Creature Feature

What Does Your Pet’s Name Say About Your Family? A Lot, According To An Expert

Every name, even for a dog or a cat, has a story behind it.

Originally Published: 
What would you name this Pug? Apparently the most popular Pug name is Bella.
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My childhood cat was named Nothing. Why, you ask? Because my mom asked my dad what he was going to call the cat, and he responded, "Nothing." So, haha, that was its name. Anytime someone asked the name's origin, the somewhat catty (accidental pun!) story got retold. And yeah, my parents divorced a few years later.

Pet names can say a lot about a family. Musician friends of ours had a cat named Kenny Loggins, a name I loved. My good friend names her animals after players on the Pittsburgh Steelers, so there's Pouncey the cat (because there's a Maurkice Pouncey) and James the dog (for James Harrison). My firstborn named our newest cat Azula after the deliciously evil character in Avatar: The Last Airbender because we are a little too delighted by bad cats (who totally know their name but prefer not to respond).

If you're looking for the best pet for your family, you might already have a name in mind, or you may plan on meeting the animal and then choosing a fitting name. Either way, wait a beat, just as you do when picking a baby name. You'll be explaining your pet's name for years, and people will judge.

How People Pick Pet Names

Alexandra Horowitz, author of Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond, studies dogs, dog people, and subsequently dog names as part of her job as a professor at Barnard College in New York City, where she teaches seminars in canine cognition. (I love watching her talk about why dogs do what they do, like in this YouTube video.) I asked her to share any of her thoughts about pet-name psychology.

"I did a large survey of pet names and asked people to tell me why they named their dogs as they did," Horowitz says. "A great number chose a name that was in some way related to the couple or family or individual adopting the dog." In other words, the name says more about the human thought process than it does about the animal's innate characteristics.

"A not-atypical story goes like this, of a dog named Rufus Marvel," Horowitz says. "'Rufus because we found him on Rufus Thomas' birthday. Rufus Thomas wrote and sang 'Funky Chicken.' My last dog before Rufus was named Chicken. Marvel because Rufus Thomas named his son Marvel.'"

The humans adopting Rufus Marvel gathered ideas that seemed fitting and used them to name their pet. This tracks with my aunt, who named a dog Spirit because she missed her previous dog and hoped to get back some of his spirit, and my friends, who called two cat siblings Starsky and Hutch in a fit of Gen-X nostalgia.

Incidentally, Horowitz and her husband named their pandemic puppy Quiddity, which means "the essence of a thing" (as in the essence of dogness). Her husband is an editor and researcher at Merriam-Webster, so that seems fitting.

Honorable Mention Monikers

When we were growing up, my cousins lived next door to a dog named Brian, which just cracked us up. Who names a dog Brian? I get that people might choose more precious people names. I understand that Bella is, according to Rover, the top name for Pugs, and Charlie is the top name for Golden Retrievers. Rover also says that Max was the most-popular boy-dog name of 2022, and Luna was the number-one girl-dog name. Friends of ours use "Monte" for their Irish Wolfhound. But Brian? Wtf?

"People sometimes name their dogs after deceased and beloved family members," Horowitz says. "Or they give the dog the name they had been considering for a child they wound up not having." Which I thought was a little creepy, but Horowitz says not so. "This tells me that we name in order to help bring a pet into our family."

Back to the Super Silly Names

Can you believe that after we got Nothing the cat, we got another kitty and named it Something? This was how my family of origin was at cat-adopting time, I guess. More recently, we had a friend who named his cat Ow, F**k, spelled in full and with the comma. I was secretly thrilled when he found the cat a new home, and the new owner renamed her Queen Dolores.

"There are people naming their dogs 'Dog,'" Horowitz acknowledges. "That makes me sad: They are considering the dog less as an individual, with a personality, than as a member of a species, an object." So a warning: Give your pet a name that took more than two seconds of thought, or people will know you're a little checked out of the relationship.

And Finally... Let's Hear It For The Weird Pet Names

"If your dog is named 'Stella Poopers,' what do I know about you?" Horowitz asks. "You probably have a child who named her."

You bet. That is how the third cat in my childhood ended up being Princess Pudding, thanks to my brother. But you don't have to be a literal child to come up with a fanciful name. My adult niece and her partner named their cat Admiral Myrtle McMurderMittens, and it is totally fitting.

In short, fanciful is fantastic and a good plug for letting the kids go ahead and name a new cat or new dog. I don't know if I'd be brave enough to let a kid name their new sibling. But the family pet? Sure.

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