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Why People Think of All Dogs as Male and All Cats as Female

Making sense of animal-related gender stereotypes.

Key points

  • Informal observation suggests that people are likely to presume that an unfamiliar dog is male.
  • Data on pets represented in children's books shows that there are predictable gender biases in how we think of dogs and cats.
  • We casually assume any new dog is male while the gender of cats is more balanced in our minds.
Licensed from Vital Imagery
Source: Licensed from Vital Imagery

One of my grandchildren ran up to me. He was very excited to tell me something. He had been watching one of the cable TV channels which had been highlighting a "Dog Week." They were showing various films with characters who were dogs. They even included old television episodes starring Lassie that had caught my grandson's attention.

"You should've seen him," he told me, "he jumped over a car and into an open window and he knocked this huge bad guy down. He was amazing!"

I gave my best grandfather smile and said, "I know that Lassie is amazing, but she is a girl, not a boy. Remember the name 'Lassie' is a girl's name."

My grandson looked at me in a very confused manner, but then plowed on, "Yeah, but he really was amazing!"

That exchange stuck with me, and I began to casually observe the way that people tended to refer to the gender of dogs, especially when those dogs were generic, like those that appear in TV ads or casual characters on television programs. I also noted how people greeted unfamiliar dogs when out walking. It seemed to me that in the vast majority, people would refer to a relatively unknown dog as if it were a male. Conversely, it seemed to me that when referring to relatively unknown cats there was not the same bias, and if anything, it seemed to me that cats were more often referred to as female.

Dogs, Cats, and Social Stereotypes

This is what social psychologists define as a stereotype. Stereotypes are generalized beliefs about a particular category of people. For example, the idea that engineers and mathematicians are always male, while nurses and elementary school teachers are all female. Such generalizations about particular groups of individuals may be correct more often than they are wrong and therefore may be useful when making quick decisions. The problem is, of course, they can be erroneous when applied to particular individuals and sometimes this can have negative consequences.

Such stereotypes may often be implicit, influencing our thinking at a subconscious level that we have no control over nor even any awareness of. When I look back at some of my own written work it appears that I have a similar implicit stereotype, more frequently, and casually, referring to dogs as male and cats as female.

Do We Have a Gender Stereotype for Our Domestic Pets?

As I noted above, my informal observations have led me to the hypothesis that we generally tend to think of dogs as males, while we may not have such a strong gender bias in cats, however, after a search of the scientific literature, I could find no relevant studies. However, Frank Taylor of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania indicated that one of the ways we might explore stereotypical thinking is to look at how individuals are represented in children's books. He was interested in gender stereotypes applied to humans. And a study of 200 children's books conducted by researchers at Presbyterian College in South Carolina, demonstrated that gender roles were applied to pretty much everything in children's books. That includes anthropomorphized inanimate objects, such as trucks and bulldozers (who talk and have personalities and a clear gender), as well as nature-based entities, such as trees and clouds. This gave me an idea: One way to test if we are biased toward thinking of dogs as males would be to explore how these domestic animals were represented in children's books.

A useful data source for the study of children's books turned out to be, an online set of book clubs for kids. It allows you to generate lists of children's books by topic. This provided me the means to generate two lists of books designed for kids and young adults, one for books about dogs and one for books about cats. The idea was simply to note the gender of the principal characters in each of these books, whether canine or feline.

An Experimental Test

A series of filters was used. There had to be a single main character, a dog or a cat. Books that did not have a storyline (for example those emphasizing skills such as the alphabet or colors, or fact lists or geography) were excluded. Books with multiple dogs or multiple cats were screened out unless it was quite clear that there was one major character and all the others were subsidiary, in which case only the sex of the main character was scored. If a book was part of a series of books involving the same character (for example, Pig the Pug or Pete the Cat) only the first volume encountered was scored. In all cases, as much of the text was scanned as was needed to determine the sex of the cat or dog. This involved looking for words like he-she, his-her, and so on. There were a few cases where it was impossible to determine the gender of the character that might be consistently referred to as "the puppy", "kitty," or "the kitten," and these were noted using a separate category in the data.

A total of 274 books were scored (110 dogs, 150 cats, 14 pairs consisting of a dog and a cat).

Dogs Are Boys and Cats Are Anything

The data clearly shows that the representation of dogs is significantly biased toward males (86 percent). Female dogs make up only 11 percent of the characters and a smattering (3 percent) has no indicated gender.

The situation with cats is much more balanced, with 74 percent of the characters represented as males and 63 percent represented as females (this is a statistically nonsignificant difference). A higher proportion of cat characters were represented as gender-neutral (9 percent) than was the case of dogs.

The difference between the percentage of dogs represented as males and the percentage of cats represented as males is statistically significant indicating that authors of children's books have a stereotype that involves depicting dogs as males to a greater extent than cats.

I also found 14 books that contained a dog and a cat as co-principal characters in the story. In a total of 12 of these (86 percent), the dog character was male and the cat character was female. This is highly suggestive, although not statistically significant.

The overall results are quite clear. There is a general bias toward representing canine characters as males, and that bias is not as strong when it comes to cats.

To the extent that this data demonstrates that there is an implicit stereotype toward assuming that unfamiliar dogs are male, it probably explains why most people, when they interact with an unfamiliar dog on the street, are more likely to say: "Hello boy" rather than "Hello girl."

It also explains why my grandson thinks that Lassie is a boy, despite her feminine name. Of course, if the truth is known, the character of Lassie was played by a male dog named Pal; perhaps my grandson was correct after all.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

Facebook image: Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock


Taylor, Frank (2009l). Content Analysis and Gender Stereotypes in Children's Books. Sociological Viewpoints; Coatesville. 25 (Fall), 5-22.

Berry, Taylor & Wilkins, Julia, (2017). The Gendered Portrayal of Inanimate Characters in Children's Books. Journal of Children's Literature, 43 (2), 4-15.

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