rewarded with little for their efforts and rarely shown affection as pets. These dogs do not get patted often in the way I constantly pet my own. It is a different working type of relationship and I have seen some real cruel beatings and kicks delivered by owners to their own dog for daring to creep into the camp to search for scraps. Although within the community this is changing among the youth and the educated as their dogs are being better fed and treated with more affection. I just wish I could teach them how to better hobble their donkeys to avoid chaffing from ropes that results in open sores and lameness.

Among the Zulu it is a grave insult to be called a dog (inja) and they are seen as dirty animals. I know the maid was horrified by my cats and dogs being in the house and not just because of the fur she swept up. And dogs that are kept are not kept in the house and are often left to their own devices. The notion that they are filthy animals and often vectors of disease is due to ignorance coupled with a cultural belief. So in short, dogs are not seen as pets in the way many Europeans treat them, even though with education and cultural change this is changing and more attitudes change so I do not wish to make an over-generalisation.

What I have also observed is that my dogs react differently to different peoples. And it is not to say my dogs are racist, but that people who are not comfortable around dogs or fearful elicit a different response from my dogs. To generalise a little bit, I have found Basotho people are well-liked by my dogs. Anyone who has been to Lesotho sees plenty of dogs and they are accorded a friendship not seen by those that use them for hunting. People with little experience express fear and my dogs react towards them with mistrust.

Other things about the keeping of animals that could be noted is the treatment of cattle. Ritual sacrifice often makes the media, but rarely the other things that are for more significant and a regular occurrence. The Zulu love their cattle and have an incredible and beautiful naming system for them. These animals are well-treated and very much loved. Cattle are not merely objects to be used as food in the way my family keeps sheep. We have few named sheep and with few exceptions they are all potentially sent to slaughter. See my ethical farming blogs if you want to know more about my family farm.

Nguni cattle are kept for many years and are symbolic creatures and not sources of food (except in times of need). When a beast is selected for slaughter it is done so with much thought and concern beyond material concerns. Often the family herd is left alone and a beast is purchased explicitly for the ritual. So the much maligned ceremonies in the press are not the norm and not indicative of the Zulu attitude towards cattle.

There are different cultures that treat and behave towards animals differently. Some of that difference is acceptable and some I feel could be changed. I would like to see the Kalahari dogs treated slightly differently. I do not expect they will become family members the way Europeans often treat them, but some of the harsh beatings could be done away with.

So in one sense it is true that Africans do not keep dogs as pets. They are accorded a different category of belonging and attachment. Most often this does not hold the same connotations as the notion of “pet”, even as there are differences within these communities. I am also aware that there are Zulus that do keep dogs as pets in the full sense of the word.

I welcome responses here from Zulu and other African peoples about their thoughts and feelings towards the keeping of animals in the home and as pets.


  • Michael Francis

    I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.