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by  Nancy Swarbrick

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world, and many households have a dog or a cat. From working dogs to ‘fur babies’, pets have been part of the country’s history.

Pets and other animals

Pets – companion animals – are important in many people’s lives. They provide company, exercise and fun. Studies have shown that owning a pet lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and improves mental health. Pets help children to understand animals, and learn about birth and death.

Pet ownership

New Zealand has one of the highest levels of pet ownership per person, well ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. A 2007 survey revealed that 52% of New Zealand households had a cat, and nearly 30% had a dog. In 2019, more than 560,000 dogs were registered – roughly one for every third household.

In 2006/7 there were 8,558 dog registrations in Wellington city, which had 179,466 people – an average of one dog for every 20–21 people. Christchurch has a similar ratio – with twice the number of both dogs and people.

Cats and dogs are popular pets because they don’t have to be caged or restrained, can be house-trained, and are active during the day. Most importantly, they show affection and develop a bond with their owners. However, many people find other animals rewarding companions, including horses, fish, turtles, pigs, birds, and so-called ‘pocket pets’ – mice, rats, rabbits and guinea pigs.

The pet paradox

Only a small range of animals enjoy pet status, and treating certain animals as pets has a cultural origin. In New Zealand, and many other countries, cats and dogs are cosseted by humans, whereas sheep and cattle are farmed and killed for food. In contrast, some Asian countries have cats and dogs on the menu, and in India cattle are sacred.

Crossing boundaries

The boundaries between pets and other animals are sometimes blurred.

  • Working companion animals, such as guide dogs and animals in rest homes for the elderly, provide practical help or therapy for vulnerable people, but usually enjoy the same comforts as pets.
  • Other working animals such as racehorses, farm dogs, police dogs and Customs dogs perform strenuous and sometimes dangerous jobs. However, some may also be treated as pets during or after their working lives.
  • Wild animals, mainly indigenous species of birds, fish and insects, are kept as pets by some people.
  • Some farmed animals such as sheep, cows and pigs may start off or live their entire lives as pets – for example, many country children have pet lambs or calves.

Remembering a pet

On board the Endurance, during the 1914–16 trans-Antarctic expedition, was a male cat called Mrs Chippy – the much-loved pet of carpenter Harry McNeish. When the Endurance was crushed in sea ice and sank, leader Ernest Shackleton gave the order for all animals, including Mrs Chippy, to be shot. McNeish, who performed heroic feats on the expedition and later settled in Wellington, always mourned the loss of his cat. As a tribute, the New Zealand Antarctic Society erected a bronze statue of Mrs Chippy on McNeish’s grave in Karori cemetery in Wellington, in 2004.

Famous pets

Some New Zealand pets have become famous locally, nationally, or even internationally.

Paddy the Wanderer

In the 1930s a stray ginger-and-brown Airedale terrier became a common sight around the Wellington wharves. Paddy the Wanderer, as he was known, was cared for by watersiders, harbour board workers, seamen and taxi drivers, who took turns to pay his annual dog registration. When he died in 1939 obituary notices appeared in local newspapers, and a fleet of taxis formed a funeral cortège. His memorial is a drinking fountain near the Queen’s Wharf gates.


In the 1990s Rastus, a black cat, was often photographed perched on the handlebars of the motorbike driven by owner Max Corkill. Rastus, who growled like a dog and ate a vegetarian diet, had his own cat-sized helmet, racing goggles and red bandanna. After Rastus and Max were killed in a head-on smash in Taranaki in 1998, more than 1,000 bikers took part in the funeral procession.


Colin’s, a cat named for the port worker who adopted her, lived at Port Taranaki. She hit international headlines in 2001 after making an unscheduled trip from New Plymouth to South Korea on a methanol tanker. A Korean sailor had taken her on board to feed her and both had fallen asleep, not waking until the vessel was at sea. There were plans to retrieve her in a tanker-to-tanker transfer at sea. This was rejected as too dangerous, and a pet food company paid for a port official to bring her home by air. Colin’s spent the last years of her life as a celebrity, dying of old age in 2007.

History of pets in New Zealand

Useful animals

On arrival in New Zealand, both Māori and Europeans needed domestic and wild animals for survival, rather than as pets. Māori brought with them kurī (Polynesian dogs) and kiore (Polynesian rats), which were killed for food. Their fur was used in clothing, and their bones and teeth were made into tools and ornaments. Kurī also helped with hunting and exploration.

European missionaries, and later settlers, brought with them cattle, sheep and pigs as a source of food and fibre, and horses and bullocks to break in farmland and transport people and goods. They also brought cats to control rodent pests and dogs to assist with sheep farming.

Both Māori and Europeans hunted native birds and marine mammals such as whales and seals for food, feathers, oil and skin. Animals were valued mainly for practical purposes. Sometimes, however, people became fond of individual animals.

Maori and pets

Māori regarded some animals as pets (mōkai). Kurī could be companions for their owners – for example, the explorer Kupe had a pet kurī, and Tāneatua, the tohunga on the Mataatua canoe, had several. Kākā (native parrots) were often kept as pets and were used as decoys when hunting birds for food. More unusual pets included eels, shags, pigeons and moa.

Sometimes animals described as pets were more like guardians, similar to the European concept of a familiar (attendant spirit). There are accounts of pet taniwha and pet whales.

Europeans and pets

Keeping pets was a luxury for early settlers, whose first aim was their families’ survival. Nevertheless, cats and dogs were introduced as companion animals and were well established by the 1860s. Groups of working men such as bushmen often had dogs or cats at their camps. People also formed bonds with working animals, and on small farms, horses and cows often had names. Some of these animals became tame. For instance milk delivery carts were drawn by horses that learned to stop at gates without having to be told.

The interdependence of animals and humans in extreme situations cemented ties between them. A dog was a vital – sometimes the only – companion for an explorer. From the late 1860s Charlie Douglas spent nearly 20 years exploring and mapping South Westland with only a dog for company (all his dogs were called Betsey Jane). When he went on expeditions in the 1880s, naturalist and collector Andreas Reischek was dependent on his dog Caesar, who saved his life on several occasions.


During the New Zealand wars of the 1860s some British regiments had animal mascots. In the first and second world wars, New Zealand troops overseas continued this practice. Organisations such as fire brigades, brass bands and sports clubs also often had mascots.

Children and pets

The role of pets in educating children seems to have been accepted early on. From the late 19th century children’s pages in newspapers invited children to write letters about their pets. The concept of the pet day developed at country schools. Children would bring their pets (including young farm animals such as lambs and calves) to school to be judged in competitions.

The ark Alpaca

The immigrant ship Alpaca carried 12 cats, two dogs and four pigs, as well as dozens of chickens and ducks, on its voyage to New Zealand in 1863–64. Passengers were entertained by the play fights between the dogs and Dennis, one of the pigs. The cats were well-fed with fish and seabirds caught by the crew and passengers, and a number of kittens were born during the trip.

Bringing pets to New Zealand

Pet animals came to New Zealand from various parts of the world. The crews of vessels often carried cats and dogs to control vermin on board, and for companionship and entertainment. These animals bred, and some may have jumped ship at New Zealand ports. Some settlers of the 1840s and 1850s brought pets with them, and wealthy people sometimes travelled with their pets.

Exotic pets such as monkeys were brought to New Zealand both by acclimatisation societies and individuals, as there were no restrictions on the import of such animals until 1895. In more recent times, pet animals have had to go through tests, and often quarantine, when imported.

Animal welfare history

Prevention of cruelty

The belief that humans have obligations towards animals has evolved slowly. It is still widely accepted that humans have the right to own, use and, in some circumstances, kill animals. However, most people in western countries now agree that animals can feel pain and distress, and that there should be laws against inflicting suffering on them. This major shift in opinion has occurred since the early 19th century, when horses and cattle were often flogged mercilessly, and bear and dog baiting were popular sports.

English precedents

In the early 19th century English reformers campaigning against slavery and the subjection of women and children also pushed for laws to prevent cruelty to animals. An act to prevent ill-treatment of livestock was passed in 1822, and in 1835 another act extended protection to domestic animals. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed in 1824, gaining royal patronage in 1840.

Animal welfare after 1840

After New Zealand became a colony in 1840, English laws applied. Nelson and Otago provinces also passed ordinances protecting animals, but the first national law was the Cruelty to Animals Act 1878. It outlawed cruel treatment of any species, domestic or wild, imported or indigenous. It also regulated the transport, branding and slaughtering of farm animals.


Around the same time, branches of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) were set up, starting with Canterbury and Otago (1882), then Auckland (1883) and Wellington (1884).

Animal lovers were concerned by the numbers of stray and starving animals, especially dogs, in towns. The public ill-treatment of some working horses pulling cabs and other loads received newspaper coverage, and probably swelled SPCA membership. The first SPCAs mainly provided shelters for abandoned animals, but lobbying for improved animal welfare laws became important.

