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Cats, dogs, birds, horses and even a raccoon: A brief history of White House pets

Cats, dogs, birds, horses and even a raccoon: A brief history of White House pets

President BidenJoe BidenBiden's quiet diplomacy under pressure as Israel-Hamas fighting intensifies Overnight Defense: Administration approves 5M arms sale to Israel | Biden backs ceasefire in call with Netanyahu | Military sexual assault reform push reaches turning point CDC mask update sparks confusion, opposition MORE and first lady Jill BidenJill BidenBiden, Harris release 2020 tax returns Washington showing signs of normalcy after year of restrictions Here's why Joe Biden polls well, but Kamala Harris does not MORE’s two German shepherds made headlines this week after one of the dogs, Major, reportedly bit a staff member.

The dogs moved to the Biden family home in Delaware after the incident, but White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiBiden's quiet diplomacy under pressure as Israel-Hamas fighting intensifies Overnight Defense: Administration approves 5M arms sale to Israel | Biden backs ceasefire in call with Netanyahu | Military sexual assault reform push reaches turning point CDC mask update sparks confusion, opposition MORE told reporters the pets are getting “accustomed to their new surroundings” and vowed that they will soon return to the executive mansion.

Major, 3, and the Bidens’ 13-year-old dog, Champ, are joining a long history of presidential pets that have ruled the roost at the White House.

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And they may soon be joined by a White House cat.

Presidential pets: a tradition  

From cats and dogs to farm animals and more, nearly every president has had pets at the White House. 

Although he never lived in the White House, former President Washington started the tradition of presidential pets by having at least a dozen dogs in office, in addition to horses and former first lady Martha Washington’s pet parrot.

Claire Jerry, a curator of political history at the National Museum of American History, explained that a pet is a valuable tool for the president, one that can make the commander-in-chief “seem like one of the people.”

“It has a long tradition, as well as just that sense of being a very personal connection to the president,” Jerry told The Hill.

Just three presidents haven't had animals at the White House: former Presidents Andrew Johnson, James Polk and Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGOP-led Maricopa County board decries election recount a 'sham' Analysis: Arpaio immigration patrol lawsuit to cost Arizona county at least 2 million Conservatives launch 'anti-cancel culture' advocacy organization MORE.

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Lina Mann, a historian at the White House Historical Association, said presidential pets can serve as a reminder that, while the White House is the president’s office, it’s also a home. 

“The pets have taken on a life of their own throughout history,” Mann told The Hill. “They are non-political entities. They’re just family pets, so I think that’s why they’ve been so popular. 

Americans have discussed the animals in the White House dating back to former President Adams’s administration. But it was former President Harding’s beloved dog, named “Laddie Boy,” who became known as the first “first pet.” 

Laddie Boy had a chair at presidential cabinet meetings and was the first White House pet to receive media coverage. Harding even penned letters to editors in newspapers in the dog’s name and held birthday parties for the pup. 

But pets have long served as more than a photo-op for presidents, Jerry noted. 

“Sometimes being president is a very lonely job, and, and having a pet, I mean, how many of us have turned to our pets for comfort during the pandemic?” Jerry said.

“I can well imagine that being a resident of the White House would be a time when you would think of having a pet as being something to comfort you, as well as something to send a message to the people,” she continued.

Fighting like cats and dogs (or Democrats and Republicans)

The most common presidential pet is a dog. Thirty-three presidents have brought dogs to the White House, while 15 presidents each have owned horses and birds. 

Mann explained that dogs have been a popular pick for presidents because “it’s man’s best friend.”

“You want your president to have a caring side, a side that a lot of presidents show the way that they care for their families and then also show the way that they care for their pets,” she said.

Not all Oval Office dogs have been longtime family pets though. Some presidential dogs have been gifts to the president from fellow lawmakers and foreign leaders. 

Former President Obama’s dog, Bo, was a gift to the first family from former Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his wife, Victoria Kennedy. 

And former President Kennedy received a pooch named Pushinka from former Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev. 

Pushinka was a puppy of a Soviet dog named Strelka, who traveled into space in 1960 on a satellite amid the space race between the former U.S.S.R. and the U.S.

And some first dogs have played their own roles in American political dynasties. Former President George H.W. Bush’s dog, Milly, gave birth to a litter of puppies in 1989. One of the pups, Spot, would go on to live with President George W. Bush’s family in the White House during his administration.  

Cats have become a standard pet among modern White House occupants too, including former presidents Kennedy, Ford, Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush. 

Clinton’s cat, Socks, even became a comfort to staffers in his administration, according to Jerry. 

“Socks apparently also would sort of be like a goodwill ambassador to offices in the administration,” Jerry said. “If they found out somebody in an office, perhaps there'd been a death or something, sometimes Socks would come and stay in that office for a while, if people needed some comforting.”

The Bidens told CBS News last year that they too are hoping to bring a cat to the White House, although they have not confirmed when a new feline friend might be moving to the nation’s capital.

Psaki joked earlier this week that, although she doesn’t have a sense of when the Bidens will announce their cat, she knows it will quickly become an internet sensation. 

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“We know that the cat will break the internet, but I don’t have any update on its status,” Psaki told reporters during a daily briefing. 

Animals you can’t find in the White House today

Past presidents have had an array of animals you likely won’t find on the White House grounds today.

President Wilson had a ram named Old Ike at the White House, while Harding owned a squirrel named Pete.

Former President Coolidge kept a raccoon at the White House named Rebecca. She was originally brought to the president to be served for Thanksgiving dinner, but he and former first lady Grace Coolidge made the animal a pet instead.

“Mrs. Coolidge was particularly fond of Rebecca, and she had a leash, and she would walk her around the grounds and things,” Jerry told The Hill.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt had at least 40 animals while in office, including dogs, guinea pigs, a badger, a macaw, a bear, a hyena, flying squirrels and more, according to CNN.

But no matter what animal presidents may have taken in as their pets, from cats and dogs to raccoons, they remain a central part of the first family. 

“They do become very much a part of our thinking about presidential families,” Jerry said. “And that’s what we do at home, right? Our pets are part of our families too.”