By Lisa Smith
I started out rifling through old animal husbandry books on a whim, looking for references to beagles. (See The Art of Beagling and Buffon and the Beagle here at W&M.) Along the way, I discovered more than I’d ever guess about the canine sex life: mating tips, aphrodisiacs and birth control, and venereal disease… Dogs, as it turns out, had a lot in common with humans.
Breeding and Medicine
In The Huntsman (London, 1780), Nicholas Cox offered advice on breeding that seemed remarkably similar to human medicine. The female dog “must come of a good kind, strong, and well proportioned in all parts, having her Ribs and Flanks great and large”. The marks of good health in women were also signs of fertility. The most important consideration for the male dog was age: “let him be young, if you intend to have light and hot Hounds; for if the Dog be old, the Whelps will participate of his dull and heavy nature”. Old men and old dogs might prove able to get up to new tricks, but their fertility was problematic. Many medical writers despaired that men waited until too late to marry, resulting in degenerate seed. To breed good lines, good seed was crucial.
There were remedies to ensure that dogs mated and to maintain the size of the pack. If a female, “grow not naturally Proud so soon as you would wish, you may make her so”, Cox proclaimed. The canine aphrodisiac for either sex included similar ingredients to human treatments: two heads of garlic, half a castor’s stone, watercress juice and twelve Spanish Flies. Cooked into a mutton broth and served two or three times to the dog, “she will infallibly grow proud”.
Control the Female, Control the Population
To control the pack population, the only option was to spay the female. This needed to be done before she bore a litter or while she was pregnant. Done while she was in heat, it would “endanger her life”. The operation required close attention. “Take not away all the Roots or Strings of the Veins; for if you do, it will much prejudice her Reins [kidneys]”, insisted Cox, as it would slow her down. For human couples seeking to control fertility, surgery was unthinkable between the lack of anaesthetic, the permanency of the surgery and wider social concerns about depopulation and degeneracy.
There were also parallels between dogs and humans when it came to venereal disease. In Farriery Improved (vol. 1, London, 1789), Henry Bracken compared the disease in humans, horses and dogs. According to Bracken, the origin of the disease was the female of the species. His evidence was the Bible. A man might have many wives, but would stay disease-free if one of his wives did not contract it elsewhere. Convenient. This fit with what he saw in horses. A stud might mount six or seven mares in a season and remain healthy.
Copulation and the Clap
Dogs, on the other hand, “copulate so promiscuously, that they heat the Bitches, and thereby get the Clap, which often turns to an inveterate Mangyness” like leprosy in humans.* The canine treatment was simple—let nature take its course. Frequent urination washed the small urethral ulcers and prevented hard scabs from forming. Humans, however, tended to neglect their health, letting scabs form. When the “venereal venom” could not discharge, it and infected the blood and bones. This touched on wider eighteenth-century debates about nature or intervention in medicine, as well as reflected the long-standing belief in purging unhealthy material from the body. Bracken was adament: the human body could self-cleanse, too, if people let it.
Dogs: not only man’s best friend, but a reflection of his sexual self?
*When syphilis appeared in Europe, people considered it to be related to leprosy. Leprosy was less common by the eighteenth century, but venereal problems were often seen as related to other problems of hot, poisoned blood, such as scurvy. Dogs were sometimes seen as dirty creatures and had been associated with outbreaks of the plague.
IMAGE: A bitch is licking its suckling puppies. Etching by C. G. Lewis. 1848, after E.H. Landseer. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Lisa Smith is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan. She writes on gender, family, and health care in England and France (ca. 1600-1800) and teaches on the boundaries between natural and supernatural worlds.