Americans love their pets, especially cats and dogs—there are about 150 million of the critters in our homes right now, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. So it’s no surprise that cats and dogs turn up pretty often in literature, either as companions to fictional people, or (occasionally) as the primary characters. If you love dogs or cats, it’s a special treat to find a book written by someone who appreciates their fur babies as much as you do. The twenty-one books below don’t just feature cats or dogs on the page as a part of the story—they’re the main characters, or the whole point of the book in the first place.
The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein
Anyone who has ever lived with a dog has stared at their canine companion and wondered what it’s thinking. Stein’s book focuses on Enzo, a dog owned by race car driver Denny. Enzo believes in an old canine legend that a dog “who is prepared” will be reincarnated as a human—something Enzo very much wants. Enzo is precisely what dog lovers want to believe their doggos are on the inside, and that makes this philosophical story all the more remarkably compelling.
All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot
Herriot, whose real name was James Alfred Wight, wrote about a wide range of animals in his semi-autobiographical books about a veterinarian in a small rural English town, but dogs and cats get their fair share of attention. Few people before or since have tapped into the special bond between humans and the animals that they care for, live with, and use to sustain themselves. What seem at first glance to be simple, heartwarming stories of a vet in the country turn out to have an emotional power that only those who truly love their companion animals can appreciate.
Dewey the Library Cat, by Vicki Myron
The power of our pets to inspire and comfort us knows no bounds, and the story of a tiny kitten left in a library’s drop box, adopted by the library, and embraced by the whole world is a perfect example. Dewey Readmore Books, as the kitten was eventually named, was half-frozen and suffered from a genetic condition—but lived a long and comfortable life in the library of Spencer, Iowa, officially given the title of staff supervisor and eventually attaining worldwide fame. Cat lovers know that felines are peculiarly suited to living in libraries and bookstores, making them the most literate of all animals. Dewey’s story of salvation and service will inspire and delight.
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
London’s classic tale of a dog named Buck who is stolen from his home and forced to slowly leave his civilized life behind and become increasingly wild in order to survive is as inspiring as it is a harsh reminder that the animals we love and care for—and who care for us—are, at heart, wild. If you’ve ever looked at your faithful pet and thought she seemed closer to a wolf than a dog, you’ll understand this story.
Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson
Warning: if you love dogs and you’ve never read this one, be prepared to feel things. The classic story of a faithful pup who spends his life defending and helping his beloved family, only for tragedy to occur, is heart-wrenching. It will make you want to give your own dog friend an extra hug and be happy you won’t have to make any terrible decisions regarding them any time soon. At the same time, the book reminds dog lovers exactly why they are considered to be man’s best friend.
The Fur Person, by May Sarton
Anyone who has lived with a cat or three knows that they are extremely people-like. It’s the way they sit, the way they look at you (generally in a disapproving manner), and the way they seem to be judging your every move, and not kindly. Sarton’s classic story tells the tale of a cat that came into her life, first as a wandering cat-about-town, then slowly settling into her home. It’s essentially the biography of a cat, and if you love cats you’ll find this to be a thoroughly charming and enjoyable book.
A Lion Called Christian, by Anthony Bourke
Lions are not, by and large, considered to be house cats—and yet you’ve probably seen the viral video of two men who raised a lion cub in their London home, set the lion free in Africa when he became too large, and later visited him in the wild. Christian not only remembered his two foster parents, but was obviously joyful at seeing them again. The full story detailed in Bourke’s book will make any cat lover glance affectionately at their pet and hold out hope that the aloof, disinterested animal might react similarly if they were reunited after an absence.
I Am a Cat, by Soseki Natsume
This classic of Japanese literature is a satirical look at Japanese society in the early 20th century, when Japan was importing Western ways and attitudes, resulting in an uneasy mixture of viewpoints and style in daily life. The narrator is a self-important house cat who observes his human hosts and their friends, making pointed comments about their lives that are still hilarious today. Cat lovers know that our cats have a poor opinion of us—of our grooming, our inability to catch vermin, and our lack of appreciation for napping in sunbeams—and this book will hit that sweet spot of loving an animal you’re not sure loves you back.
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Eliot
The fact that the same man who wrote The Waste Lands or The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is also responsible for inspiring the Broadway musical Cats breaks minds. Eliot was a cat lover, and amused himself and others by making up elaborate names and back stories for the cats in his life. He wrote many of the poems contained in this book for his godson, musing about his own cat and cats he had met. Since it’s Eliot, the poems are casually brilliant, and are sure to make you feel like Eliot is somehow writing about your cat.
Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gag
This classic children’s book has a simple premise: a lonely old couple decide they’d like to take in a cat for some company. The husband sets off to find one, and instead finds “hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.” The man wants to bring home the prettiest, and the cats fall into a jealous fight with each other to claim the title. When the dust settles, they are all gone, except for a skinny kitten cowering in the tall grass who survives because it doesn’t consider itself pretty. Taken in, it grows into a beautiful cat and everyone lives happily ever after.
The Cat Inside, by William S. Burroughs
When you think of William S. Burroughs, you probably don’t think about cats, but Burroughs himself did. He was a cat lover, and in this novella he recounts the cats he’s known, lived with, and doted on throughout his life. For anyone who has known life with a cat, this will be thrillingly familiar and touching story that reminds you why you love living with these fussy, thoughtful creatures in the first place.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski
A modern retelling of Hamlet, this bestseller isn’t about dogs per se, but mute Edgar’s family breeds dogs, and he has a connection with the dogs in his life that he lacks with other humans. Edgar’s dogs are also extremely smart and talented, and help Edgar in his tortured quest to find out the truth about his father’s death and his uncle Claud’s sudden usurpation of his father’s role. If you know how much help a dog can be in your daily life, this book will speak to you in surprising and touching ways.
Cujo, by Stephen King
You might think a story about a rabid dog that terrorizes people isn’t the ideal choice for folks who love their dogs, but it is King’s sympathetic handling of Cujo’s point of view that makes this a must-read. That tragedy and horror can afflict anyone—even good dogs—is a fact of life, and Cujo is a big-hearted, joyful good boy who suffers unfairly. King’s best trick is making the nominal “monster” of the book—a huge rabid dog—actually a tragic hero as Cujo fights against the disease that is destroying him.
Mort(e), by Robert Repino
A sci-fi story about a war on humanity in which cats and dogs and other animals—given the power of speech and human-level thought—fight as proxies for the real enemy, Mort(e)’s main character is a cat in love with the dog next door. When the war comes, they’re separated, and although the cat becomes a deadly and skilled warrior, he never quite gives up hope of finding his love again. In other words, if you sometimes have fever dreams in which your cat is super-intelligent, and possibly plotting to kill you, this book will hit you right in the gut.
The Cat Out of Hell, by Lynne Truss
Truss, best-known for her grammar lecture Eats, Shoots & Leaves, offers up a delirious tale that cat lovers and haters can enjoy. A man goes searching for his missing sister and instead finds a cat that can talk. The cat, Roger, tells his story: he spent many years as companion to an older, smarter cat named the Captain—now, though, they have had a feline falling out and anyone who crosses the Captain turns up dead. The story gets weirder from there, but Truss’ obvious distrust of cats will delight those who hate them, while Roger’s erudite stories will delight the other side.
Marley and Me, by John Grogan
By now we all know not to read this book without a box of tissues at hand, but Grogan’s memoir isn’t just a tear-jerker, but a celebration of a very special dog. Anyone who has lived with, loved, and lost a dog that had personality and swagger will relate to this story even if you know the ending that is waiting for you—and anyone who has dealt with a rambunctious, freedom-loving dog that systematically destroys your property and peace of mind will find themselves completely in tune with this book.
Going Home, by Jon Katz
One of the saddest aspects of living with and loving a cat or dog is their comparatively short lifespans; for most of us, losing a pet is an inevitability. Katz writes about losing his beloved dog with raw emotion combined with deep ruminations on the nature of existence and love, and the sequence where he provides one last “perfect” day for his dog before the end is guaranteed to have any dog lover more or less openly weeping. It’s a powerful idea, and Katz details how he made it happen for the benefit of dog lovers everywhere.
Tobermory, by Saki
Saki’s short story about a cat given the gift of speech is caustic and hilarious; Tobermory, the cat, uses his sudden ability to communicate in English to reveal all of the awful and embarrassing secrets he knows about the humans in his midst, prompting several attempts to murder him. But in the end Tobermory goes out on his own terms, losing a fight with another local cat and dying with honor. If you have a cat that comes and goes as he pleases, this story will feel very close to home.
Edward the Conqueror, by Roald Dahl
If all you know of Dahl are his more whimsical children’s books, this story might be a surprise. A man burning fall leaves in the backyard almost burns up a silver-haired cat. His wife takes the cat in and becomes attached to it, convinced after a few musical events that the cat is, in fact, the reincarnation of Franz Liszt. Her obsession grows, alarming the husband, who eventually settles on what seems to be a violent and distasteful solution to his problem. Cat lovers will understand how you can assume genius in this silent, deliberate animals—and cat haters will understand the struggle to rid yourself of a cat that has made itself at home.
Simon’s Cat, by Simon Tofield
Tofield’s hilarious comics depict a cat who is affectionate, manipulative, and perpetually hungry—thus making this a comic about all the cats in the world. