Gender-specific pronouns and animals

One step in learning to treat animals as sentient beings, not mere objects, is to use gender-specific pronouns. A dog is not a thing. Nor is a cow, eagle or mouse.

I’ve read numerous news stories about animals and for the most part, animals are called “it.”

  • The pig and its piglets were rescued – No, it’s her piglets. We know that because only females can give birth.
  • The steer broke its neck – No, it’s his neck (and the cowboy broke it). Steers are male.

If don’t know the gender of an animal I’m talking about, I assign one. In a story about two animals, one becomes he and one becomes she to make the distinction between the animals clear. “The raccoon chased the squirrel, who ran up a tree. She stayed in the tree for a while but he started pacing so she came down. He licked her forehead and they walked away together.”

Unlikely example aside, I believe gender-specific pronouns matter (and using one matters more than getting it right). This might even be why I give animals human names. My dog is Frankie. My cats are Alice and Margot.


She likes eating my plants, but I don’t mind.

I tend to call dogs he and cats she because I speak a little German and in German cats are assigned a female pronoun (die Katze) while dogs are given a male pronoun (der Hund). This has less to do with sentience and more to do with grammar. In German a hat is masculine and banana is feminine (der Hut and die Banane).

Other languages like French and Spanish assign gender to animals and inanimate objects too so I’m really talking about English, where we know an animal is a he or a she but we say it.

Calling an animal he or she won’t stop cruelty. It won’t turn the world vegan either. But I think it’s a small step toward acknowledging that animals are thinking, feeling beings with a similar range of emotions to humans. They show fear, love, anger, frustration. They can be silly and funny or shy and reserved and we need to think of them as individuals not commodities.

Farm Sanctuary has a Someone, Not Something campaign that addresses this. They focus on farmed animals because we already tend to look at cats and dogs as family. Conversely, many people see cows, pigs and chickens as things to eat.

Next time you’re talking about animals, listen to yourself and see how you refer to them.


7 thoughts on “Gender-specific pronouns and animals

  1. Yes, I agree with you! It frustrates me when I hear an animal bring talked about as though he or she is an inanimate object. As you say, it is all too common.

    • True – I remember studying Old English and recognizing a lot of German in it. And English incorporates French, Latin, a whole bunch of languages. Now don’t get me wrong, memorizing der, die, das was a major hassle. I like “the.” But I also think it’s good to refer to animals as beings, not things.

  2. I can’t tell you how many times, even with my colleagues in animal welfare, I have to have this conversation or edit materials. They’re not a “what” or an “it”. I like the option of assigning a gendered pronoun so thanks for posting this!

    • The “who” is important too! Just today I saw an article about “10 dogs that like summer” or something like that. But it should be “10 dogs WHO like summer.” It’s not being a stickler for grammar, it’s about referring to someone as a being not a thing. Glad you get it. Thanks for your comment. I think it’s habit and a matter of not being aware. Like you said, even people with the best intentions forget 🙂

  3. German being my first language, I always thought all dogs were male and cats were female. Even when I learned to speak English at 5 years old, I always referred to dogs as “he” or “him” and cats as “she” or “her”. And I still do. 🙂 I totally agree, we certainly know that a pig with babies is female, a cow is female and a bull is male etc. When in doubt, I use she or he, depending on the animal. It’s like you said, a small step towards acknowledging that they are sentient beings.

    ❤ carmen

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