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Remains of the Roman toy dog reveal its tiny stature and a healthy diet similar to its owners. Source: Martínez Sánchez / University of Granada

Ancient Remains Reveal the Romans Had ‘Toy Dogs’ Too

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Research in Spain reveals that the Romans loved miniature or toy dogs.  In antiquity, many members of the elite had pampered pets. Just as today, many celebrities have ‘toy dogs’ such as chihuahuas. The find is throwing new light on dogs in ancient Roman society and reveals that some may have been killed as part of sacrifices.

A large number of both human and dog remains were unearthed in the Roman necropolis of Llanos del Pretorio. This is situated just outside the walls of ancient Cordoba, which was a major Roman city in the province of southern Hispania.

Rafael Martínez Sánchez, of the University of Granada and his colleagues conducted a major study of the dog remains found at the burial site. The experts examined the morphology of the domesticated animals. This involved employing zoological, paleopathological and biochemistry techniques to analyze the skeletons of the dogs found buried.

Roman Toy Dog

According to Heritage Daily , “at least two different morphologies have been extracted; one of medium size, similar to that of different hunting and racing breeds of today, and another of very small sizes.” One of the dogs was tiny, it was only 9 inches or 20 cm tall at the shoulder. The Times reports that the “canine skeleton bears remarkable similarities to modern breeds.” The structure of the skeleton was remarkably like current small or toy dog breeds, such as the Pekingese.

The canine skeletal remains are the oldest evidence of a tiny toy dog breed from the Roman period. (Martínez Sánchez / University of Granada )

Heritage Daily states that the research had revealed “one of the oldest recognized cases of micromorphic dogs in the whole of the Roman Empire .” The Romans used dogs as watchdogs and for hunting, which was very popular among the elite.

There is a great deal of documentary evidence showing that they also bred and kept small dogs. There are references to them in the works of authors such as Pliny the Elder . Martínez Sánchez told Heritage Daily that “the existence of small dogs as pets, objects of affection and special consideration for their owners has been known since classical antiquity, a fact corroborated by texts, epigraphy and iconography.”

Pampered Roman Pets

Based on the remains the experts have been able to establish what the tiny pooch looked like. The Daily Mail reports that it had large “bulging eyes bugging out of a small skull, the animal may have appeared to be somewhat similar to the Pekingese breed.” This was backed up by analysis that showed that like many pampered pets today it had generally the same diet as its owners. 

The ≈ toy dog found is thought to be similar to modern Pekingese bread. ( deviddo / Adobe stock)

The dog was likely owned by a member of the elite and probably a female. The little pooch was very well-treated at a time when animal cruelty was the norm and indeed when savage violence was routinely inflicted on people of all ages and classes. According to The Daily Mail , the recent study suggests “the treatment of smaller dogs may have been more in line with the caring nature of modern pet owners.”

The skull of the Roman toy dog examined. (Martínez Sánchez / University of Granada )

International Animal Trade

The little dog was probably a pet and was probably a status symbol. It is believed that women used dogs like hot water bottles to keep themselves warm and also to relieve stomach pains. According to The Times , “it is believed to have originated thousands of miles east from its resting place.” This is proof that there existed a long-distance trade in dogs, just as there was one, in exotic animals, such as elephants. Rare animals were regarded as “luxury items”, The Daily Mail quotes Martinez Sanchez.

The dog, based on an analysis of its teeth, lived to adulthood. Inside the skeleton was found a smaller set of bones and this indicates that the animal was pregnant at the time of its death. Despite being pampered and spoilt in life by its owners, the tiny dog met a violent and terrible death.

Dog Killed and Sacrificed

There is evidence that the ancient lapdog’s neck was deliberately broken.  It has long been known that the ancient Greeks and Romans sacrificed dogs as part of religious ceremonies. They were thought to appease the gods of the underworld and could even prolong a person's life.

It is also thought that they were killed to persuade the gods to look favorable on a recently deceased person.  The study may have revealed that the little pooch was killed during the funeral of her mistress, possibly to accompany her to the realm of the dead or as an offering.

These discoveries could change our views on the role of dogs in Roman society. Some small dogs were clearly valued and were even spoilt, like the dogs of the modern rich and famous. That is unless they were selected for sacrifice, then they were doomed to a premature and cruel death.

Top image: Remains of the Roman toy dog reveal its tiny stature and a healthy diet similar to its owners. Source: Martínez Sánchez / University of Granada

By Ed Whelan

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