1884 legislation

In 1884 the provisions of the Cruelty to Animals Act were incorporated in the Police Offences Act. Not supplying an animal with food, water and shelter was also outlawed. SPCA inspectors could be appointed as special constables, with the power to take animals and vehicles into custody, enter saleyards to inspect animals, and arrest offenders. This enforcement measure was then unique in the British Empire. With some amendments, the law was in force for the next 76 years.

Pet rescue

After the massive Hawke’s Bay earthquake of 1931, people were evacuated from the district, leaving behind pet animals and birds. Concerned at this situation, the Hawke’s Bay SPCA inspector, Mr Davis, immediately organised house-to-house visits and all the deserted animals were accounted for. Since 1990, animal welfare has been part of the national civil defence emergency plan.

SPCA campaigns

In the 20th century the growing numbers of SPCAs in the regions shifted their attention to farm animals. Individual SPCAs, which in 1933 joined in a federation, opposed practices such as neutering and de-horning animals without anaesthetic, and advocated better conditions for transporting and slaughtering animals.

1960 legislation

The Animals Protection Act 1960 widened the range of cruelty offences to include various kinds of neglect. It also restricted some farming practices, and increased penalties. Farming organisations were involved in developing the legislation, and Department of Agriculture inspectors became responsible for enforcing it, along with police and SPCA inspectors.

Further campaigns

The SPCA federation, which was reorganised as the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1980, campaigned against new farming methods. These included docking tails of dairy cows, caging hens and exporting live sheep.

Animal rights activists, angry about inconsistent treatment of different kinds of animals, began to protest against the use of animals in scientific experiments. Public concern about cruelty to wild animals through such activities as hunting and culling also grew. These campaigns influenced the Animal Welfare Act 1999.

Animal welfare in the 2000s

The Animal Welfare Act 1999

The Animal Welfare Act 1999 addresses many, but not all, of the concerns raised by advocates for animals. It covers most animals, and stresses the owners’ obligation to care for animals adequately. It places further controls on the export of live animals, performance of surgery, and the use of some types of traps. However, under certain conditions it allows animals to be used in research, testing and teaching, and in risky work such as police operations. The hunting of some wild animals and the killing of pest animals is permitted.

Administration of the act

Two committees advise the minister of agriculture: the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) and the National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee. Inspectors, who include Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) officials, police and people from approved organisations – usually the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RNZSPCA) – have the power to enter premises, seize animals, and alleviate their suffering, including by destroying them if necessary. In 2008 the RNZSPCA carried out around 90% of the enforcement work.

Animals and abuse

There are disturbing links between cruelty to animals and human violence. American studies show that up to 75% of violent offenders were cruel to animals as children. Other research has revealed that children who witness domestic violence often imitate what they see by abusing animals. In New Zealand, SPCA programmes attempt to intervene by teaching school children to respect animals.

Codes of welfare

The act puts positive obligations on people who own or care for animals. One of its innovations is that it allows for codes of welfare to be issued on the recommendation of NAWAC. These contain details of how animals are to be treated in particular situations, with explanatory information that could not be included in a piece of legislation. Codes of welfare provide legal standards that can be referred to in animal welfare court cases.

So far, codes of welfare have been issued that cover companion cats, circuses, zoos, animal slaughter, transport of animals, and a range of farmed animals.

Animal shelters

The RNZSPCA provides shelters and finds new homes for abandoned animals. Smaller groups that provide shelters include the Cats Protection League (in Wellington, Waikato and Canterbury), Lonely Miaow Association, Auckland Cat Rescue, Cavy Creek Guinea Pig Refuge, the Donkey and Mule Protection Trust and the International League for the Protection of Horses.


A major aim of many animal welfare organisations is advocating humane treatment of all animals.

The RNZSPCA is the best-known. It relies on subscriptions and donations to carry out its education, care and inspection work. The Humane Society of New Zealand provides a pet care advisory service and promotes animal welfare legislation. SAFE (Save Animals from Exploitation) campaigns against cruel farming methods and the use of animals in experiments.

The Companion Animal Council, founded in 1990, is a forum for organisations and individuals concerned with animal welfare. It aims to increase public understanding of the place of animals in the community, and drafts codes of welfare for species, required under the Animal Welfare Act 1999.

When good pets go bad

Some pets can become a nuisance if allowed to run wild. This usually happens if they are abandoned or neglected by their owners. Animal welfare organisations advocate neutering pets to prevent the birth of unwanted kittens or puppies, which are frequently dumped, and to stop stray animals from breeding.

