Can't go into this without at first admitting I am guilty, and that's what got me thinking.
I know fantasy naturally lends us to what isn't, but what is up with us and animals? Off the top of my head I can think of emotionally and telepathically bonded horses (but are they really horses?), talking, magical dogs, talking, magical cats, talking ravens, POV unicorns. . . . .it is a tradition that reaches as far back as the original Conan books. I know it is there, but I can't quite suss out why. Is it just that fantasy people like animals? I know that is why I am guilty.
I once noticed, in my teens, this preponderance of sometimes useful, sometimes necc., sometimes unneeded, sometimes spent too much time on, sometimes annoying animals. In typical teenage fashion, I swore my next book would not contain little animal buddies. And I did it. Except for the memory sequence that titles the book: Sheep that Stray, of course. I kept rewriting the book, but those sheep stayed the only solid animal time in the book. As I grew up, I continued my avowal of no cute or over-utilized animals. The path to hell is paved with. . . . Four books into my adulthood, and animals have crept into every single one.
So why do I do it? Simple. I grew up with animals. I grew up with dogs, cats, 21 gerbils (at one time), guinea pigs, a rabbit, anoles, an iguana, a hedgehog, rats, hamesters, a ball python, cockatiels, fish, aquatic frogs, Bell's horned frog, a five feet long monitor lizard, plus all the animals caught in the wild and kept for a while. In the words of Jobi, a character in Rebirth, "the air had felt sterile without animals." I don't understand how to keep animals out of my books anymore than I know how to keep them out of my life. They have all the characterization to me. Only, of course, they have animal characterization.
I feel as if that, in some ways, has represented the failure of the books with animals that I consider to have a failed animal element. The animals acted like humans in little fur suits. What animals care about, are willing to do in public, how they respond to the threat of violence or the comfort of affection--it all looks, sounds, and feels, smells, and even tastes profoundly different depending on what animal is being written about.
Whether to include animals of course depends on a) whether your whole book is peopled by animals and b) are your characters animal people? Are the animals either part of the plot or a character trait?
Still, it lingers, does it seem to you as if us various fantasy types have more animals than other genres? I mean, other than that dog that will be tortured and killed in every Stephen King book. If so, why do we do it? Why do so many of us find it so essential in so many books? Why does Stephen King always kill that dog, anyway?