According to the UCLA School of Law Williams Institute, as of 2017 there are 14 million adults living in the United States who identify as transgender. Combine this statistic with the fact that, per the Insurance Information Institute, as of 2022, 70 percent of households in the U.S. own a pet, and you can pretty easily infer that there are many transgender pet owners in the nation. Some who are in the process of transitioning from one gender to another have questioned, can my pet sense that my gender is changing, and/or will they still recognize me?
The Effects of Hormones on Pets
Up until now, few studies have been conducted on the ways that pets respond to gender changes in their owners. It has been scientifically proven, however, that hormones do affect the love that our pets have for us owners (as they also affect our love for our pets). A 2015 study in Science found that, as dogs and owners spend time together, gazing into each other’s eyes, oxytocin levels are increased in both owners and dogs. Oxytocin is the hormone that, when released, is associated with love and protection. Levels of oxytocin increase in dogs by 57.2 percent when dogs spend ten minutes playing with their owners. And it’s not just dogs who are affected by this love hormone – cats, too, have shown an increase in oxytocin levels of 12 percent when they spend time with their owners.
Testosterone and Estrogen
Subsequently, people have wondered, does taking testosterone [if you are an assigned female at birth (AFAB) transgender person] or estrogen [if you are an assigned male at birth (AMAB) transgender person] affect pets at all?
It is believed that, because dogs have such a keen sense of smell, they can smell and detect rising and falling levels of testosterone in owners. Male dogs might even view the rise in testosterone levels in humans as a challenge to their “alpha male” status. This could potentially cause a male dog to act more aggressively towards an AFAB transgender person who is taking testosterone. It might also cause a male dog to prevent a human who was born male, or an AFAB, in its household from getting closer to other female humans or female dogs within that household. Female dogs, on the other hand, might gravitate towards a human who was born male or an AFAB whose testosterone levels are rising, feeling that that person is the “alpha male” in the household.
Topical human estrogen supplementation can actually be dangerous to pets, veterinarians have found. In menopausal women, or AMAB transgender persons, who take topical estrogen supplementation, some of the spayed dogs and young female puppies that they own have developed swollen vulvas, as if they are in heat. Male dogs who are exposed to topical estrogen supplements may also develop enlarged mammary glands and small penises. Loss of fur may occur in both sexes of dogs from exposure to topical estrogen. This includes sprays, gels, lotions and even skin patches.
Likewise, testosterone creams or gels used by menopausal women to treat hot flashes may also be used by AMAB transgender individuals. This can cause enlarged genitals in dogs or cats.
Hormone replacement products can cause toxic poisoning in dogs and cats, PetMD has noted. Just like with all medications owners take, hormones should be kept locked away out of pets’ reach. If you use a lotion, spray or patch, be careful not to let any of it get on your dog or cat. Those who use topical hormones should wear gloves when they apply them, then dispose of the gloves in a location your pet can’t reach. Make sure to discard used patches out of a pet’s reach, too. Apply the hormones just to areas of the body that your dog (or cat) won’t lick or come into contact with.
Many, but not all, AMAB and AFAB transgender individuals take oral supplementation of hormones, so topical exposure is not a concern for their pets. However, these pills must also be kept locked away from pets, as exposure to them could be toxic.
Behavioral Changes in Pets
We now know that animals can be affected by human hormones. Do pets notice other changes in those who are transitioning from one gender to another?
According to an article from 2017 in Gay Star News, some AMABs have noticed that their dogs have become less aggressive and are now letting their owners hold them more often than before, since they began identifying as female. By way of contrast, one AFAB who had been transitioning to male and returned to his family home reported that the first time his family’s dog saw him as male, he did not recognize him, barking at him and fearing him.
Pet reactions to transitioning are different for everyone, of course, with some people saying that, if they hadn’t seen their dog or cat for a long time, they felt that the pet no longer recognized them when they finally saw them again as a different gender. Others, however, have said that their pets showed no reaction at all to their owners’ transitioning.
Pets provide unconditional love to us owners. It’s no surprise, then, that most transgender persons have reported that being on the receiving end of that love, as a pet owner, hasn’t changed despite their gender transition. This is vital to our mental and emotional health. Pets are so important in the lives of all people, but especially LGBTQ+ people. An article in Res Aging notes that, especially in transgender adults over age 50, those who own pets have higher perceived social support than those who don’t own pets.
Among LGBTQ+ youth, pets can also foster a sense of well-being, a study by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Children, Families & Animals Research Group has found. Living with pets can help to facilitate feelings of belonging and high self-regard in transitioning youth, providing them with emotional support and comfort. As VCU doctoral student Angela Matijczak noted, “Sexual and gender minority emerging adults are at risk for experiencing additional stressors…this additional stress may lead to mental health symptoms. Pet ownership and interactions with pets provide benefits that may help people cope with stress and improve psychosocial health.”
So, What’s the Answer?
Do pets notice gender changes in their owners? The answer is, maybe. Some pets will notice gender changes, and some won’t. One thing that likely won’t change, however, is a pet’s unconditional love for its owner, no matter what the owner’s gender is. Humans could take a lesson from pets in this regard!