President Biden entered office as a leader who pledged to bring people together.
Willow, named after first lady Jill Biden’s hometown of Willow Grove, Pa., first met her future family on a campaign stop at an unnamed farm in Western Pennsylvania. The 2-year-old cat is, according to a White House statement, “settling into the White House with her favorite toys, treats, and plenty of room to smell and explore.” Will she explore a lasting friendship with a 5-month-old puppy?
While the humans are fighting like, well, like cats and dogs, the pet world has achieved a notable new level of bipartisanship. On social media and in homes across the country, cats and dogs — sworn enemies with a cultural history of antipathy and bloodshed — are now snuggling up together in those fluffy doughnut-shaped beds, snoring and purring contentedly. Given the sorry state of everything these days, it feels like the famous line from “Ghostbusters,” describing signs of the apocalypse: “Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together — mass hysteria!”
It’s a relationship so stereotypically fraught that it birthed its own idioms: getting along like, fighting like. Cartoons of the 20th century doubled down on the acrimony (“No, not that! Not ‘Happy Birthday!’”), exemplified in Garfield’s annoyance at Odie, or Snoopy’s disdain for the “stupid cat” who lived next door, seen only by the clawed “SLASH!” it would deliver, taking a chunk out of Snoopy’s doghouse. Even when the two species were forced to get along, as in Nickelodeon’s titular CatDog, they didn’t.
Back when dogs and cats mostly roamed outdoors and had to compete for food, their relationship was more adversarial, reports the Guardian. “Evolution has not provided either species with any capacity to communicate with one another, so close-combat fighting is more or less inevitable when neither is prepared to run,” writes John Bradshaw. The phrase “fighting like cats and dogs” is “something of an anachronism,” though: If pets are socialized properly, they’ll live harmoniously.
So how is that going at the White House? There were, understandably, questions about how well-equipped the Bidens would be to handle this new arrival. Commander has new-puppy energy to burn off. And he replaces Major, their German shepherd who — after a few “biting incidents” — was rehomed because he lacked the temperament to handle life in the White House.
A cat and dog’s successful relationship depends on how they’re introduced, says Fanna Easter, a Dallas-area dog behavior consultant.
“The one thing I would not recommend is turning them both loose in a room and letting them work it out,” says Easter, because it can do lasting damage to the relationship if one or both animals get scared or aggressive. Instead, she recommends a slow approach, with plenty of bribes: Make the dog think, “Oh, my gosh. Every time I see the kitty, it makes delicious treats like string cheese rain from the sky. So this kitty makes good things happen.” (Vice versa for the cat, but with fish for a treat, she advises.) The cat should have places it can retreat to if the dog’s energy becomes overwhelming. “In the White House, there’s plenty of room to run,” says Easter.
The vast majority of presidents have owned dogs — breeds ranging from George Washington’s hounds (names: Drunkard, Tipsy, Sweet Lips, among others) to FDR’s German shepherd (also named Major!) to President Obama’s hypoallergenic Portuguese water dogs, Bo and Sunny. But only about a dozen cats have lived in the White House. The majority of cat-owning presidents were Democrats or liberals — but most of the cat owners also owned dogs. Maybe presidents are categorically more likely to be Dog People.
“Presidential candidates would generally, on average, match the profile of a dog person,” says Samuel Gosling, a psychology professor at the University of Texas who has studied the personalities of dog and cat lovers. “Just the task of what it takes to be president. You have to be extroverted, and that tends to be dog people.”
Dog people vs. cat people is another one of those binaries that sets people up for a fight, perhaps because the animals’ traits align with other parts of our personalities that put us in opposition. In his study of dog and cat people and their personas, Gosling thinks that dog people may lean slightly conservative, while cat people lean liberal.
“Dog people, they tend to be higher on the big five personality traits of extroversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness,” says Gosling. “Whereas people who see themselves as cat people tend to score higher on the personality traits of neuroticism and openness to new ideas.” Openness, he says, is the trait that correlates most strongly with political orientation.
Having one of each, then, might be seen as the ultimate bipartisan move — especially for a politician.
“I don’t know if there’s a subconscious desire to appeal across the aisle,” says Andrew Hager, historian of the online Presidential Pet Museum. Reflecting on Clinton, the second Bush and now Biden, “All three of those people at least initially came in on the idea that, you know, ‘I can unite people.’”
Bush’s Scottish terriers, Barney and Miss Beazley, have been photographed licking India, his black cat. But Clinton didn’t have much luck with diplomacy on the pet front: His cat, Socks, and his Labrador retriever, Buddy, famously hated each other.
“I did better with the Arabs, the Palestinians and the Israelis than I’ve done with Socks and Buddy,” Clinton told CNN in a 2001 interview.
Are we a nation of Dog People or Cat People? Judging by social media, a little of both. In the early ’00s, the Internet was made of cats — LOLcats, Grumpy Cat, keyboard cat, Nyan Cat, Lil Bub. Then came We Rate Dogs, doggos, doge, Doug the Pug, Boo the Pomeranian (RIP), and Tika, the Italian greyhound that is a self-proclaimed “model and gay icon.” Noting the shift in 2018, The Outline’s Owen Phillips thought the change was “likely a byproduct of the shifting demographics of the Internet” from being used by “a segment of society that more easily identified with cats” (introverts, loners) to the general public, where preferences tilt slightly toward dog ownership.
“It sounds almost like the way our political parties tend to rise and fall in fortune. You know, we don’t seem like a very consistent people politically, like to go from Barack Obama to Donald Trump to Joe Biden,” says Hager. “For a while, the dog people are superior and then, you know, people get kind of burned out on dog content and somebody shows up with a fresh cat idea. … The Internet is probably as cyclical as the rest of our culture.”
Many people, Gosling found, don’t consider themselves just dog people or cat people — they’re both. Like Megan Cottone. She’s the owner of Chloe, an 8-year-old beagle, and Chlea, a 9-month-old kitten. They are the best of friends.
“They’re just inseparable, says Cottone, 27. “They take lots of naps together. They play together, they are always in the same room around the house. Whatever I go out and do, they both come with me.”
To be fair, this is because Chlea could be described as a very dog-like kitten. She walks on a leash. She goes for hikes near their Seattle home. This, Cottone realizes, makes her an exceptional cat. Nevertheless, “I’ve never really experienced what people talk about when they say cats and dogs don’t get along,” she says.
The same goes for Cynthia Bennett, also 27, who lives in Longmont. Colo., with her 7-year-old dog, Henry, and her 4-year-old cat, Baloo, both rescues. The pair are Internet-famous: An Instagram account of their snuggles and adventures has more than 2 million followers, and managing it — along with a website that sells merch and promotes an associated nonprofit — is Bennett’s full-time job.
When she watches her pets, she sees an obvious lesson for the humans.
“They completely look different and they’re supposed to hate each other,” says Bennett. “They see past each other’s differences.”
She often hears from people whose dogs and cats enjoy similar affection.
“Henry and Baloo are definitely really unique, but that relationship is definitely obtainable,” says Bennett.
Research backs this up. A 2018 study evaluated an unscientific sample of dog and cat owners in the United Kingdom, United States and a few other countries to measure their perceptions of the relationship between cats and dogs living in the same household, and found that many “owners believed that their cat and dog were comfortable in each other’s presence and showed amicability in their relationship.”
Another finding: “Typically, the cat appeared to be the main controller in determining amicability in the cat-dog relationship.” The study did not explore whether this held true for human counterparts, but the knowing nods from cat people nationwide would indicate it does.
So, if the Bidens want to ensure bilateral agreement in their household, there’s one thing they need to know. The real Commander is Willow.