Animal role-play encompasses both non-sexual and erotic sexual role-play (when it may also be called pet-play, pony play, ponyism, kitten play, or pup play). In its erotic sexual role-play form, one or more of the participants takes on the role of a real or imaginary animal in character, including appropriate mannerisms and behaviour, and sometimes a partner will act as another animal, or, in a sexual context, may take the role of rider, trainer, or caretaker (or even breeding partner).
The principal theme of animal role-play is usually the voluntary transformation of a human being to animal status, and focus on the altered mind-space created. The most common examples are probably canids (pup, dog, wolf), felines (cat, kitten, lion) or equines (pony, horse). Animal roleplay is also used in a BDSM context, where a person may be humiliated by being treated as an animal.
Animal role-play is influenced by costuming, fiction, myth and legend, role-play and psychodrama in their various aspects. Some of the earliest published images of animal play (especially pony play) are to be found in the work of John Willie, primarily in BIZARRE magazine published from 1948 to 1959. The first commercial manifestation of this fetish appears to have been created by Simon Benson the founder of the Petgirls website.
Non-sexual animal roleplay, or therianthropy, was a common and integral part of ritual in many tribal cultures both in recent and past times, where a member (or members) of the tribe would take the role physically and often spiritually, of an animal that was either revered, or hunted. Examples of the former include many of the American Indian tribes and Arctic native peoples, examples of the latter are evidenced by cave paintings. In 1911 Julia Tuell photographed the last Animal Dance (“Massaum”) performed by the Northern Cheyenne of Montana.
Like much of erotic play and role-play, animal role-play in an erotic or relational context is entirely defined by the people involved and by their mood and interests at the time of play. It ranges from the simple imitation of a vocal whinnying of a horse to the barking, panting or playful nudging of a puppy, or playful behaviour of a kitten, to crawling around on all fours and being fed, or petted, by hand,to the greater extremes of dressing up as a pony in modified horse tack, masks, prosthetics and temporary bondage based body modification.
Public participation in human animal role-play is varied. A couple could inconspicuously role-play a silly but loving pet play scene in public, but it would look like one partner is merely stroking the other’s neck innocently to the casual observer. In the case of many convention-going furries and some BDSM fetishists, one partner may wear a dog collar with a leash attached.
The reasons for playing such a character or animal can vary as much as the actual physical manifestations and intensity of the play. Some people enjoy being able to “cut loose” into a different, or more dynamic personality (e.g., Were-creatures or Catgirls). In some cases, pet-play is seen as a loving, quiet cuddling time where there is no need for verbalizations and the simple act of stroking, rubbing and holding the other partner is satisfying or reassuring in and of itself. For others, there may be a spiritual side to it. Some feel closer to their animal totem, while others may identify with something akin to a deeper side or part of their own psyche For still others, there is the experience of power exchange set up in a context or structure which they can accept.
While not widespread, erotic human-animal role-play is still enjoyed by a sizable number of people. However, it is still primarily identified with BDSM practice, or as being associated with furry or other alternative lifestyle activities.
Autozoophilia is sexual arousal that depends on acting out or imagining one’s self as an animal. Paraphilic interests that involve being in another form have been referred to as Erotic Target Location Errors (ETLEs), and autozoophilia would represent an autoerotic form of zoophilia.
It should be pointed out that each type of play can focus on a certain “strength” of an animal character. Pony play often involves the practice and training that a horse owner or trainer would put their horse through to learn how to walk, canter, etc., as modified for human limbs. Puppy play often can involve BDSM related discipline. Cow Play often involves fantasies of lactation and impregnation. The usual limits of safe, sane and consensual apply to role-play as much as any other activity between humans who accept and respect their partner’s interests and limits. For most, this does not include bestiality.
Note: Just because one partner is playing the “pet” does not necessarily make them the passive or submissive play partner in the scene. For example, if the form of pet play is for the meek and timid wife to “transform” into a werewolf or mischievous anime catgirl, she may take the upper hand and dominate the partner.
Some people believe that they have certain animal ‘instincts’ and through animal role-play can let them out. This is especially true in the BDSM communities, where some people ‘live’ as their chosen animal 24/7. This type of mentality goes beyond role-play and becomes a full lifestyle for the parties involved. There are also ‘hybrids’. These are humans who live part-time as one type of animal, and part-time as another.
There is a growing trend in the BDSM scene for animal role-play, especially pup and kitten play. Playing the role of a pup or kitten is one of giving over complete control over to another, while the ‘Master or Handler’ expects only unconditional love and obedience from his/her animal.
Pony play is sometimes referred to as “The Aristotelian Perversion,” in reference to legend that Aristotle had a penchant for being ridden like a horse. Ponies (people involved in pony play) generally divide themselves to three groups, although some will participate in two or perhaps all three:
Cart ponies: ponies who pull a sulky with their owner.
Riding ponies: ponies who are ridden, either on all fours or on two legs, with the “rider” on the shoulders of the “pony” (also known as Shoulder riding). Note that a human back is generally not strong enough to take the weight of another adult without risk of injury, so four-legged “riding” is generally symbolic, with the “rider” taking most of their weight on their own legs.
Show ponies: ponies who show off their dressage skills and often wear elaborate harnessess, plumes and so on.
A documentary film Pony Passion was produced by British pony play club De Ferre in 2003 showing their club’s activities and Born in a Barn, a 2005 documentary film, depicted the lives of several pony-play enthusiasts.
Puppy play or dog play is where at least one of the participants acts out canine mannerisms and behaviours, it is sometimes associated with leather culture. The dominant role is taken by a “Handler”, “Trainer”, “Master”, or in the case of someone who still identifies as canine, an “alpha”. The submissive may be considered a “pup” or a “dog”. Unlike other forms of animal role-play, it is not uncommon for two or more pups to play together as equals, fight for dominance, or play where one is clearly the “alpha”. Puppy play is often about being playful, mischievous, and instinctive. In relation to other BDSM play, a “puppy” who is “unowned” or “uncollared” can be referred to as a “stray”. Other elements rooted in BDSM play involve bondage and restriction with collars, leashes, cages, and hoods, the submissive’s hands are often covered in mitts, both sexual and non-sexual services are requested, and “training” may take place in order to teach commands. The submissive may be asked to bark, kiss/lick the dominant’s foot/shoe, and eat like a dog.
In kitten-play the person assumes the less serious role of a pet that keeps some independence and – as part of the fantasy – might retaliate against the partner trying to tame him or her.