With pronouns being of utmost concern these days, you might be wondering, which pronoun should I use to refer to my pet? Does it matter? If I have a female spayed dog, for example, should I refer to her as “she” or “her,” or rather, “they,” since she’s spayed? There are all sorts of implications that pronoun choice can carry when it comes to pets. We will discuss them further here.
Gender Identity vs. Biological Sex
Gender identity is not the same as biological sex. Biological sex is what you were born as – xx chromosomes if you are female, xy if you are male. It’s the same for pets. Those who are born with female genitalia and reproductive organs have xx, while those born with male genitalia and reproductive organs have xy.
Gender identity, however, is not the same as biological sex. As the American Psychological Association (APA) has noted, “Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female, or something else.” The World Health Organization goes on to add, “This includes norms, behaviors 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.”
At one time, people who were born with certain sex organs were presumed to be a certain gender – those born with male sex organs were presumed male, and those born with female sex organs, female. This applies to human sexuality and society, however.
What About Animals- Do They Have a Concept of Gender?
Animals are born with different sex organs – male or female. Mammals are born with either xx or xy chromosomes, making them biologically female or male. But do animals have a concept of gender?
We don’t know, unfortunately. We can’t ask a female dog, do you know that you are female? Do you feel female? Even if you were born with female reproductive parts, can you still consider yourself to be male?
The definition of gender refers to how humans perceive each other, not animals. Because animals don’t think in the same ways humans do, some researchers say that they don’t have a concept of gender. Animals, they say, act in a biological manner – if another animal looks male and acts male, they are male, and vice-versa.
Other researchers, however, say that animals do have a concept of gender. When studying birds, for example, in one study, scientists looked at their appearance and behavior but not their sexual organs, and said whether they thought each bird was male or female. The scientists were right 95 percent of the time. This left five percent of birds who didn’t fit the gender norms – perhaps birds who were born biologically male but helped to incubate eggs, or birds who were born biologically female but sang for a mate like a male typically does. It is unclear whether these birds had a different gender identity that did not match their biological sex.
Another group of scientists studied chimpanzees living in the wild, who have strict gender to gender grooming roles. Most grooming is male to female, but some males have been known to groom each other. This could be due to environmental changes, or the fact that chimps living in the wild act differently than those living in a zoo. It is impossible to know for sure, however, if this behavior indicates gender identity or not.
Do Our Pets Have Gender Identities?
Gender is a human construct, so why do we give our pets gender? Is this simply to make it easier for us to identify them? Remember, a neutered pet can be hard to identify as biologically male or female. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine a pet’s sex, or we can get it wrong.
This doesn’t even take into account the pets’ behaviors. If it is thought that most males act aggressively and are dominant and females are submissive and quiet, what if our pets’ biological sex does not match this behavior? If you have a biologically female dog who is aggressive, does it exhibit a male gender?
Veterinarians often misgender pets who come into their office, calling a male dog “she” or a female cat “he.” Why is this? Are these veterinarians picking up on some behaviors of these pets that help them to (incorrectly) determine the gender of the pet?
Pets can be born intersex, too. Some animals have the genes to be biologically male but look and act female, and might have male chromosomes but female sex organs. If this dog acts female, who could say if it is because they have female sex organs, or because an owner treated the dog female?
What Is the Definitive Answer?
Most pets can easily be identified as biologically male or female. Gender doesn’t really matter to pets if it’s a human construct, right? So, gender matters to owners but not to the pets themselves. Think about how frustrated you’ve gotten if someone misgendered your dog or cat.
What is the solution? The best solution is to ask an owner, “is your dog a boy or a girl?” before you misgender it. Or, you could decide to move away from identifying pets as male or female, calling them “they” no matter what gender you believe they are. This can also make it easier to use gender-neutral pronouns around people as well as pets – an added bonus in this day and age!
A pet’s gender matters only to their owner. Whatever pronoun you decide to call your pet, that’s your decision, and is between you and your pet. It’s no one else’s business.