Tips to Include Pets in Fiction

By Sue Coletta

I love writing pets into my stories. Not only is a great way to show a killer’s soft side, but they’ve become important family members for my main characters. In my stories, I’ve used a Rottweiler, English Mastiff, St. Bernard, a calico, tabby, and all-black cat, pet crows, and a black bear.

I’ve even borrowed a friend’s Bulldog, but I felt so responsible for him, I couldn’t include him like I’d originally planned. God forbid I returned him emotionally scarred from the experience. It’s much safer to create a fictional pet.

Need a way to show your character’s quirky side? Include a bearded dragon, snapping turtle, boa, tarantula, or exotic bird.

Is your character adventurous? Give him a pet moose, lion, leopard, or tiger to love. How ‘bout a pet elephant? When writing about pets let your imagination soar.

Fit the pet to a specific character to cue readers about their personality. By using well-thought-out animals, it can say a lot about who they are, where they live, or even, their state of mind. It’s also fun to juxtapose. Give a tattooed biker a Chihuahua or toy poodle. Readers will love it!

A few things to keep in mind when writing pets into fiction…

If you kill the pet, you better have a damn good reason for it, a reason readers will understand.

For example, not long ago my husband and I watched John Wick. [SPOILER ALERT] I fell in love with the Beagle puppy his dead wife sent from the grave. When the bad guys murdered the dog I almost shut off the movie. If my husband hadn’t begged me to keep watching, that would’ve been it for me. Turns out, this moment kicked off the quest (First Plot Point in story structure). Not only is it an important scene, but if it didn’t happen there’d be no story. See? Understandable reason why he had to die. John Wick would not have gone ballistic over a stolen car. The puppy was the only thing left he cared about. It had to happen.

The safer option is to not harm the pets.

Why Does the Character Have That Specific Pet?

As I mentioned earlier, you need to know why the character chose that pet. Is he lonely? Does a couple use their pets to fill a maternal/paternal need? Are you using that pet as a way to show the character’s soft side? Does the pet become the only one who’ll listen to their fears, sorrow, or hidden secrets? In other words, for an introverted character, pets can assume a larger role in the story so your character isn’t talking to him/herself.

As the writer, you need to know why that dog, cat, bird, lizard, or bear is in the story and what role they play. Does a K9 cop track criminals? Did your criminal character train a horse to be the getaway driver? Does the killer feed his pet hogs or gators human flesh? Knowing why that fictional pet exists is crucial.

What’s the Pet’s Personality?

Animal lovers know each pet has his/her own personality. If you’ve never owned the pets you’re writing about, then I suggest doing a ton of research till you feel like you have. For example, while writing Blessed Mayhem I needed to know how crows communicated and how people could interpret their calls. What separated a crow from a raven, what they felt like, what they smelled like, what foods they enjoyed most. In order to make the characters real I spent countless hours of research into the life of crows. I even went so far as to befriend a crow of my mine. Turns out, Poe was female. It didn’t take long for her to bring her mate, Edgar. When they had chicks, they brought them too. It’s turned into a very special experience (story for another time).

What Does the Pet Look Like and How Does S/he Act?

First, you must know the basics … their markings, voice, breed, habitat, diet, etc. Then delve deeper into the expressions they make when they’re happy, content, sleeping, aggravated, and downright pissed off. Every animal has their own unique personality, mannerisms, and traits. Evoke the reader’s five senses. Don’t just concentrate on sight. By tapping into deeper areas, our fictional pets come alive on the page. A scene where the hero or villain cuddles with a pet can add a nice break from the tension, a chance to give the reader a moment to catch their breath before plunging them back into the suspense.

Plus, pets are fun to write.

Does the Basset Hound snore so loudly he keeps the rest of the family awake? Is he now banished to the garage at night? Does the German Shepherd’s feet twitch when he’s dreaming? Does the Mastiff throw his owner the stink-eye when he can’t reach his favorite toy?

Let’s talk dogs. They do more than bark. Use their full range of grunts, moans, groans, happy chirps, and playful growls when your character plays tug-of-war. For cats, nothing is more soothing than a purr rattling in their throat as your character drifts asleep. Soft claws can massage their back after a brutal day.

Years ago, I had a pet turkey who used to love to slide his beak down each strand of my hair. This was one of the ways Lou showed affection. I’d sit in a lounge chair with a second lounge chair behind me, and Lou would work his magic till I became putty in his beak. He knew it, too. After all that hard work, I couldn’t deny him his favorite treats.

