First Pets: Animals in the White House

Thatcher and Reagan Walking Dog
President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher walk Reagan's dog Lucky on the White House lawn. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

While they never have and never will run for office, hold a press conference, or issue an executive order, more presidential pets have lived in the White House than First Family humans.

Indeed, some of the more than 400 pets that have lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. have been more popular than the presidents who owned them.

George Washington Starts the Pet Parade

The tradition of presidential pets dates back to the nation’s first president, George Washington. While he never lived in the White House, Washington personally cared for many farm animals at his home in Mount Vernon. Clearly, his favorite was Nelson, the sorrel horse then General Washington had been riding when he accepted the British surrender at Yorktown, the battle that ended the Revolutionary War.

According to presidential historians, Washington never rode Nelson again after the war, choosing instead to allow the “splendid charger” to live out his days as a pampered celebrity. It was reported that when Washington would walk up to Nelson’s paddock, “the old war-horse would run, neighing, to the fence, proud to be caressed by the great master's hands.”

Abe Lincoln’s Menagerie

A dedicated animal lover and pet owner himself, President Abraham Lincoln let his sons Tad and Willie, keep all the pets they wanted. And, oh the pets they kept. According to various historians, at one time the Lincoln’s White House menagerie grew to include turkeys, horses, rabbits, and two goats named Nanny and Nanko. Nanny and Nanko sometimes rode with Abe on in the presidential carriage. The turkey, Jack, went from the main dish on the Lincolns’ dinner menu to cherished pet when First Son Tad begged for the bird’s life.

Getting Benjamin Harrison’s Goat

Along with a Collie dog named Dash and two opossums named Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection, twenty-third President, Benjamin Harrison also allowed his grandchildren to keep a goat named His Whiskers, which often pulled the children around the White House lawn in a cart. One memorable day, His Whiskers, with the children in tow, ran uncontrolled through the White House gates. Numerous Washington, D.C., residents were reportedly amused to have seen the Commander in Chief himself, holding on to his top hat and waving his cane, chasing a runaway goat cart down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Theodore Roosevelt, Champion Pet Owner

With six animal-loving children living with him in the White House for eight years, twenty-sixth President, Theodore Roosevelt easily reigns as the champion owner of presidential pets, including several rather untraditional creatures. 

According to the National Parks Service, the list of the Roosevelt children's family of untraditional pets included: “a small bear named Jonathan Edwards; a lizard named Bill; guinea pigs named Admiral Dewey, Dr. Johnson, Bishop Doane, Fighting Bob Evans, and Father O'Grady; Maude the pig; Josiah the badger; Eli Yale the blue macaw; Baron Spreckle the hen; a one-legged rooster; a hyena; a barn owl; Peter the rabbit; and Algonquin the pony.”

The family so loved Algonquin that when Roosevelt’s son Archie was sick, his brothers Kermit and Quentin tried to take the pony up to his bedroom in the White House elevator. But when Algonquin saw himself in the elevator mirror, he refused to get out.

Quentin's sister, Alice also had a garter snake she named Emily Spinach, “because it was as green as spinach and as thin as my Aunt Emily.”

On the more traditional side, the Roosevelts were dog lovers. Their many First Dogs includedSailor Boy the Chesapeake retriever, Jack the terrier, Skip the mongrel, Manchu the Pekingese, and Pete, a bull terrier who was exiled to Roosevelt’s family home in Long Island because of his propensity for biting members of the White House staff. Alice once claimed to have seen Manchu, her Pekingese dancing on its hind legs on the White House lawn in the moonlight.

The Role of the First Pets

Presidents and their families typically keep pets for the same reason anyone else does – they love them. However, White House pets often play their own unique roles in the lives of their presidential “parents.”

Not only do presidential pets tend to improve their owners’ public image as “just folks like us,” they help reduce the stress level involved being the “leader of the free world.”

Especially since the invention of the radio, television, and now the internet, the role of First Family pets, not only in the daily lives of their owners but in history has become better known.

When President Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill signed the historic Atlantic Charter in 1941 aboard the USS Augusta, radio and newspaper correspondents eagerly noted the presence of Fala, Roosevelt’s beloved Scottish terrier.

In 1944, after Republicans in Congress publicly accused Roosevelt of accidentally leaving Fala behind after a presidential visit to the Aleutian Islands and sending a Navy destroyer back for him “at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars,” the FDR memorably stated that the accusation had harmedFala’s “Scotch soul.”

“He has not been the same dog since,” said Roosevelt in a campaign speech. “I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself … But I think I have a right to resent, to object to, libelous statements about my dog.”

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt detailed Fala’s life in the first presidential “pet-ography.” Over the years, other first ladies have continued the tradition. Barbara Bush wrote about the Bush’s Springer Spaniel, Millie, and Hillary Clinton wrote about Socks the cat and President Clinton’s chocolate Labrador retriever, Buddy.

While they never actually stated their platforms, presidential pets have also played a role in politics.

When he ran for president in 1928, Herbert Hoover was to be photographed with a Belgian shepherd named King Tut. Hoover’s advisers thought the dog would improve their candidate’s rather stuffy public image. The ploy worked. Hoover was elected and took King Tut to the White House with him. Including King Tut, the Hoover White House was home to seven dogs – and two unnamed alligators.

Along with a white Collie named Blanco and a mixed-breed dog named Yuki, President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat owned four Beagles named Him, Her, Edgar, and Freckles. During his 1964 re-election campaign, Johnson was photographed holding Him up by his ears. Republican leaders in Congress pointed to the incident as “animal cruelty” and predicted it would end LBJ’s political career. However, Johnson produced several books proving that lifting Beagles by their ears was common and did not harm the dogs. In the end, the photo ended up endearing Johnson to dog owners, helping him defeat his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater.

Presidents Who Had No Pets

According to the Presidential Pet Museum, The only president known not to keep a pet during his entire term in office was James K. Polk, who served from 1845 to 1849.

While they never had any “official” pets, Andrew Johnson was said to feed a group of white mice he found in his bedroom and Martin Van Buren was given two tiger cubs by the Sultan of Oman that Congress forced him to send to the zoo.

While most First Families kept multiple pets, President Andrew Jackson was known to have only one, a parrot named “Polly,” which he taught to swear heartily.

Through his first six months in office, President Donald Trump had yet to welcome a pet into the White House. Shortly after the 2016 election, Palm Beach philanthropist Lois Pope offered Trump a Goldendoodle as First Dog. However, the Palm Beach Daily News later reported that Pope had withdrawn her offer.

Of course, now that First Lady Melania Trump and the couple’s 10-year-old son Barron have moved into the White House, the odds that a pet will eventually join them have gotten better.

While the Trumps have no pets, Vice President Pence more than takes up the administration’s pet slack. So far, the Pences have an Australian shepherd puppy named Harley, a gray kitten named Hazel, a cat named Pickle, a rabbit named Marlon Bundo, and a hive of unnamed bees. 

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Longley, Robert. "First Pets: Animals in the White House." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). First Pets: Animals in the White House. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "First Pets: Animals in the White House." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).