A history of presidential pets
President-elect Joe Biden's German shepherd Major is poised to become the first shelter rescue dog to take up residence in the White House. Major follows in the pawprints of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s rescue dog Yuki, who Johnson's daughter rescued in Texas. Major will be joined at the White House by his big brother, Champ, who the Bidens brought home following the 2008 election.
From cats, dogs, and birds to pygmy hippos and bobcats, the White House has long been a revolving door of animals large, small, familiar, and exotic. The long history of presidents owning pets dates back to the founding of the country. Some commanders-in-chief bring pets along for the ride to soften their image, to appeal to a broader audience, or simply because they love animals.
Some presidents had pets that doubled as work animals, others turned the White House lawn into a grazing pasture. Some kept pets that were creepy, crawly, and downright bizarre while others were attached to outrageous tall tales and animal-related rumors.
From the man whose face adorns the $1 bill all the way up to incoming resident of the executive mansion, here's a look at the long, illustrious history of presidential pets.
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Father of the Revolution and face of the $1 bill, President George Washington was also the doting owner of several pets. Not only did the avid fox-hunter keep a pack of hounds, Washington was also known for his tender treatment of his Dalmatian, Madame Moose. Madame Moose, however, was hardly alone. “Washington kept almost every group of dog recognized today by the American Kennel Club,” according to the official Mount Vernon biography.
John Adams was the first vice president, the second president, and the first president to call the White House home, and he was also a pet parent. Adams and his wife Abigail had a horse named Cleopatra and several mixed-breed dogs—the very first pooches ever to run on the White House lawn.
Before America was even a country, Thomas Jefferson was buying his first pet. The future author of the Declaration of Independence paid one of his father-in-law's slaves five shillings for a mockingbird. Today, wild mockingbirds still inhabit Monticello, the third president's famed estate in Charlottesville, Virginia.
James Madison's presidency was one of the most consequential in history and included the creation of the Bill of Rights. Madison's wife Dolley would go onto become one of history's most famous first ladies—and her pet parrot was one of the White House's most famous pets. When the British burned the White House during the War of 1812, Dolley rescued a famous portrait of George Washington—and her parrot Polly.
An anti-Federalist activist and former ambassador to Britain, America's fifth president might not have been a pet owner, but he was the father of someone who was: James Monroe's daughter Maria looked after a spaniel. James Monroe, like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, died July 4 on Independence Day.
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John Quincy Adams
The younger half of one of just two presidential father-son duos in American history—the Bushes make up the other—John Quincy Adams, owned the most infamous White House pet that never was. It has long been rumored that JQA kept a pet alligator in the White House bathtub and didn't warn unsuspecting visitors who entered the bathroom. The tale is almost certainly not true.
President Andrew Jackson was one of several commanders-in-chief to take a liking to birds. Like John Quincy Adams before him, his tenure is attached to a pet-related story that is almost certainly a yarn. The tale goes that Jackson's pet parrot had to be removed from the funeral of the president's father when the bird began blurting out obscenities.
Martin Van Buren
For President Martin Van Buren, birds and dogs were simply not exotic enough. The eighth president was gifted two tiger cubs by the Sultan of Oman. The arrangement, however, was short lived—Congress made the president give the budding predators to a zoo.
William Henry Harrison
The shortest-serving president in American history, William Henry Harrison, died exactly one month after taking the oath of office. During his brief tenure, Harrison owned a cow named Sukey. Many families during that era kept cows, but for the president, Sukey was a companion, not a source of milk and meat.
James K. Polk
James Knox Polk developed a modern treasury system and took vast swaths of land from both Britain and Mexico for the United States. He did not, however, own any pets; though Polk was known to be an avid horse lover.
War hero Zachary Taylor was nicknamed "Old Rough and Ready," and he rode into battle on his beloved horse Old Whitey. Old Whitey lived with Taylor long after he retired from military service, and the animal marched in the funeral procession when the president died.
The border between America's northern and southern states was drawn by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. In homage to the famed surveyors and the country's symbolic divide, President Millard Fillmore named his ponies Mason and Dixon.
The little-remembered Franklin Pierce was known for opening America to trade with Japan. Commodore Matthew Perry brokered the deal, and when he returned from the East, he brought back seven teacup-sized miniature Japanese Chin "sleeve" dogs for Pierce. The dogs were tiny enough to sit on tea saucers. They were known as sleeve dogs because they could fit inside the sleeve of a kimono.
