Pets that have shaped hearts and history

As any animal lover will know, pets have the power to change people’s lives. They are the friends that will never judge, they comfort us when we’re feeling down or alone and they can motivate us to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. Pets teach us about kindness and responsibility, no matter what age we are, and make our lives happier.

But some pets have not only changed their owner’s life, they have also shaped the course of human history. From the sheepdog nursed back to health by Florence Nightingale to Albert Einstein’s inspirational cat, pets have influenced the world we live in today in the most remarkable – and often unlikely – ways.

To celebrate the role of pets throughout the ages, Blue Cross has dived into the history books to find the top 10 figures whose stories may have been very different without their trusted four legged companions.

Albert Einstein

1. Albert Einstein

Who knows where the world of science would be if it hadn’t been for Einstein’s beloved housecat, Tiger? The physicist would spend hours watching his feline friend as he meditated his most seminal theories, which shape physics and astronomy to this day.

His assistant once spoke of the enjoyment and curiosity that Tiger fired up in him – perhaps helping him reach the scientific breakthroughs which earned him such as prestigious place in the history books.

His passion for problem-solving extended to his pets, too. A widely shared anecdote tells how he found a typically left-field solution to a seemingly simple problem: his two cats’ constant requests to be let in and out of his study. He is said to have cut two cat shaped holes – one little and one large – so each cat could come and go unimpeded by the other.

German-born Einstein was an animal lover to his core, and felt very strongly that people should show compassion and kindness to animals everywhere.

2. Edward Elgar

Edward Elgar
Edward Elgar

Elgar is one of Britain’s most celebrated composers – responsible for compositions that will have brought a tear to the eyes of many at graduation ceremonies and that have raised raucous ovations each Proms night. And much of his music was inspired by or dedicated to dogs throughout his life. The most famous of these was Dan, the Hereford Cathedral organist’s bulldog, with whom he spent a great deal of time.

It was Dan that inspired a piece that proved to be a turning point in English classical music: The Enigma Variations, which feature 14 people and Dan swimming in the River Wye. The story goes that, while the friends were out together, the bulldog accidentally fell into the river and paddled a short way upstream to find a landing place. When it was suggested to Elgar that he set the anecdote to music, he replied: “I did. Here it is.”

3. Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale

This trailblazing nurse may have never entered the medical profession had it not been for the life-altering time in her teens when she nursed a lame dog back to health, saving its life in the process. When Dap the sheepdog was back on all four paws, she had a dream in which God appeared to her and told her she must study to become a nurse.

She did exactly that, and Nightingale – also known as ‘the Lady with the Lamp’ – went onto save the lives of wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, when she also instilled basic hygiene disciplines that reduced the death toll from 42 per cent to two per cent and set medicine on its path to modern standards.

Florence also loved cats and had several throughout her life, enjoying their companionship and admiring their independence (potentially more than many fellow people). She was even quoted as saying how, among all her friends, her cats had never done anything to upset or annoy her.

4. Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol

If it wasn’t for the pets he had throughout his life, entire swathes of Andy Warhol’s work might not exist. His very first book 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy featured sketches inspired by his many feline companions.

But, arguably it was his dogs that gave him the most moral support – as well as a fair bit of artistic inspiration. Warhol’s dachshund Archie would go everywhere with him, and due to his shyness, the artist would often deflect attention to his canine companion when in situations he found difficult or awkward.

He eventually got a second dachshund, called Amos, to keep Archie company – and together the dogs became a regular part of his public persona. They also featured prominently in the famous series of prints which also included Marilyn Monroe and tins of Campbell's.

5. Freddie Mercury

Freddy Mercury

From dedicating his debut solo album Mr Bad Guy to his feline brood as well as “all the cat lovers across the universe”, to wearing a waistcoat adorned with paintings of his beloved pets in his poignant last video for the iconic track, These are the Days of Our Lives, there are nods to Freddie Mercury’s love of cats throughout his career.

The Queen frontman even rescued two of his cats from Blue Cross, one of which was Delilah, who was famously his favourite of them all and his muse for song writing. One track was named after her and the lyrics read: “Oh my oh my oh my you're unpredictable; You make me so very happy; When you cuddle up and go to sleep beside me.”  