Symbolism and Locale

Need an already-creepy area to become even more menacing? Have vultures, eagles, or other carrion birds circle overhead. Use coyotes’ eerie chorus of howls. Crickets and tree frogs symbolize a desolate country milieu or swampland.

Dead silence also works well, but sometimes you need that extra oomph to evoke the correct emotional response. Anyone who’s ever spent time outside, in the dark, with only wildlife around for miles, can tell you their calls have a way of raising all your tiny body hairs at once.

Ever hear a Fisher cat? Their cries sound like a baby being slaughtered. This the best YouTube video I could find, but around here they’re even more sinister. When a Fisher cat screams it’s a tough sound to ignore.

If your character is camping or lost in the woods, ground the reader with the songs of nature and a crackling fire.

Near a lake, use water lapping against the shore.

Listening to nature and animal sounds can also be a great way to trigger the muse.


If your characters are snuggling with a pet in the first few chapters, then you must include them in later scenes as well. Otherwise, the home environment won’t ring true. Where’d the dog go? He was in Chapter Three and now, he’s gone. What happened to him? Animal lovers will notice his/her absence.

If your villain is killed and you’ve gone to great lengths to show how much he loves his dogs, then make sure the reader knows what’ll happen to those dogs after his death. Did your hero just orphan them? Or did the villain write them into his will? Maybe he or she has a family member that will care for the dogs. The tiny details matter. Think of it in terms of yourself. If you own an African Gray, then chances are s/he will outlive you. What provisions have you set in place for his/her care after you’re gone? Same goes for fictional pets.

Aging Pets

Everyone ages, even fictional pets. Sometimes the years aren’t kind. Does your dog character limp from arthritis? Then you can’t let him charge out the door with a spring in his step. He needs to lumber into a room. He’s slower than your younger animal characters. His muzzle now has gray. Around the eyes are graying too. Maybe he takes medication for achy joints. By including the aging process readers can relate. We’ve all had older pets, and it broke our hearts to see them age. Unfortunately, your fictional pet needs to age. We can prolong this process, but we need to at least show them slowing down. By doing so, we can also show the emotional angst it causes our character to see them this way.

The Day-to-Day

Does your fictional dog have a favorite squeaky toy? Does your cat like to get high on catnip? Maybe s/he knows where your character stashes the bag, and every time they leave the house the cat gets wasted. Maybe your character goes to the local butcher every Saturday to buy the family dog a bone. If your fictional dog is panting in the summer heat, please give him a bowl of water to cool off. Whatever you do, don’t lock him inside a car in ninety-degree heat.

Ever see a dog drunk on apples? It’s hilarious! Let your fictional dog eat fallen apples, then show him stumbling back to the house. How about peanut butter? Peanut butter and animals can be a winning combination. Does your fictional cat walk on the counters? Does your fictional dog beg for food at the dinner table? On the sly do your children characters slip bacon to him? How ’bout cauliflower, and even the dog spits it out. You get the picture.

Have fun with your fictional pets. I do. They’re some of my favorite characters to write.


What are some ways you’ve used pets in your writing? Have you ever created an exotic pet?

2017 winner of #RBRT Readers’ Choice Award in Mystery/Thriller. Available in paperback and ebook. Look inside HERE.


24 thoughts on “Tips to Include Pets in Fiction

  1. When I was writing my Triple D cattle ranch series, I had to leave myself a sticky note on the computer saying “Charlie!” so I wouldn’t forget to include the ranch dog.

    Nothing is more irritating than to introduce a pet, and then have the character go off on his quest and the poor dog is home alone all day. Someone has to feed it, let it out, etc. Animals can’t be props. They’re alive and have survival needs.

    The late Barbara Parker warned me not to kill any pets in my book. She got hate mail for having a dead cat in one of her books. So, even though I needed to show Randy’s attachment to his cats as a pivotal plot point, I had them both recover. Initially, only one of the two was going to survive.

    • “Animals can’t be props.” Nicely put, Teri. I agree. Nothing irks me more than being introduced to a pet who never comes back on scene.

