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White House Life: Filling the Position of First Pet

Written By Jen O'Neill
Last updated: February 11, 2023

Americans adore their pets, and U.S. presidents are no exception. From President Taft’s cows to President Coolidge’s pygmy hippo, the White House has played host to a wide variety of furry and not-so-furry friends. FindingDulcinea takes a look back at the presidential pets that have graced America’s highest office over the years.

Wag the Presidential Dog

Throughout history, presidents have been photographed with their dogs in moments of contemplation or rowdy fun, providing a bit of insight into the temperaments of our leaders.

Ronnie Elmore, DVM, and an associate dean at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, claims, “Presidential pets have actually changed presidential history. And they have changed U.S. history.”

According to DVM Newsmagazine, during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s run for his fourth term, he gave a speech that referenced his Scottish Terrier, Fala. The Fala Speech (as it came to be known) was a hit, and was later credited with helping FDR get reelected.

President Harry Truman once said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” The words rang true for many presidents, including President Bill Clinton. Just a few weeks prior to the Monica Lewinsky debacle hitting the public sphere, Clinton adopted a chocolate Labrador retriever named Buddy. According to CNN, Buddy “was frequently seen at the president’s side at the White House and on travels,” illustrating that dogs don’t judge.

Other White House dogs have suffered fates that almost mirrored their masters’, including President Abraham Lincoln’s dog, Fido. According to For the People, a newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association, the Lincoln family left Fido with friends in Springfield, Ill. when they moved to Washington, D.C., fearing that the dog would never survive the long trip. Less than a year after Lincoln’s assassination, Fido tried to play with a drunk man on the street and the man, “in his drunken rage, thrust a knife into the body of poor old Fido.”

The Cat’s Meow

Cats have also graced the White House. Lincoln’s cat, Tabby, was the first cat in the White House, while President Jimmy Carter’s daughter, Amy, brought along a Siamese cat, Misty Malarky Ying Yang. President Reagan had a soft spot for strays and took in many, including the eminent Cleo and Sara, both Tortoiseshell strays.

For President Martin Van Buren, cats weren’t enough; he had two tiger cubs, given to him by the Sultan of Oman.

A Menagerie of Pets

Sources in this Story

  • DVM Newsmagazine: Pets in the White House have affected U.S. history, politics
  • The White House Historical Association: White House Pets
  • CNN: Former first dog Buddy killed by car
  • Abraham Lincoln Association: For the People
  • Paws Online: White House Cats
  • The White House: All Creatures Great and Small: Presidential Pets (1860-1921)
  • Smithsonian Institution: Exhibitions: Archives of American Art: Herbert Hoover (1874-1964)
  • Smithsonian: National Zoological Park: Pygmy Hippo
  • The Biography Channel: Calvin Coolidge
  • Presidential Pet Museum: All the Presidents’ Pets

Though they might not be as cute and cuddly as cats or dogs, pet cows have also had their place in the White House. President William Howard Taft’s cow, Pauline, produced milk for the president and was the last cow to live in the White House.

President Woodrow Wilson practiced what he preached during World War I. While he encouraged the country to save money, he did so by bringing in a flock of sheep to graze on the White House grounds. “Wool from the sheep was sold as a fundraiser for the Red Cross,” reports the White House Historical Association.

When President John F. Kennedy moved into the White House, he brought along his wife, two children, pet hamsters Debbie and Billie, a canary named Robin, and a cat named Tom Kitten. Dogs and parakeets would also come and go but perhaps no Kennedy pet was better known than Macaroni the pony.

Pets Gone Wild

President Herbert Hoover’s second son, Allan Henry Hoover, was the owner of a pair of alligators that frequently roamed the White House grounds.

According to the New York Times, President John Quincy Adams was also a fan of the alligator, and kept one in the East Room bathtub. The gator was a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette.

According to the Smithsonian, President Calvin Coolidge had a pygmy hippo named Billy.
Coolidge also enjoyed the company of a raccoon that he received as a gift from a Mississippi voter. The raccoon was meant to be enjoyed as part of Thanksgiving dinner, but Coolidge named her Rebecca and took her on walks around the White House gardens—on a leash, of course.

Rebecca wasn’t the only presidential pet to avoid becoming a holiday dinner. Lincoln’s son, Tad, “befriended” a turkey that was sent to the family for Christmas dinner. According to the White House Historical Association, “The young boy burst into the cabinet meeting in tears and pleaded with his father to pardon the bird from the ‘executioner.’”

What? No Pets?

“Only rarely did presidents choose to not own pets, and that decision evidently doomed them to obscurity, or worse,” writes columnist Hank Pellissier. Presidents Chester Arthur,  Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore had no pets, Pellissier points out, and they all “epitomize the very definition of a ‘one-term president,’” he writes.

Pellissier’s advice? “[I]f you want to be president, history indicates this ambition can be furthered by placing ‘pet care’ on your to-do list.” These words of wisdom are echoed by Ronnie Elmore, a DVM at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. According to Elmore, when we see our presidents with animals, “It makes them a little more human, a little more like the rest of us.”

Charles Eames

Jennifer was a writer for findingDulcinea from September 2007 until March 2009. Prior to that, Jennifer worked in collaboration with United Way and the NYC Department of Education to manage and write policy for the largest dropout prevention initiative in New York City. Her other varied professional experience includes: co-founding and running The Academic Support Center at LaSalle Academy in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood, teaching at the high school level and fundraising for community based organizations, along with marketing and writing for various nonprofit organizations. Jennifer is a native of Vancouver, Washington. She lived in the Bay Area for four years as she received her B.A. from St. Mary’s College of California in Business Administration, with a minor in Communication.

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