Feral cats

Stray pet cats, ferrets, rabbits and birds can cause environmental damage, especially if they multiply. But feral cats (cats that are not reliant on humans for their needs) are a greater problem in national parks and reserves. They kill millions of native birds each year, as well as lizards and frogs, in order to survive. Some carry parasites and other diseases. The Department of Conservation targets feral cats in its pest control programmes.

Cats in dairies

The Labour government of 1972–75 decided to change health regulations to ban cats from dairies – the ubiquitous New Zealand corner stores. In the 1975 election campaign National Party leader Robert Muldoon mocked this, claiming that cats were the victims of out-of-control bureaucracy.


Both feral and domestic cats can infect humans with toxoplasmosis. This disease is caused by a parasite found in the faeces of some cats that eat raw meat. It is generally a mild flu-like disease, but if caught by a pregnant woman it can seriously harm, or even kill, the foetus. It can be prevented by following strict hygiene rules when handling anything that may have been in contact with cat faeces.

A dog of a tax

In 1898 the Māhurehure hapu (subtribe) of Ngāpuhi, under the leadership of Hōne Tōia, threatened to oppose the Dog Registration Act by force. The law, which required payment of an annual fee to register a dog, was the final straw for people who lived in poverty. A large militia force was sent to deal with what has become known as the Dog Tax Rebellion, but Northland Māori leaders intervened and persuaded the group to surrender.

Dog control

In the early days of European settlement there were large numbers of stray and wild dogs, both in towns and in the countryside, where they were a danger to sheep. Even pet dogs living on the margins of towns would sometimes get loose and worry sheep. Laying poison to kill stray dogs was one control method that was outlawed by cruelty prevention acts.

The first dog control law dates from 1844, and there were provincial council and general assembly acts in the 1860s and 1870s. The first national law requiring owners to register their dogs was passed in 1880.

Payment of the registration fee caused resentment among some Māori, and almost led to war at Waimā, Northland, in 1898. The responsibility of owners to control dogs, and the power of local authorities to seize, impound and, if necessary, destroy dogs was reinforced in subsequent dog control acts.


The growing popularity of aggressive dog breeds, and a spate of dog attacks on people, resulting in serious injury and death, led to amendments of the Dog Control Act 1996.

All dogs first registered from 1 July 2006 (except working farm dogs), and all dogs classified as dangerous or menacing, must be microchipped. Details of dogs and their owners are recorded in a national database. This makes it easier to track problem dogs, reunite stray dogs with their owners, and ensure owners comply with the law.


Hydatids is a serious and sometimes fatal disease in humans. It is caused by the tapeworm Echinococcus granulosus, which lives in the gut of dogs that have eaten the raw offal of sheep containing fertile hydatid cysts. Sheep also become infected by grazing on pasture contaminated with the faeces of dogs carrying hydatids, and their meat becomes unfit for human consumption.

The disease was introduced to New Zealand in the 19th century by sheep imported from Australia. The large numbers of working and pet dogs provided hosts for its transmission to humans.

By 1900 the human infection rate was rising and it was recognised as a serious public health issue. In 1959, with the passing of the Hydatids Control Act, a national control programme began, funded by the dog registration fee. This involved regular inspection of all dogs and, from the 1970s, dosing with anthelmintics. This was very effective, and in 2002 New Zealand was declared provisionally free of hydatids.

Health concerns have led to more vocal opposition to dogs defecating in public places, and now many councils require owners to clean up after their pets with a ‘pooper scooper’.

Pet clubs, competitions and breeders

Pet clubs and shows

Breeding and showing pet animals became a popular pastime in late 19th century New Zealand. The New Zealand Kennel Club was set up in 1886, and other ‘fanciers’ clubs’ were established around the country. They held exhibitions and competitions at which pigeons, canaries, cats, dogs and other animals were shown and judged. Agricultural and pastoral shows also had competitions for pet ponies, as well as farm livestock.

In the early 2000s there are many clubs for owners of dogs and cats (including particular breeds), as well as other pets such as parrots, rats, rabbits and pigeons. The New Zealand Kennel Club coordinates around 300 dog clubs nationwide. It runs dog shows for individual breeds, and competitions to test obedience and agility.

Cat shows are held around the country throughout the year, and both ordinary moggies and pedigrees are displayed in cages that are often specially decorated for the occasion.

Top dog

According to 2006 registrations with the New Zealand Kennel Club, the most popular dog breed in this country is the Labrador retriever, with the German shepherd next in line. The least popular is the chihuahua.


