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Pets and politics: Pet owners give the edge to McCain

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Unless you've been vacationing on Mars, you know it's an election year, and the issues facing Americans are big ones: sky-high gas prices, the healthcare crisis, global warming, the Iraq war. And the list goes on from there.

Barack Obama and John McCain are crossing swords to win the hearts and minds of voters across the nation. A day scarcely passes without a new set of poll results showing one candidate or another ahead or behind on this or that issue.

A new poll

As if things weren't complicated enough, here's another issue to add to the mix: pets. Pets? Yes, pets. According to a recent AP-Yahoo! News poll, Sen. McCain has taken the lead over Sen. Obama among pet owners by a margin of 42 percent to 37 percent, with Ralph Nader (remember him?) taking 3 percent, and 14 percent undecided (margin of error: 2.9 points). Among dog owners, the divide is even greater: McCain, 43 percent, Obama, 34 percent (margin of error: 3.6 points).

Among cat owners, however, it's a tighter race: McCain, 41 percent, Obama, 38 percent (margin of error: 3.9 points). However, among people who do not own pets, the numbers are reversed, with Obama leading McCain by 48 percent to 34 percent (margin of error: 4.1 percent).

Pet owners like pet owners

One explanation for the poll results: people who own pets associate pet ownership with certain positive personal qualities. This conclusion is strongly suggested by some comments cited in the AP-Yahoo! News poll.

Janet Taylor, a self-described retired stay-at-home wife (and cat owner) from Plymouth, Mass., offered this comment: "I think a person who owns a pet is a more compassionate person - caring, giving, trustworthy. I like pet owners.''

Richard Powell, 79, of Spokane, Wash., said that pet ownership "tells you that they're responsible at least for something, for the care of something.''

Presidential pets: a venerable tradition

Presidential pets have a tradition that is as old as the republic itself. According to the Presidential Pet Museum in Williamsburg, Va., most U.S. presidents have had family pets, and not only dogs and cats.

The father of our country, George Washington, kept at least eight horses and 13 hounds.

Abraham Lincoln indulged his sons, Tad and Willie, with a veritable menagerie that included rabbits, ponies, two goats (who rode with the President in the presidential carriage), and Jack, a turkey originally intended as dinner but "pardoned" by the President because of Tad's pleas.

Theodore Roosevelt kept more pets in the White House than any president before or since, including a bear, a lizard, five guinea pigs, a badger, a macaw, a hen, a one-legged rooster, a hyena, a barn owl, a rabbit and a pony.

John Quincy Adams kept an alligator -- given to him by the Marquis de Lafayette -- in the East Room of the White House. His wife, Louisa, raised silkworms and used the silk they made to make silk fabric.

McCain's menagerie: Obama gets the message

Whatever the subtleties of the candidates' respective positions on the big issues, on the pet-ownership side of the equation, Obama is playing catch-up. The McCain family pets include Sam the English springer spaniel, Coco the mutt, Oreo the black and white cat, a ferret, two turtles (Cuff and Link), three parakeets and an undisclosed number of saltwater fish.

The Obama family, on the other hand, does not yet own a pet. However, whether in response to the poll results or the pleas of his children, Obama has promised his daughters that once the campaign is over, win or lose, he'll get them a dog.

The tradition will continue

Whoever the American people choose as their next president, it is unlikely that the White House will again see the likes of Abraham Lincoln's goats, John Quincy Adams' alligator, or Theodore Roosevelt's one-legged rooster. Nevertheless, tradition being what it is, the "First Pets" are certain to become the object of the nation's rapt attention.

Credit: Reviewed by Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS, and John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD
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