Who we are is important: where we come from; what we like and dislike; what we look like. In human society, one of the most important distinctions is whether you are male or female. Naturally, we care about what our pets are as well.

Gender identity and biological sex are important societal issues at the moment. Advances in science are transforming our understanding every day. Where does this leave pets? Do pets have a gender identity? Does it even matter? Some of these topics may be new to you and you may even find them uncomfortable, but try and keep an open mind – as always, we are guided by science as much as possible. 

Gender vs Sex

To some people, these two words mean the same thing – are you a boy or a girl? However, since as far back as the 50s, scientists have made distinction between the two. 

Sex is what you are biologically. This means your sex genes are either XX for female or XY for male, and your reproductive organs match accordingly. This isn’t always a binary split, and there can be discrepancies between your genetic and physical sex, known as intersex.

Gender, on the other hand, is a little more complex to define, so we will leave it to the World Health Organisation: ‘Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed. This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other. As a social construct, gender varies from society to society and can change over time.’ 

Gender is referred to as a societal construct because people who look a certain sex are usually presumed to be a certain gender (e.g. people born with male reproductive organs are assumed to identify as male). An example of gender-assigned behaviour would be the tradition that boys like soldiers and girls like princesses. For the majority of people, their biological sex and gender matches (i.e. a person carries XY genes and perceives themselves to be male). There can be a mismatch between your biological sex and your gender identity (what gender you feel you are inside), known as transgender. 

The above information is the current general consensus; however, different people have different interpretations. Human sexuality and society is incredibly complicated, so there are many ways to interpret the evidence we have. 

Sex and Gender in Animals

Animals, of course, have different sexes too. To keep things simple, we will stick to mammals (it gets a lot more complicated in other groups!). Mammals have either XX or XY chromosomes like humans, making them biologically male or female. This is what we know. 

What we don’t know is if animals have gender

Do female dogs know they are female? Do they feel female? Can a dog with female XX genes consider themselves male? 

Since the definition of gender refers to how humans perceive each other, there is an argument to be made that animals do not have gender. They do not think in the same way as humans, they do not assign each other genders based on how they look, they act purely biologically – if it walks like a boy and barks like a boy, it must be a boy! 

However, some argue that animals may have gender

One scientist studied songbirds – they looked at the birds’ appearance and behaviour and assigned them a gender. After the birds’ biological sex was proven by looking at their sexual organs or genetics, the scientist was proven correct 95% of the time. So the birds that looked and acted male were male, and the birds that looked and acted female were female. But this left 5% that didn’t fit; biological males that helped incubate eggs or biological females that sang for a mate. Did these birds have a different gender identity to their biological sex?

Another group of scientists looked at one of our closest relatives, chimpanzees. Wild chimps generally have strict gender-gender grooming roles. For example, though most grooming is male-female, males are known to groom each other as well. In captivity, there wasn’t a huge correlation between a chimp’s gender and their grooming habit.

Some of these changes can be due to environmental factors, but perhaps because the chimps in the zoo have a different society than those in the wild, the ‘normal’ gender roles are different resulting in changes to grooming habits? Did some of these chimps have a different gender than their biology would suggest?

These are just two examples, with still no obvious conclusion. We are still no closer to knowing whether animals have gender or gender identities or not.

Assigning Pets Gender 

Let’s look at it from another angle – if gender is a human construct, can we give our pets gender? Certainly most people will look at what is between a dog’s legs and say “yup, he’s a boy!” It can be easy to get this wrong – neutered animals can sometimes be difficult to distinguish, certain animals look very similar externally between males and females (such as mice, rabbits and hamsters), and we aren’t even considering behaviour yet. 

If we generally think of males as aggressive and dominant (sorry boys) and females as submissive and quiet (sorry girls), what if our pets don’t match this? If you have a biologically female dog that is very aggressive, could you say it has a male gender? You may think “rubbish!” but why not? Let’s face it, your dog doesn’t care if you call it a he or she, so if you want to call a female dog a boy because they’re big and loud, why not? 

In the veterinary world, we see the reverse very commonly when we accidentally misgender someone’s pet. 

Most people would be annoyed if you called their male-dog a she – is this evidence for human-assigned gender? We believe the dog is biologically a female so we call it a girl. Gender, right? Or are we just basing this on biological sex, and gender is not a factor?

We’ve drifted a little into opinion here, so let’s return to the facts. 

Intersexuality is possible in animals. 

An animal can carry the genes for one sex but look and act a different sex. An example that went public was reported in The Guardian, where a woman found her female dog was cocking her leg to pee and mounting things. Once their vet examined her, they found a tiny ‘appendage’ between her legs that was likely a vestigial penis within a female vulva.

X-rays showed that she had testicles inside her abdomen. The dog was intersex, or a hermaphrodite. She carried reproductive organs of both males and females, but was genetically male. Yet her owner called her ‘Molly’. Should Molly have been ‘Mike’ instead? Was presuming her gender was female evidence of giving a pet a gender identity? 

Solutions to Gender Identity Issues in Pets

There is an argument to be made that none of this matters. Apart from very rare examples of hermaphroditism, most animals can easily be identified correctly as male or female, and slight differences in behaviour are arbitrary. As long as they can be bred from, be happy and play, should we care?

Well, though gender identity might not matter to a pet, as a human construct, we know it matters to owners. Molly’s owner cared, and every owner that is annoyed when their pet is misgendered cares. Is there a solution?

The best solution we think is to ask and to listen 

It is a good idea to extend this to dealing with people as well. Instead of assuming a pet’s gender, say “what a lovely dog, is it a boy or a girl?” Does it matter if the pet is biologically a boy or a girl? Or does it matter more that you don’t upset an owner? Sometimes you have to choose between assuming you are correct and being kind – choose the latter.

Another solution might be to move away from obviously identifying pets as male or female at all

Except for important reasons such as breeding or medical needs, we might say it doesn’t matter. This might mean giving your pet a gender-neutral name, like Lou or Sam. Or maybe not accessorising your pet with stereotypical gendered objects (pink jewellery for girls and spiky black collars for boys). When someone asks you if your dog is a boy or a girl, you can just reply “they’re lovely!” If animals don’t care if they are male or female, wouldn’t it be easier to call them all ‘they’, rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’? 

Making animals gender neutral comes with another very important benefit – many people find it difficult or uncomfortable using gender-neutral pronouns for people. Whatever your beliefs, we feel it is fair to call a person whatever they wish to be called, and many gender-neutral people prefer the pronouns ‘they, them, their’. Often these words refer to a group of people so it can be tricky adjusting our vocabulary to use the words for a singular person – by using them to refer to a singular pet we can help train our minds to be more comfortable using them with singular people, resulting in less upset and a kinder world. 

Final Thoughts

Phew, this was a complicated topic, so thank you for keeping an open mind and staying towards the end. To answer our question, we don’t know if pets have a gender identity. Certainly there can be mismatches between genetic and physical sex, and gender roles may be different in individuals, but beyond that we aren’t sure. However, we give pets a form of gender identity and to many people that is important. Sure, 99% of owners ‘give’ their pet a gender that matches with their biological sex, but if there are even 1% who choose the opposite, who are we to argue? Their pet doesn’t care if their collar is pink or blue, why should we?


Sex vs Gender:

Animals and Gender: