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Home > Cats > Cats in the White House: A Surprising History

Cats in the White House: A Surprising History

Cats in the whitehouse

Cats are one of Americans’ favorite pets, so it is no surprise that they have shared some of the most important places in American history, including the White House itself. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has featured its fair share of cats. Some of these cats were witnesses to the most important moments of their time, even if they didn’t know it. Many Americans like to imagine that their leaders are not all that dissimilar to themselves, and living with a cat in the most famous house in America adds to that mystique.

Here is a brief yet surprising history of cats in the White House dating from the Civil War to the present day.


The Earliest Cats

The first cats to live in the White House were likely nameless. That is according to historian Andrew Hager, the historian-in-residence at the Presidential Pet Museum.1 Cats would have been kept on the grounds as a way to keep the rodent populations down at a time before cats were really kept as indoor pets. Cats likely played an instrumental role in keeping mice out of the pantries of the White House during the 19th century, even if they weren’t official pets.



Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was the first president to officially keep cats as pets in the White House. His cats are fairly famous in this regard. Then Secretary of State William Seward gave two kittens to President Lincoln as a gift. The cats were named Tabby and Dixie. President Lincoln was a well-known lover of animals, and contemporaries of his time, including his wife, often spoke about the president’s fondness for animals, including his pair of pet cats.

Rutherford B. Hayes

Rutherford B. Hayes was the second president to officially take in a cat while he was in the White House. In 1878, David B. Sickels, a consulate member in Bangkok, Siam, read that the First Lady was a cat lover. He sent a Siamese cat to the White House with his regards. At the time, Sickels believed that the cat was the first Siamese cat to reach the United States, though those claims are not believed to be 100% accurate. The family named the cat Siam, but it did not have a long tenure in the Big House. Siam fell ill that same year and died despite great efforts to nurse it back to health.

siamese cat sitting on the floor
Image Credit: BearFotos, Shutterstock



Teddy Roosevelt

President Theodore Roosevelt was also an avid lover of animals. His collection during his time in the White House included two cats, Tom Quartz and Slippers. Slippers was a six-toed cat. Six-toed cats were all the rage during the early 20th century. Slippers could be found prowling around the hallways of the White House at all hours, and visitors would often have to step gingerly around the sleepy feline to get into specific offices or banquet areas.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson owned two cats during his tenure in the White House. His cats were named Mittens and Puffins. The pair were said to have been mischievous and would often jump onto the dining tables while people were eating. Exasperated staff would try to shoo the cats away by spritzing them with water. Wilson’s cats were not popular in the public eye, and very little is remembered about them outside of their occasional antics.

Calvin Coolidge

President Coolidge owned no fewer than five cats while he was in office. One of his cats was even reported to be a pure bobcat. His cats’ names were Tiger, Blacky, Bounder, Timmie, and Smoky. These cats could be found roaming the grounds, sleeping in the elevator, and lapping up cream given to them by friendly staff members. Coolidge’s cat, Tiger, once became lost on the White House grounds, and the adept use of new radio technology was used to locate and return the cat to the house.

John F. Kennedy

The Kennedy family owned a cat named Tom Kitten. Unlike other White House cats, Tom Kitten did not live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue full time. He was technically owned by JFK’s daughter Caroline. President Kennedy was reportedly allergic to cats and did not want the feline living in close proximity to him. However, his beloved daughter was allowed to bring the cat in for a visit at nearly any time, and it was often seen playing in the White House, even if it lived off campus most of the time.

American shorthair cat
Image Credit: Thanakorn Kosalakorn, Shutterstock

Gerald Ford

President Ford was the next president to have a cat that caught the attention of the public and the media. After the plight of Siam during the Hayes administration, few White House cats were noted by the media. Ford’s cat was named Shan Shein and was owned by his daughter Susan. Like Siam, Shan was a beautiful Siamese cat that was petite and adorable. The cat’s appearance made it a fan favorite when it came to White House pets. Shan Shein was often found hiding under various beds around the White House, showing how cats are almost always the same no matter where they are living.

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter continued what was becoming a growing trend: Siamese cats in the White House. Like Gerald Ford, Carter brought in a cat owned by his daughter Amy. President Ford’s cat was named Misty Malarky Ying Yang. No, that is not a typo. The cat’s eclectic name and sweet personality even inspired an artist at the time to compose a song with the same title. Gabor Szabo released his song Misty Malarky Ying Yang in 1977. The song is a funky 1970s instrumental piece that you can listen to here.

Bill Clinton

It was over a decade before another cat entered the White House and America’s heart. Bill Clinton brought the family cat Socks along with him when he was elected president in the early 1990s. Socks was a handsome black and white cat with, you guessed it, white paws that resembled socks. Socks, like Misty Malarky Ying Yang before him, inspired a song and a book and even had a website made for him. Today, Socks is one of the most famous cats to ever live in the White House.

close up of a black and white cat
Image Credit: milivigerova, Pixabay



George W. Bush

George W. Bush was yet another president that brought the family cat to live in the White House when he was elected. The cat, India “Willie” Bush, was adopted by the family when his daughters were young girls. The cat lived with the family for years and died at a respectable age just weeks before the Bushes were slated to move out to make way for the incoming Obama family.

Joe Biden

Joe Biden, the 46th president of the United States, became the eleventh official president to feature cats in the White House. Unlike other presidents, Biden’s cat was not a beloved family pet. Instead, Willow made her presence known when she jumped on stage during a speech being given by Joe Biden on the campaign trail. The cat caused such a stir that the Bidens decided to adopt her on the spot. The connection between the bold cat and the Biden family was unmistakable. Willow moved into the White House after Biden was elected. Perhaps she is lucky.



From unnamed barn cats to modern day gems, from the Civil War to the present day, cats have long been a part of White House culture and lore. Some presidential cats became famous while others were content to live out their days sunbathing and enjoying attention from visiting guests. Eleven presidents owned dozens of cats over nearly two centuries of history. Cats have long had a place in the hearts of Americans, and they had a place in the heart of America’s most famous dwelling as well.

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