Our Capital’s Finest Felines – A Look Back at Presidential Cats

New Pet Owners  •  PetPartners  •  Thursday, July 16, 2020

During an election year, presidential candidates and their families are under intense scrutiny. This includes their four-legged, furry family members as well! Cats have had a long history as White House pets and have become increasingly popular in recent years. We've decided to take a look back at some former presidents and their cats.

Besides cats (and dogs), our presidents have brought all kinds of pets to the White House, including pigs, goats, horses, snakes, rabbits, badgers, cows, fish, geese, guinea pigs, hens, hamsters, roosters, sheep (that grazed on the White House lawn), lizards, an owl, an alligator, a wallaby, a bear, a pigmy hippo, a ram, a flying squirrel, a turkey, a donkey. a raccoon, and a piebald rat. Some of these pets were owned by first families before moving into the White House and others were gifts from foreign dignitaries while they were in office.

Which president had the most pets?

Of our 44 presidents,Theodore Roosevelt had the most number of pets while living in the White House — 23 in all — nearly a zoo. President Kennedy ranks a close second with 21 White House pets.

Which presidents had no pets?

Chester Arthur and Franklin Pierce were the only presidents who never owned pets during their White House years. One president, Millard Fillmore, didn’t own pets in the White House but was very active in animal protection causes and leadership roles in his home state of New York.

Interesting Presidential Pet Facts:

  • Thomas Jefferson, was thought to have had a cat, but instead he owned a bird that was very adept at mimicking loud meowing sounds. This thoroughly delighted White House visitors.
  • Martin van Buren owned the largest of the feline species — two tiger cubs — gifts from the Sultan of Oman. He was eventually pressured (by Congress) to move them out of the White House and donate them to the local zoo.
  • Abraham Lincoln was the first known president to bring felines into the White House, including his son Tad’s cat named Tabby. Lincoln reportedly liked to feed Tabby with a gold fork at White House dinners. He loved all cats and could play with them for hours. When asked if her husband had a hobby, Mary Todd Lincoln simply replied, “cats.”  Once, during a winter visit to General Grant’s headquarters, Lincoln rescued three half-frozen kittens from a Civil War battlefield telegraph hut.  He tucked them in his coat and brought them back to the White House to join Tabby before finding a good home for them.
  • Rutherford Hayes received the first Siamese cat in the U.S., named Siam.  She was sent to Mrs. Hayes in 1878 as a gift from a U.S. diplomat, David Sickels, in Bangkok, Thailand and endured a two-month journey in a Wells Fargo crate before arriving in Washington D.C.  In the original letter documenting Siam’s arrival, she is described by Sickels as “mahogany-colored” and “one of the finest specimens of Siamese cats that I have been able to procure in this country.”   Siam was said to be “good natured” and soon became a favorite pet of the Hayes family and the staff.  Siam was allowed to roam the White House and often made ‘grand entrances’ whenever the First Lady entertained guests.  President Hayes’ personal physician, Dr. J. H. Baxter, treated and cared for Siam when she became seriously ill from a respiratory infection, shortly before her death.  Instructions were given to preserve Siam but today, despite searches of the Department of Agriculture’s museum and the Smithsonian Institution, Siam has never been located.  Hayes also had two other cats, Miss Pussy and Piccolomini.
  • William McKinley owned two Turkish Angora cats, Valeriano Weyler, named for the governor of Cuba, and Enrique DeLome, named after Spain’s Ambassador.
  • Theodore Roosevelt had two cats, six-toed Slippers and Tom Quartz (named after the cat in Roughing It by Mark Twain).  Slippers had a habit of falling asleep while sprawled out in hallways.  At one state banquet, guests even had to walk around her as they made their way to the dining room.
  • Woodrow Wilson owned a cat named Mittens and an American Shorthair named Puffins.  Both cats enjoyed trying to leap on the Wilson’s dining room table during family meals, only to be squirted with water to shoo them away.
  • Calvin Coolidge was a cat lover at an early age. As a young boy he once saved a litter of kittens from being drowned.  Coolidge owned several cats in the White House: Smokey, Blackie, Tiger, Bounder, Timmie and Climber (a Turkish Angora affectionately nicknamed “Mud”).  Coolidge also owned a bobcat and two lion cubs. It is said that Timmie slept with the family’s canary, Caruso (one of several cageless birds they owned), perched between his shoulders each night. Tiger, a grey-striped American Shorthair, was often found walking along beside the president or wrapped around his neck. Once, when Tiger wandered away, Coolidge pleaded for his return on a radio address (radio was a relatively new phenomenon at that time). Happily, Tiger was returned and fitted with a special collar that included his White House address. Later, Tiger strayed a second time but sadly, he was never seen again.
  • John F. Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, owned Tom Kitten, from the name of the classic childrens’ book by Beatrix Potter. President Kennedy was later diagnosed as being allergic to cats (and dogs) and had to keep his distance from Tom Kitten.  When he died, Tom Kitten merited his own obituary in a Washington newspaper.
  • Gerald Ford’s daughter, Susan, owned Shan Shein, a sealpoint Siamese cat named after a city in China. Shan slept in Susan’s bed at night and spent her days with Mrs. Ford while Susan was at school.
  • Jimmy Carter’s family owned  Misty Malarky Ying Yang, a sealpoint Siamese cat that daughter Amy continually spoke about.  While at the White House, Misty could often be found curled up in her favorite spot  — Amy’s indoor doll house.
  • Ronald Reagan and his family owned two stray tortoise shell cats, Cleo and Sara, that lived at their vacation home, Rancho del Cielo, in California during his White House years.  The Reagans also owned several other (unnamed) cats at the ranch.
  • Bill Clinton’s cat, Socks, belonged to his daughter, Chelsea.  Apparently, Socks was rescued in Arkansas after Chelsea spotted her through a window during a piano lesson. Socks was a domestic shorthair ‘tuxedo’ cat with sock-like markings on her feet, and Clinton referred to her as “Chief Executive Cat.”  Socks had well-publicized feuds with Buddy, the family’s Labrador retriever, whom she reportedly despised from the day she first met him.  She had her own fan club page on the White House Web site and her own in-box for the fan mail she received, which was kept on Clinton’s secretary Betty Currie’s desk. Socks was featured on a set of stamps issued by The Central African Republic and her image was also used in the White House to mark routes for visiting schoolchildren.  When Socks died of cancer in 2009, her ashes were flown back to Arkansas for burial.
  • George W. Bush and his family owned India “Willie” Bush, a beautiful black cat named after baseball player Ruben “El Indio” Sierra of the Texas Rangers. Willie was known to be very shy and reclusive and died just before the Bushes moved out of the White House.  They also had Ernie, a striped cat named after Ernest Hemingway, who became “too wild” to reside in the White House and was eventually sent to live with friends in another state.  A third cat, Cowboy, was said to be the president’s favorite, but he died of kidney disease shortly after Bush took office.

The Next First Feline

Cats have admirably established themselves in Washington D.C.’s history, alongside our presidents and their families, with many more to come.  Who will be the next First Cat to live in the White House?  One thing is certain: presidential cats first took their place in our nation’s capital as rat-catchers and this will certainly continue to be a full time job.

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