English grammar: should you capitalise animal species and breed names?

English grammar: should you capitalise animal species and breed names?

If you have ever read an article about cats or dogs, the chances are that you have encountered one of the most common errors in written English. The breed names of cats, dogs and other animals are usually capitalised these days, but many such names really shouldn’t be.

A dog’s dinner

One of the great things about cats and dogs is that they tend to behave consistently, and this is more than can be said for their owners, many writers or the rules of English grammar!

The breed names of cats and dogs are almost invariably capitalised in written English, but in most cases, this is grammatically incorrect.

Many writers make a dog’s dinner of their articles by repeatedly referring to Cocker Spaniels or Goldendoodles when they should be talking about cocker spaniels et goldendoodles. However, the breed names Dalmatian et Chihuahua should be capitalised. Confused?

English grammar: should you capitalise animal species and breed names?

So, how do you know when to capitalise and when not to capitalise?

Jumping through capitalisation hoops

Like a canine agility champion, you need to jump through a few hoops if you are to correctly capitalise animal names. The first thing to remember is that all animals belong to a specific species or subspecies, and this will have a scientific name. Scientific names are rendered in Latin and follow the Latin rules of capitalisation. In addition, they should always be italicized. Under the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, there are two types of classification:

  • Binomen (generic name followed by the specific name)
  • Trinomen (generic name followed by a specific name and then a subspecific name)

The generic name of an animal should be capitalised but its specific and subspecific names should not be. For instance, the domestic cat’s scientific name is Felis catus and the scientific name for a goat is Capra aegagrus hircus. 

Scientific names should not be preceded by definite articles. You should write “Felis catus and not “the Felis catus.

English grammar: should you capitalise animal species and breed names?

Latin names for animals do not have plural forms and so you can treat them as singular or plural. Singular is preferred and so it is better to write “Felis Catus is a domesticated animal” rather than “Felis catus are domesticated animals”. Whether you choose to treat a name as singular or plural, you should remain consistent throughout an article, book, chapter or listing.

The common names for animal species such as cat, dog, tiger and lion should never be capitalised. This is because the proper capitlisation of non-scientific animal names is dependent on whether the name is a common noun or a proper noun. Common nouns refer to generic places, things or types. Examples of common nouns include town, car and criminal. Cat and dog are common nouns as these names refer to types of animals and not the given name of a specific animal. Common nouns should not be capitalised, but proper nouns should be capitalised when referring to animals:

The feisty dog was about to bite the postman’s leg

The dog called Charlie was about to bite the postman’s leg

Confusion can arise when an animal’s given name incorporates what would usually be a common noun. In these instances, the common noun should be capitalised:

Felix the Cat (where the specific cat is called Felix the Cat)

Felix the cat (where an animal called Felix is being described as a cat)

Barking up the wrong tree

English grammar: should you capitalise animal species and breed names?

It is undoubtedly breeds and varieties that cause the most confusion regarding capitalisation of animal names and they can see you barking up the wrong tree. The names for breeds and varieties of animals are common nouns and so should generally not be capitalised. However, if a breed name is derived from a proper noun such as the name of a person or a place, then it should be capitalised. Just to make things even more complicated, if a breed name features two or more words, only the word derived from a proper noun should be capitalised:

The cocker spaniel was highly active

An English cocker spaniel was seen playing happily 

The Labrador retriever was very friendly (Labrador is a place)

A Jack Russell terrier was seen running across the road (Jack Russell is the name of the person after whom the breed was named)

The Dalmatian was very spotty (Dalmatia is a place)

English grammar: should you capitalise animal species and breed names?

Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to see that a breed name is derived from a place name or the name of a person. Take Rottweiler, for instance. This name should be capitalised as the breed is named for Rottweil, which is a town in Germany. Breed names can definitely challenge your knowledge of world geography! When in doubt, research the breed and you should be able to find the etymology of its name.

Do you feel like you are chasing your tail?

It can be hard to remember the grammatical rules for animal names. This could be one reason why they are often rendered incorrectly. But it remains curious that the names of cats and dogs are usually incorrectly capitalised whereas bird names are generally written correctly. Sparrow, blackbird and thrush are rarely capitalised. Unless, of course, they happen to appear at the beginning of a sentence. But cocker spaniel and cockerpoo are different stories. Indeed, it has become the norm to capitalise the breed names of cats and dogs. This could mean that capitalisation will soon be considered correct.

Grammar pedants will be resistant to change but ultimately linguistic rules tend to evolve to reflect actual usage. We have evidently already arrived at the point where the capitalisation of animal breeds is widely accepted. For the time being, nobody will raise any eyebrows if you capitalise breed names. But if you wish to remain grammatically correct, you now know exactly what to do! It is important to note that while common usage may impact the treatment of breed names moving forward, the rules regarding scientific names are unlikely to change anytime soon.

English grammar: should you capitalise animal species and breed names?
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