Pet Name Trends: The Changing Names of Cats and Dogs

Mar 1st 2012


I was recently given the best kind of name-geek treat: a peek at a whole new data set. Vetstreet.com mined its records to find the dog and cat names that have risen and fallen the most in popularity over the past decade. (You can read Vetstreet's report on the rising and falling names, including comments from me, on their site.)

I've seen other lists of popular pet names, and even compiled some myself. It's clear that pet names are increasingly chosen from the world of human names, with Max and Lucy supplanting Spot and Fluffy. But looking at the specific names that are trending up and down is revealing -- about how we view our pets, and about how we view different kinds of names. Looking at the Vetstreet trends as a whole, here are some of the big themes I see:

Which Animals Are Most Human?

Both research and intuition suggest that giving an animal a human-style name generally points toward a more human-style role for the pet in the family. Based on names, then, dogs are treated as more human than cats. (Supporting this idea: the phrase "my dog is my baby" yields four times as many Google results as "my cat is my baby.")

That difference used to be a huge one, with descriptive names like Snowball and Patches and cat-specific names like Tigger and Tabby dominating the feline arena. Since the year 2000, though, the dog-cat gap has narrowed dramatically. If you look at the top 10 names for male and female cats today, 14 of the 20 are also common human names. For dogs, the number is 15 of 20. The fastest-falling cat name list is packed with names like Whiskers, Tiger and Miss Kitty, while the rising names include Henry, Stella and Zoey. Watch your backs, dogs, the cats are on the move.

Pet Sex Discrimination?

The narrowing cat-dog gap looks like a move toward pet equality, but a new gap is rising -- a gender gap. I was fascinated to see that female pet names are trending human much faster than male pet names. The numbers in the previous paragraph showed that 72.5% of the top pet names are common human names. That turns out to break down to 50% of male names, 95% of female.

What's more, single-sex pet names are soaring. The fast-falling names are full of unisex classics like Snowball, Lucky, Whiskers, Pepper and Shadow. The fast-rising names names are almost all sex-specific. In fact, for dogs even the hot non-human names are ultra-macho ones like Diesel, Tank and Thor. Apparently, we want to be secure in our dogs' masculinity.

Looking Past Looks

There's another way to read the movement from Snowball and Shadow toward Diesel and Thor. It's a movement away from physical descriptions of pets, toward names that indicate  personalities or roles. That's yet another sign that pets are viewed more and more as companions and individuals. It's telling, I think, that despite the powerful trend toward human names, Buddy is challenging Max for the #1 spot among dogs' names.

Following Human Name Trends

Here's a graph of the human popularity of the fastest-rising female dog names, made with the NameVoyager Expert Edition:

and the fastest-falling female dog names:

It makes sense that as pet names become more human, they'll increasingly reflect baby name trends. I predict an explosion of pet/baby name conflicts, as more and more couples give their favorite names to their dogs, only to wish for those names back when the time comes to name a child.

Which Names Are Most Animal?

Human names may be going to the dogs, but not all human names. (Have you ever heard "These are our dogs, Kenneth and Jeanette"?) The hottest pet names today are what I call the "Guys and Dolls" names in the Baby Name Wizard book. These are the fun-loving old timer names like Max, Charlie, Lucy and Molly. The Guys and Dolls are popular for human babies too, but a slew of them utterly dominate the pet name space. They're cozy and approachable, perfect for a relationship of simple, unconditional love.

Some of the most popular examples for pets are the choices that push to the style extreme. Among these are ultra-feminine and ultra-masculine names: Lola, Daisy, Lulu; Rocky, Hank, Bruno. To me, that suggest that parents have a major yen for that kind of name but worry about giving them to their children. Pets are the perfect outlet for your naming fantasies.

The other big human name style for pets is preppy surnames. Again, though, not all of them. Preferred surnames for pets end in -er (Tucker, Cooper, Piper) or -y (Bailey, Riley, Brody), but NOT the top human ending -n (Grayson, Landon, Ashton). For that, I have no easy explanation, though it intuitively feels right. Any thoughts, baby name nation?

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