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The Art and Science of Naming Shelter Pets: A Deep Dive into Practices and Perspectives

Naming Shelter Animals
Naming Shelter Animals

Every year, the Michelson Found Animals Foundation, alongside other similar organizations, helps thousands of animals in the Los Angeles area find their forever homes. Many of these pets are strays, requiring shelter staff and volunteers to come up with new names for thousands of cats and dogs each year.

The Fun and Challenge of Naming Shelter Pets

While naming pets might initially sound like a delightful task, it can become quite challenging after the first few hundred names. Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of the Michelson Found Animals Foundation, shares that the process starts off as fun but can quickly become a test of creativity and endurance.

To streamline this task, volunteers and staff often resort to shortcuts. For instance, they might name a litter of puppies after characters from popular TV shows like Game of Thrones or Star Wars. Seasonal names are also common, with many white kittens being named Snowflake during the winter months. Distinct personalities or physical features of the animals can also inspire their names. For example, a local shelter once worked with a three-legged dog named Eileen—a playful pun that helped her stand out.

The Emotional Bond Created by Names

Naming shelter animals is not just about identification; it plays a crucial role in helping potential adopters form an emotional bond with the pets. “It’s a lot easier to fall in love with ‘Snowflake’ than ‘Cat Number 3,298,’” explains Gilbreath. Jme Thomas, executive director of the Motley Zoo Animal Rescue in Redmond, Washington, echoes this sentiment, emphasizing that any effort to better market an animal can be essential to saving their lives.

At Motley Zoo, most animals are named after musicians or celebrities, creating a unique and memorable identity for each pet. Currently, pets named Celine Dion, Mario Batali, and John Mayer are looking for forever homes. Sometimes, the animals are even photographed with their celebrity namesakes to enhance their appeal.

Naming Animals Already with Names

When an animal comes to the shelter with an existing name, it is generally kept unless there's a compelling reason to change it. This could include instances of past abuse associated with the name or if the name could hinder the pet's chances of being adopted. For instance, a dog named Killer might be renamed Keller to sound similar yet be more palatable to potential adopters.

Is It Okay to Rename Your Adopted Pet?

Renaming an adopted pet is a common concern among new pet owners. According to Thomas, it’s almost always okay to rename your pet, as it can be a fresh start and a bonding experience for both the pet and the owner. Gilbreath concurs, particularly for kittens and puppies who have only had their shelter name for a short period.

However, renaming an adult pet, especially one that has had the same name for many years, can lead to some confusion during the transition. Despite this, Gilbreath advises that if the name interferes with your relationship with the pet, renaming is advisable.

Teaching Pets Their New Name: A Professional Perspective

Transitioning a pet to a new name can take a few days to a few weeks, depending on the pet's age and adaptability. Thomas suggests using the old name occasionally during the transition, especially if the pet seems to be ignoring the new name. Consistently pairing the new name with positive reinforcement like treats, praise, and affection can help pets adapt more quickly. Even cats, which are often considered untrainable, can learn to respond to a new name, especially when associated with positive experiences like meal times.

“Pets are really good at reading us,” says Gilbreath. “They will quickly learn that the new name makes you happy, and they will adapt to that.”

Real-World Examples of Renaming Success

Real-world examples illustrate the success of renaming pets. For instance, a shelter dog originally named "Banshee" was renamed "Bailey" by her adopters. The new name helped Bailey adapt more quickly to her new home environment, as the positive reinforcement and affection associated with her new name made the transition smooth. Another example is a cat named "Feral," which was renamed "Freddy." The new name marked a new chapter in Freddy's life as a beloved house cat, far removed from his previous life on the streets.

The Medical Professional's Perspective on Naming and Renaming Pets

From a veterinary and animal behaviorist standpoint, the process of naming or renaming pets is seen as more than just a trivial task. It has significant implications for the animal's psychological well-being and the owner-pet relationship. Dr. Sarah Johnson, a veterinarian with a specialization in animal behavior, explains that names are cues that pets learn to associate with attention, food, and care. A positive association with their name can enhance their responsiveness and behavior.

Naming and Behavioral Conditioning

Behavioral conditioning plays a crucial role in how pets respond to their names. Positive reinforcement—rewarding the pet for responding to their name—can be an effective method. Dr. Johnson advises using high-value treats and a consistent tone of voice when calling the pet by their new name. This consistency helps create a strong, positive association with the name.

Psychological Impact of Names

Names can also impact how pets perceive themselves and their environment. A name that is frequently associated with negative experiences or stress can cause anxiety in pets. For example, a dog named "Thunder" who associates his name with frightening storm-related experiences might benefit from a name change. The new name can help break the negative associations and provide a fresh start for the pet.


The process of naming and renaming shelter pets is a blend of creativity, emotional intelligence, and scientific understanding. It plays a crucial role in helping animals transition into their forever homes and forming strong bonds with their new owners. By understanding the significance of names from both an emotional and behavioral perspective, shelters and adopters can ensure a smoother transition and a happier, healthier life for the pets.

At the end of the day, the goal is to provide these animals with the love and care they deserve, and a name is just the beginning of their new journey.


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