Many owners are not concerned about the breed of their pet, but for others it is an important consideration. For example, some dogs are treated like accessories, with breeds like Jack Russells and Dalmatians coming into and then falling out of fashion. The New Zealand Kennel Club’s online directory lists breeders of over 100 types of dog. Catz Incorporated’s register of breeders covers more than 40 types of cat.

Fluffy or …

As befits their breeding, pedigree cats can have some very fancy names. Examples are Tigerland Nitro-Glitterin, Ribbons Lord Admiral Mountbatten, Kakutzi Absolut Chocolat and Epiphany Devine Temptation.

Breeding pedigree animals

Breeders of pedigree animals aim to produce animals with the best qualities of the particular breed, and, if possible, to improve on its characteristics. They need to research genetics carefully, and membership of a breeders’ association is desirable. Blood tests and other diagnostic tests are used to ensure the breeding animals are not carrying hereditary diseases.

Good and bad breeding

The temperament of dogs such as rottweilers has been improved through breeding. However, there is a danger that crossing some breeds can create temperament and health problems. Cross-breeds such as labradoodles, spoodles and cavoodles, the result of crossing poodles with Labradors, spaniels and cavalier King Charles spaniels, have become very popular in New Zealand. However, if they are crossbred again temperament issues could emerge.

There is a ban on importing certain breeds of dog, namely the American pit bull terrier, Brazilian fila, Dogo argentino and Japanese tosa, as they are considered very aggressive.

The modern New Zealand pet

Fur babies

In the 21st century, pet ownership appears to be on the rise. Many people now regard their pet as one of the family, and are prepared to spend large sums of money to keep it healthy and happy. It has been suggested that as numbers of households with single people or childless couples increase, pet animals sometimes become substitutes for children – ‘fur babies’ – and are indulged accordingly.

Babies versus fur babies

A 2007 comparison between costs of raising a baby and a puppy for the first year showed that the baby was only about $500 more expensive.


The essential costs of keeping a pet are paying for food and medical care, including vaccinations. For dogs, there are also registration and microchipping costs. However, many pet owners also pay out for grooming, garments, toys and other luxuries. In 2008 it was claimed that the New Zealand pet industry was worth $400 million annually.

Veterinary treatment

Once, pet owners had to treat illness or injuries in their pets themselves, if possible. There were very few veterinarians in New Zealand until the 20th century, and many were employed by the Department of Agriculture or farmers’ cooperative practices known as veterinary clubs. In 1945 there were fewer than 50 vets in New Zealand. However, most were in towns and cities where pet owners were the dominant market.

Owners’ expectations of medical treatment have risen in recent years, and veterinary care is becoming more sophisticated. By the early 2000s it was possible, for instance, to treat diabetes and cancer in animals – for a price. Pet insurance is available to cover these expenses.

In 2008 there were around 2,000 registered vets in New Zealand, of whom about 75% were in private practice. Most of these had to deal with a variety of animals needing surgical or medical treatment, but companion animals – particularly cats and dogs – were the major source of business, especially in cities.

Animal boarding facilities

There are catteries and kennels around New Zealand, often on the outskirts of towns or in the country. Many vet practices also offer pet boarding facilities as one of their services. Standards are set by the Boarding Kennel and Cattery Association of New Zealand and premises that pass annual inspection are endorsed by the AsureQuality logo. In 2008 a code of welfare for animals in boarding establishments was being updated by the Companion Animal Council to create a legal standard.

The trend towards names such as ‘pet lodge’, ‘feline retreat’, and ‘canine homestay’ suggest that many owners demand a luxurious standard of care for their pets.

Other pet services

In the early 2000s services for pets proliferate. Pet shops can be found in most towns, and pet products can be bought online. There are pet grooming businesses with names like Hound Dog Hair Design and Transfurmation Cat Grooming, and mobile dog washing vans make house calls. Some animal spas offer aromatherapy baths, massages and ‘pawdicures’ (pet pedicures).

Natural animal health is a new trend, providing herbal and homeopathic remedies, hydrotherapy, naturopathy and even reflexology. At-home pet minding is available for people who do not want to put their animals into kennels or catteries, and there are day care facilities for dogs in some cities.

Owners can take their pet to special photography sessions or ‘doggie dancing’ classes. Animal behaviourists can be called in to deal with pet personality problems such as incessant barking, and puppy pre-school gets training off to a good start. And when it is time for the final farewell, pet funeral services offer cremation or burial in a pet garden of remembrance.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Pets', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 November 2008