  2. Oh dear, this is a hard one. I gave my series guy Louis a cat (inherited from a girlfriend) in the second book. Thirteen books in, he’s still dragging that darn cat from Michigan to Florida and back again. I have to account for the thing whenever Louis goes on the road (or readers let me hear it) and now the cat is getting up there in years. (I age Louis and the series in real time). Sigh. The thing is gonna have to die sooner or later. (although I think I can go 5 more years since I had a cat that lived to 22).

    Lesson: Think long and hard if you want to give your series character an animal.

    • Good point, Kris. If it’s a long-standing series, eventually they need to cross the rainbow bridge, but I also think that could be an excellent scene, steeped in raw emotion. We’ve all lost a furry pal at one time or another. If we can relate their passing to the plot in some way, even if it’s symbolic, all the better. Maybe the dog or cat passes away in his sleep on the very night the character conceives her first (or fifth) child. Later, she may notice a few of her dog’s traits in that child, thereby keeping him alive in some small way. It also might ease the reader into letting go.

  3. Fun post, Sue. You managed to find a topic that you don’t see a lot of info on. Lots of good points for consideration. : )

  4. I’m writing the first book of a series and the main character doesn’t have any pets because she travels so much, but in the middle of the book, she finds a dog in a victim’s house. Instead of handing him off to the RSPCA like she’s supposed to, she takes him home saying that she’ll contact the victim’s next of kin to take care of him, but the victim doesn’t have any. She knows she should take him to the RSPCA now, but keeps delaying it. By the end of the book, the main character is staying put and so is the dog.

    • Love that, Mara. It says a lot about the character that she can’t bear to turn him over to the shelter. It’s also a great addition to the overall character arc. Nicely done.

  5. I made my Yorkie, Heimdall the Norse Dog, a main character in my book Appetizers of The Gods where he runs around with my Leprechaun friends, saving the world from trolls and evil elves. It was so much fun to give Heimdall’s personality the ability to “speak”, but only in asides, to the reader. Kind of like Snowy from those great Tintin books I read as a kid.

  6. My favorite fictional dog is Blood from Harlan Ellison’s short story “A Boy and His Dog”. it wasn’t a bad movie either. The movie was made in 1976 and the boy is played by a young Don Johnson.

  7. I listened to GM Maillet speak at Bouchercon and she said the worst thing she ever did in her Max Tutor series was give Max a dog, LOL. She says in every book now, her editor is finding a story hole where she didn’t address the dog.

    In both of my series, I have pets. As a pet owner myself, I cannot imagine a life without pets (unless you have allergies, but surely if you do, you can find some animal that doesn’t make you sneeze). I suppose if I was writing Reacher or an International Thriller, it would be hard to account for the pet, but I always find stories with characters that don’t have pets, a little harder to relate to.

    • I do, too, Alec. Perhaps it depends on how the writer views animals as a whole. Because I can’t imagine life without our feathered and furry friends, I can’t imagine writing a story without one.

  8. My thriller/paranormal series has a dog, a Brittany Spaniel. Having owned three of these myself, it was easy to incorporate the animal character into the story. The energetic, loveable canine adds a soft touch to an otherwise dark story. Brittany’s have been described as “a feisty little hunter.” My character doesn’t hunt, but Brittanys are also known as wonderful family pets. I included this breed because one: I am familiar with it. Two: it’s not the usual pick for most authors, or pet owners. They are fun to write. The best adjective: exuberant. And they are, about everything!

    • Love your choice of dog, Cecilia! I, too, find pet characters add a nice break from the tension. They can also add comedic relief in an otherwise dark and dangerous world.

  9. A definite yes on not using pets as props. In one book I’ve read the writer totally forgot the pet during all the action away from the home, and I worried about it the whole book. I mentioned that in a review, and a bunch of readers said that they were bothered to the point of not enjoying the book as much as they should. All the writer would have needed to do was write a few sentences about the pet being left with a family member or something. Bad writer!

    Another good point is to have the pet somehow relate to the plot rather than just be a character accessory. In GUARDIAN ANGEL, the single dad hero has a young German Shepherd who affects the plot by warning of an intruder, who helps save the hero by barking on command to lead the hero to shore through burning rubble, and other things. Cute is good, but useful is better.

  10. I love pet characters and write a lot of them. So far there has been a dog, a rabbit, a fox, a cockatrice (it was fantasy), and a horse. Oh, Otto says hi. He’s ready for his next story, and now he has a sister. It’s key to give fictional pets personalities and quirks. They add tons to the stories.

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