Widely considered as the worst president in history, James Buchanan was one of only a handful of presidents who never married. He found companionship, however, in Lara, his massive, 170-pound Newfoundland, a breed that was almost unheard of in the United States at that time.
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Opposite Buchanan on the presidential rankings list, Abraham Lincoln is consistently named among history's greatest presidents. He was also a prolific pet owner, with a stable of animals that included a pig, a white rabbit, a dog named Fido, ponies, and cats. In fact, he loved felines so much that "when asked if her husband had a hobby, Mary Todd Lincoln replied, 'cats,'" according to the U.S. National Park Service.
Andrew Johnson became president after the assassination of President Lincoln. His presidency was tumultuous, and he was eventually impeached. During his impeachment proceedings, Johnson discovered a family of white mice in a grain mill he owned and took them in. He reportedly obsessed over them as he sat isolated in the White House.
Ulysses S. Grant
Formerly a Union general and Civil War hero, President Ulysses S. Grant was one of the most prolific pet owners in White House history. He owned a gamecock, a parrot, several dogs, and a bevy of horses and ponies. However, Grant’s favorite pet of all was his dog Rosie, who he reportedly talked to while he ate.
Rutherford B. Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes owned a long list of pets, including canaries, a goat, and pedigree Jersey cows. However, the 19th president's favorite was an enormous, powerfully built, gentle mastiff named Duke. He was among the first of his kind to be seen in the United States—the American Kennel Club didn't even recognize the breed until 1885.
The veto is one of the most authoritative power moves available to a president, and James Garfield paid homage to the power to put the kibosh on legislation when it came time to name his dog. The 20th president named his black Newfoundland Veto, and the dog is rumored to have sounded the alarm when the presidential barn caught fire.
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Chester Arthur became president in the wake of James Garfield's assassination. Although he shunned traditional pets like dogs and cats, his two reddish-brown horses were so elegantly beautiful and perfectly matched that they drew scores of admirers to the White House. A known showman, Arthur hammed it up by commissioning an ornate custom carriage for his horses to pull.
Grover Cleveland is the only president ever to have a wedding at the White House, but he'll always be remembered for a different presidential first and only—no president before or since has ever served two nonconsecutive terms in office. More than just a wedding venue and a public service revolving door, Cleveland's White House was also a veritable menagerie of animals of all stripes, both literally and figuratively, which you'll learn about during Cleveland's second term in office.
Benjamin Harrison was the owner of a collie named Dash, but he's more commonly known for Whiskers the goat, who technically belonged to his grandchildren. His most peculiar animal inhabitants, however, were his pair of possums, which he named Mr. Protection and Mr. Reciprocity.
Among Grover Cleveland's myriad of pets were a bevy of dogs that included a cocker spaniel, a St. Bernard, foxhounds, dachshunds, a collie, and his wife's French poodle. There were also Shawineck game chickens, ponies, canaries, mockingbirds, and hundreds of imported fish.
William McKinley will always be known as the third American president to be assassinated. He was also a hero of the Spanish-American War. What's less known is that he had an affection for some rather exotic pets with exotic names. McKinley kept angora kittens named Valeriano Weyler and Enrique DeLome as well as a Mexican double-yellow-headed parrot named Washington Post.
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In the annals of presidents and their pets, there is Teddy Roosevelt and there's everyone else. Not only did the father of America's National Park system keep at least two ponies and eight horses, the famed hunter and conservationist also had a pack of dogs with names like Rollo and Sailor Boy. The Roosevelt White House was also crawling with snakes, guinea pigs, a flying squirrel, kangaroo rats, a piebald rat, a one-legged rooster, a barn owl, two parrots, a pig, a raccoon, five bears, a coyote, a wildcat, a hyena, a lizard, and a zebra.
William Howard Taft
Milk-lover William Howard Taft owned a dog, but his real prized pets were his beloved pair of cows. The two cows, named Mooly Wooly and Pauline, could regularly be seen grazing on the White House lawn. Their milk—and the butter made from it—was a standard fixture on the White House table during the president's time in office.
President Woodrow Wilson had some run-of-the-mill pets, including a bull terrier, an Airedale terrier, a greyhound, some songbirds, and a cat. However, he also kept some not-so-common animal companions. The 28th president kept sheep, which grazed on the White House lawn, along with Old Ike, a ram that chewed tobacco.
