7 Pet Fads Through the Decades

Two turtles looking at each other

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It may be difficult to keep track of the evolving popularity of certain dog breeds or what exotic animal Paris Hilton is currently carrying around in her handbag, but pinpointing overall pet fads isn’t as daunting a task. Over the decades, we’ve seen some truly unusual — and questionable — pet fads emerge and disappear quicker than you can say “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (a franchise that itself spawned a pet turtle boom). We’ve rounded up seven memorable pet fads ranging from insects to brine shrimp (really!) to inanimate objects.

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Ant farms, 1950s

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The industrious picnic ruiners and prolific colonizers otherwise known as ants may be the last thing that folks would want inside of their homes. However, thanks to late novelty toy entrepreneur Milton Levine — the man responsible for plastic shrunken heads and potato guns — the itch-inducing insects became somewhat of an unlikely household staple starting in 1956 with the introduction of the escape-proof Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm.

Formal ant farms, or formicariums, existed long before Levine and business partner E.J. Cossman started selling 6-inch-by-9-inch plastic ant habitats for a little under two bucks, but it was Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm that gave mass-produced formicariums widespread appeal as an educational toy — appeal that continues to this day. To date, over 20 million units have been sold.

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Sea Monkeys, 1960s

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Brine shrimp may seem like an unconventional pet, but when you market them as “frolicsome” and attention-craving humanoids that live in a magical pink castle and are prone to “clowning around” and performing tricks, naturally guileless kids are going to clamor over Artemia, a genus of teeny-tiny crustaceans that wear lipstick and do back flips on command. (And especially if the kids' parents deprived them of guinea pigs, goldfish and German shepherds.)

Conceived in the late 1950s by mail-order novelty impresario Harold von Braunhut, Sea Monkey kits were originally introduced as an aquatic alternative to the Ant Farm. It wasn’t until the early 1960s when von Braunhut switched the name of the miraculous kit from “Instant Life” to Sea Monkeys, that kids, particularly kids wooed by a barrage of Joe Orlando-illustrated adverts in comic books, began to pay attention.

The Sea Monkey fad is one that never really faded away as Sea Monkey habitats and supplies (Cupid’s Arrow Mating Powder, anyone?) are still very much available.

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Ocelots, 1960s

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While a variety of wild cats are often kept as pets, now-endangered ocelots, or dwarf leopards, were the wild cat par excellence in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to their dainty size and passing resemblance to domesticated cats. (We would be remiss without adding that keeping wild cats as pets, of course, isn’t for everyone and is often considered illegal.)

While it’s unclear where this mini-fad originated, Salvador Dali is perhaps the most famous ocelot owner of that period. He took his pet ocelot Babou with him everywhere, chichi Manhattan restaurants and luxury liners included. (That's the duo shown here, naturally.) The pet ocelot trend even made its way to TV on the mid-1960s crime drama “Honest West” in which the titular private investigator kept an exotic feline fella named Bruce.

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Pet rocks, 1970s

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By far the most low-maintenance — and not to mention, inert — pet to appear on this list, the Pet Rock was conceived in 1975 by California-based ad exec Gary Dahl at a bar (but of course booze was involved) as a cheeky alternative to “traditional” pets that require feeding, grooming and regular exercise. Billed as the perfect pet and packaged in a custom cardboard box complete with straw, breathing holes and an accompanying training manual, the Pet Rock may have originated as a gag gift, but it didn’t stop cruel, animal-weary parents from presenting their children with the rocks as an alternative to kittens, puppies and fluffy hamsters over the holiday season.

Although the Pet Rock fad eventually fizzled out, the concept was reintroduced in 2012. Reads the new Pet Rock website: “The best part about owning me is I don’t require food, water, or attention. I am already potty trained ... and I don’t shed so I am completely hypo-allergenic and organic!”

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Vietnamese potbellied pigs, 1980s-'90s

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During the Reagan and Clinton administrations, it seemed that everybody knew somebody who kept a Vietnamese potbellied pig as a pet. Explained a breeder to the Philadelphia Daily News in a trend piece from the beginning of the potbellied pig boom, 1989: “It's really the first real pet to come around since the dog, cat and bird. Yuppies like 'em. If you've got an alligator on your shirt and a BMW in your driveway, the next thing you need is a Vietnamese potbellied pig.”

As it turns out, a fair number of these somebodies were oblivious to the fact that even “miniature” pigs can grow into rather large adults. Exhibit A: These photos show the same Vietnamese potbellied pig, a hefty fella named Otis at the Central Park Zoo. In the photo at right he is a 3-month-old cutie in 2004. At left he's grown up a bit after only three years.

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Tamagotchi, 1990s

Photo: Tomasz Sienicki [CC by SA-3.0]/Wikimedia Commons

The bane of teachers and school administrators when they started to make a serious impact stateside, Tamagotchi revolutionized the virtual pet industry and made it socially acceptable for children and grown adults alike to coddle an egg-shaped keychain.

Introduced by Japanese company Bandai in 1996, the original Tamagotchis were an alien species that began life as an attention-starved egg — anyone out there still haunted by the incessant, shrill chirping of a hungry Tamagotchi? — and with proper care, evolved into a cuter and less demanding adult. Like in the real world, willful neglect could result in Tamagotchi death, which could have been part of the reasoning behind a wave of virtual pet bans instituted by schools in the late 1990s and beyond.

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Hedgehogs, 2000s

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While the breeding of domesticated pygmy hedgehogs began in the 1980s, it wasn’t until recent years that the adorable little critters clad in prickly, built-in outerwear were considered au courant. Unlike a tabby or a goldfish, they’re not always an easy pet to keep and because they’re not native to North America, nocturnal hedgehogs are classified as “exotic” with many states and localities, requiring potential owners to secure a permit or straight-out forbidding the animals as household pets.