White House Cats: Why So Doggone Few?

Times Staff Writer

F.D.R.'s Fala, L.B.J.'s Him and Her, Nixon’s King Timahoe, and the Reagans’ Lucky and Rex are among the more famous White House pets. All dogs. And now the Bush Administration has Mildred and her six pups. There were countless others, all the way back to George Washington’s many hound dogs.

Not a cat among them. What is it with the Presidents?

History has recorded that the vast majority of Presidents have had at least one dog, often quantities of them. There have been exceptions: William McKinley had a Mexican double-yellow-headed parrot; Thomas Jefferson had a mockingbird; William Taft, a cow.

Not that there were never any cats. Former First Daughter Margaret Truman in her book, “White House Pets,” records several. According to her research, those presidential households that maintained extensive menageries did allow a token cat or two, as was the case with Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and John F. Kennedy. A few names have survived: Tom Quartz of the Theodore Roosevelt Administration; Blacky and Tiger of the Coolidge days; Tom Kitten of the J.F.K. menagerie. None was First Pet.


Only Amy Carter’s Siamese cat Misty Malarky Ying Yang achieved any status coming close to the kind the dogs keep getting. But it was Amy and not her father who was linked with the cat in news stories and unglamorous photos.

In short, the virtual absence of cats in the White House, and their complete absence in the role of First Pet, is so overwhelming it would seem that nothing short of anti-catism or some kind of conspiracy on the part of image-makers could explain it--something the image makers emphatically deny. Or are the men who become President simply scaredy-cats? Afraid of cats? Afraid, say, of not looking macho unless they’ve got “man’s best friend” at their side? Afraid of being made a fool by a cat during the photo opportunity? Up a tree about where to put the litter box?

How to explain it?

Mental health professionals who were queried speculated that a dog’s loyalty versus a cat’s independence were probably at the crux of it, although one, Hyla Cass, a psychiatrist in Sherman Oaks, saw it mostly as a “macho” question.


The Wrong Image

“Presidents want to project an image that they’re masculine, in control, in power, having leadership,” she said. “That doesn’t jibe with the image of a man holding a cat on his lap.”

“I have some pet theories of my own,” said psychotherapist Herbert A. Nieberg of New York’s Westchester County, who has a specialty in human and companion animal problems. “Dogs are by far the preferred pet of older persons. It’s a cultural historical phenomenon. Dogs have come down over the centuries as the family pet. They are more tameable, obedient, less stealthy, easier to train, better with kids. Over the years ‘family appearing’ people always are seen with dogs--never with cats.”

Psychologist Alan Entin, a family therapist from Richmond, Va., and president-elect of the division of family psychology for the American Psychological Assn., has written extensively about pets in the family. He said he is in favor of presidents having a pet--any pet--saying research shows that pets help reduce stress and encourage nurturing.

“There’s a difference between dogs and cats. Cats are independent, autonomous and they are more in control,” Entin said. “They’ll come over to you and allow you the opportunity to stroke them. Or they won’t come to you. Dogs are much more dependent on their human owners and they are fiercely loyal. You can have much more of a one-way relationship with a dog.”

Regardless of whether they advise Democrats or Republicans, political consultants insist there is no conspiracy against cats on their part and seem astounded such a question could even be posed.

“The idea that I would ever advise a candidate who had a cat, ‘Get rid of it. It’ll make you look like a wimp,” has never crossed may mind,” said Joe Cerrell of Cerrell Associates in Los Angeles, chairman of the board of the American Assn. of Political Consultants and owner of a cat named Chardonnay.

Upon hearing that no cat had ever made it to presidential First Pet, political consultant Lee Stitzenberger of the Dolphin Group blurted out, “That’s bizarre,” and laughed. “I’ve got both cats and dogs myself. Dogs are masculine, hunting, outdoor and all that,” he said by way of dismissing the obvious stereotypes. “I can’t believe it would hurt a candidate. I can’t believe it would be a conscious decision (on the part of consultants to advise against a cat). Dogs are loyal; that’s a good quality. Cats are independent--that’s a good quality too.”


He would never discourage a candidate from having a cat then?

“No,” Stitzenberger said. “If a candidate had cats and enjoyed cats I’d photograph them. Cats are very popular. And they’re a lot cleaner than dogs.”

The photo opportunity is another story, of course.

“Well, you can’t make Liberty lie down and play dead if Liberty is a cat,” Stitzenberger conceded.

While Cerrell is open to political cats, he too could see a few problems.

“What this tells us is that the cat is not a viable political asset to the political candidate or office holder,” he said. “In other words, I can get a dog to stand and pose, whereas how do I know I can even find the cat at picture-taking time?”

Political consultant and cat owner Eileen Padberg of Padberg, De Santis Consulting in Irvine said, “Maybe elected officials like to have an animal to come home to that loves them no matter what they do. Cats could care less.”

She would never discourage a candidate from having a cat, however. “Absolutely not,” she said. “It’s a true test of character. When your cat greets you in adoration every night, then you know you’ve done a good job.” Therefore it is, she agreed laughing, a high risk pet.


Robert Shrum of Doak, Shrum & Associates political consulting firm and owner of a couple of dogs and a cat named Catalina, tended to agree, saying “I don’t know of a politician with cats. Maybe what they need in their life is a pet who is loyal, since everybody is always betraying everybody else. A dog is the ideal pet for a politician. Cats are notoriously disloyal. A cat probably reminds him too much of his life.”

While all this attention has been lavished on White House dogs, cats have quietly taken over as the most popular and numerous household pet in America. A 1988 survey released by the American Veterinary Medicine Assn. revealed that cats outnumber dogs by more than 2 million, 54.6 million to 52.4 million respectively. They got there without the help of any politician.

‘Not a Cat Person’

Dolores Jenkins, spokeswoman at the association and “not a cat person” herself, explains the reversal as “strictly a change in (human) life style” with more women at work, with people working longer hours or going from work to social activities without returning home.

“You do not have to walk a cat, take it out, exercise it. You can leave food, water and a littler box for a cat. A cat can take care of itself--dogs can’t. Presidents have probably been brought up with dogs, have come to like them and certainly are in a position to have people around to take care of them.”

According to Sandra Haley in First Lady Barbara Bush’s office at the White House, Mildred is the seventh dog the Bushes have had in their 44 years of marriage.

“They’re animal lovers,” Haley said. “In their earlier years, Mrs. Bush has said they had cats and dogs, but that they preferred dogs even though they’re more work.”

Judging from the average cat’s manner as it stretches in the sun, curls up on the couch or spurns yet another new brand of cat food, the chance to have a go at the East Room upholstery is no big deal and not a goal. They seem perfectly content to leave the White House to the dogs.