Warren G. Harding
Like Woodrow Wilson before him, Warren G. Harding kept an Airedale terrier. His was named Laddie Boy, and the dog was likely the 29th president's most famous pet. The fun, however, didn't stop there. Harding had an English bulldog, canaries he kept with his wife, and a squirrel named Pete.
If any president in history could compete with the veritable zoo established by Teddy Roosevelt, it would have to be Calvin Coolidge. Not only did he keep more than a dozen dogs, Coolidge was also the pet parent of a goose, a donkey, raccoons, a bobcat, a thrush, a wallaby, and a pygmy hippo.
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Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the most consequential presidents in history, guided America out of the Depression and through the gauntlet of World War II. He was also a big-time dog aficionado, and he tended to a pack of different breeds with names like President, Major, Meggie, Tiny, Fala, Blaze, and Winks.
Harry S. Truman
Harry Truman was open about having no interest in having a pet join his family. Even still, a supporter sent him an adorable cocker spaniel puppy named Feller. Apparently uncharmed by the wide-eyed pup, Truman gave Feller away. The president was immediately swamped with hate mail from dog lovers nationwide.
34. Dwight Eisenhower
Ike, as Dwight Eisenhower was known to his supporters, kept a parakeet named Gabby, and Gabby's presence remains a fixture at the White House today. When the bird died in 1957, it was buried at the executive mansion's southwest corner.
John F. Kennedy
The fourth and most recent president to die by an assassin's bullet, John F. Kennedy, was famous, in part, for his love of dogs. JFK opened the White House to an Irish wolfhound, a German shepherd, a Welsh terrier, a French poodle, an Irish cocker spaniel, and a regular old mutt. Some of the dogs had puppies, and Kennedy kept them, too.
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Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon Johnson had a tumultuous presidency that was stained with the Vietnam War overseas and seismic cultural upheaval in the U.S. At home, Johnson kept several pets, including two pairs of dogs: One pair was named Edgar and Freckles, and the other duo was named Him and Her. The president also had a collie named Blanco, a mix-breed dog named Yuki, and hamster and lovebirds.
The most famous presidential pet in American history is almost certainly Checkers, the dog that Richard Nixon introduced to the nation in a televised speech designed to humanize him during a campaign finance scandal. Checkers, however, never actually lived in the White House.
Gerald Ford served a short term after Richard Nixon resigned. During his brief stint in the White House, however, his golden retriever Liberty had a litter of puppies. Ford kept one and named her Misty.
Jimmy Carter proved that even a humble peanut farmer can make it all the way to the White House. During his four-year tenure as president, Carter owned an Afghan hound and a border collie. He also owned a Siamese cat with one of the most memorable names in the history of presidential felines: Misty Malarky Ying Yang.
Television, radio, and movie star Ronald Reagan parlayed the governorship of California into a two-term trip to the White House—and his multitude of dogs came right along with him. The pack included an Irish setter, a Siberian husky, a golden retriever, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, and a Bouvier des Flandres. A well-known lover of all things equestrian, Reagan also kept horses at his ranch.
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A bit of Reagan's affection for dogs must have rubbed off on his vice president, George H. W. Bush, who would become the 41st President of the United States. Bush's English springer spaniel, Millie, birthed a litter of puppies, one of which Bush kept and named Ranger.
Former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's presidency dominated the 1990s and was sandwiched between the reigns of the only father-son presidential duo since the Adamses nearly two centuries earlier. Joining Clinton in the White House was his cat Socks and his chocolate Labrador retriever Buddy.
George W. Bush
The son of a former president, George W. Bush was the first leader of the new millennium—and an avid dog lover. His English springer spaniel, Spot, was the puppy of Millie, his father's dog that spawned a White House litter several years before.
Former President Barack Obama is a Nobel Prize laureate who broke the presidential color barrier. Obama was so fond of Portuguese water dogs that he owned two, one named Bo and the other named Sunny.
President Donald Trump is the first American president in more than a century to not have a pet in the White House—and that break from tradition just might be the result of a bad experience with an ex. His former wife Ivana wrote in her memoir that Trump was not a fan of dogs, which she learned the hard way when they lived with her poodle Chappy.
Dr. Jill and President-elect Joe Biden's two German shepherds Major and Champ will break the four-year streak of no pets in the White House this January when they take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Major was adopted by the Bidens from the Delaware Humane Association in 2018; the Bidens got Champ soon following the 2008 election.
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