Mercury also persuaded the band’s guitarist Brian May to build in an effect on his guitar to replicate a meowing sound which featured in the band’s music – so his love of cats undoubtedly had an impact on Queen’s sound as well as its lyrics.

But Mercury’s cats provided not just inspiration – they also gave him huge comfort and grounding. When he was away on tour he would phone home and have a close friend hold up the phone so he could speak to his cats every night.

6. Anna Sewell

Anna Sewell
Anna Sewell

This horse-loving author was one of our very first forthright animal welfare activists, a cause she fought for throughout her life and which shone through as a theme in Black Beauty, which remains to this day one of the UK’s top three best-selling English language books of all time.

The book, published later in her life in 1877, was a lesson in compassion towards animals, but went beyond that to invoke readers to treat both humans and animals with kindness and respect.

Her love of horses began after she was disabled at a young age following an accident and it was at this time that she began to learn about the animals, and eventually come to depend on them to help keep her mobile.

She never fully recovered her ability to walk, and over time she came to play a leading voice in pushing for the ban of cruel “bearing reigns” that were popular at the time, as well as calling out cases of neglect and overwork.

7. Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill was known for both his strength in office and the tender compassion he had for all creatures great and small - going as far back as his childhood, when he sold his bicycle to buy a bulldog he named Dodo. He even wrote regular letters to his pets while he was away at school.

Later in life, Churchill campaigned tirelessly to return home the horses sent to fight in WWI (a time when Blue Cross was also very active in helping animals in need). He was a huge admirer of their grace and beauty and the power they had to soothe the soul, and was quoted as saying: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

He had a cat called Nelson, whose composure and spirit he admired so much that he credited it with “doing more for the war effort” than he himself had. Churchill also kept another cat at his residence – a marmalade called Jock. The cat was so iconic that to this day Chartwell House has never been without a marmalade cat on the grounds.

His most profound relationship, however, was with his poodle Rufus, in later life. The little brown dog was rarely away from his side and Churchill lavished him with affection. When Rufus died he was bereft – and when he was given another chocolate poodle to help, named him Rufus II. After the loss of Rufus II he never got another dog again because he felt the pain of losing another pet would be too much for him to handle.

8. Anne Frank

Anne Frank

Posthumously published, The Diary of a Young Girl became one of the most famous books in the world and a seminal work in helping generations understand the horrors and brutality of the Holocaust. The book contains several references to cats both before and during their life in the annexe in Amsterdam.

Anne had a pet cat called Moortje, which she left in the care of a neighbour when she was forced to flee her home. She missed Moortje a great deal and wrote how she would daydream about a way to see her again. While she and her family were in hiding, she befriended two cats, which belonged to the owner – they provided a welcome distraction and entertainment during a tense and trying time for the family, and featured often in her diaries.

9. Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor

Best known for being a glamorous movie star and one of the women who (alongside the likes of Katharine Hepburn) changed the lot of future generations of women in Hollywood, Elizabeth Taylor was also a dedicated humanitarian. But she also did a great deal to improve the treatment of animals in film.

National Velvet – the movie that propelled her to stardom when she was just 12 – loosely mirrored her own experiences and the bond between a horse and her owner. The special bond she had with the horse in the film was clear to see on screen and sparked in Taylor a lifelong effort to promote kindness and compassion towards animals.

Arguably, if it hadn’t been for that very special relationship between the two, the world would never have been introduced to the young starlet in the way they did.

10. Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

He may be best known for fighting for the abolition of slavery, but this 16th president of the United States, was also a huge cat fan. Lincoln would take in strays at the White House and shower them with kindness, while leading his nation through civil war and promoting humane moral values across the globe.

In the home stretch of the American Civil War, whilst visiting future president General Ulysses Grant, he was said to have spotted three kittens in a telegraph hut and gave orders to ensure they were properly cared for. His wife was known to describe the cats as Lincoln’s “hobby” – a respite from the cruelties of war and stress of statesmanship.

— Page last updated 27/06/2017