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A History of the White House’s Pets

on December 15, 2011

“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”- Harry Truman

From George Washington’s seventeen hounds to Barack Obama’s Portuguese Water Dog, pets have stood by the Commander in Chief throughout American history. In fact, the only non-pet owners to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and Chester A. Arthur. Interestingly, Fillmore is credited with founding the Buffalo Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but he did not own a pet.

Dogs and cats aren’t the only animals that have called the White House home. A few presidents were the proud owners of some more exotic creatures. When Thomas Jefferson moved from his Monticello estate to the White House, he quickly went to work improving the grounds; the two grizzly bears from Meriwether Lewis were a nice touch in the gardens. John Quincy Adams designated a bathtub as a swimming hole for his alligator – a gift from a French military officer. Martin Van Buren briefly owned two tigers that were gifts from the Sultan of Oman, but Congress made him send the cubs to a zoo. But the most eclectic menagerie belonged to Calvin Coolidge. Not only was he known to walk raccoons on a leash, but he also built a personal zoo that included an antelope, two lion cubs, a wallaby, a bobcat and a pygmy hippopotamus named Billy.

In the 20th century, presidential pets began to capture the hearts of the American public, perhaps none more popular than first dog Fala, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s beloved Scottish Terrier who moved to the White House in 1940. As a key part of FDR’s public image, Fala followed the president everywhere, including meetings with foreign heads of state (whom he was known to delight with his tricks). His international adventures were widely reported in the media. Fala soon needed a secretary to handle the thousands of letters from fans.

On September 23, 1944, FDR delivered his famous “Fala speech” in which he quipped, “You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers – in Congress and out – had concocted a story that I’d left him behind on an Aleutian island and had sent a destroyer back to find him – at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or 20 million dollars – his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since.”

When FDR died in 1945, Fala went to live at the family home with Eleanor Roosevelt. According to the widowed Roosevelt, Fala would constantly lie near the door and await his master’s return. When Fala died seven years later, he was buried alongside FDR and became the only presidential pet to be memorialized in statue.

Popular Presidential Pets

After Fala took the longstanding tradition of presidential pets to new heights, many famous first dogs and cats followed, including:

  • Him and Her, Lyndon Johnson’s beagles. Animal lovers unleashed an uproar when Johnson lifted Him by the ears to give photographers a better view.
  • Checkers, Richard Nixon’s American Cocker Spaniel when he was vice president. In his famous Checkers speech, Nixon denied accusations that he was profiting from a slush fund and said the only gift he accepted was a little black-and-white spotted dog that his daughter named Checkers.
  • Liberty, Gerald Ford’s Golden Retriever. Liberty was featured on Saturday Night Live as a stuffed prop when Chevy Chase parodied the president.
  • Rex, Ronald Reagan’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Rex replaced Lucky, a Bouvier des Flandres who moved to Reagan’s estate in California. During the first week on the job, Rex helped hit the switch that lit the National Christmas Tree. He is credited with popularizing this breed.
  • Millie, George H.W. Bush’s Springer Spaniel. One of the most famous presidential pets (and the only one who is a published writer), Millie is credited as the author of Millie’s Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush.
  • Socks, Bill Clinton’s pet cat. Four years after jumping into Chelsea Clinton’s arms in Arkansas, former stray cat Socks moved into the White House. He enjoyed much prominence during Clinton’s first term, including his stint as the animated host of the children’s White House website. However, he was voted out of office in 1997 when he didn’t get along with a new pet, Buddy the Labrador Retriever. Clinton reflected, “I did better with the Palestinians and the Israelis than I’ve done with Socks and Buddy.”
  • Barney, George W. Bush’s Scottish Terrier. Barney starred in a series of “Barney Cam” videos filmed by the White House staff. His first family included Miss Beazley (Scottish Terrier), India (American Shorthair cat) and Spot, one of Millie’s puppies and the only second-generation presidential pet in history.
  • Bo, Barack Obama’s Portuguese Water Dog. On the night that he was elected, Obama promised his daughters that they could bring a puppy to the White House. This triggered months of media speculation about the next first pet’s breed until the Obamas chose hypoallergenic Bo.

Presidential Pet Museum

Claire McLean is the founder and president of the Presidential Pet Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia. As a breeder of the Bouvier des Flandres, McLean was invited to the White House in 1985 to groom Lucky Reagan, a visit that she describes as “exhilarating.” She was star-struck and began collecting anything related to presidential pets. When she opened her museum in 1999, her collection included a portrait of Lucky made from her actual hair. Now, the museum has over 500 items on display and attracts 70,000 visitors a year.

During the second Bush administration, McLean had an appointment to meet Barney for a White House photo shoot, but this was canceled due to a breach of security when somebody scaled the perimeter wall. To date, the only first pet that McLean has met is Lucky, but the Obamas have an open invitation to visit the Presidential Pet Museum with Bo.

As a former insider to the life of a presidential pet, McClean reveals that first pets do receive Secret Service protection, and waste pickup is the responsibility of the dog walker or the groundskeepers. And what’s on the menu at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

“Purina Pro Plan is always one of the preferred foods,” McClean said. “I know Pro Plan was used not only by the Reagans, but by Ford and Nixon as well.”

For more information about first pets, visit the Presidential Pet Museum at 211 Water Country Parkway, Williamsburg, VA 23185; browse photos, trivia and more at


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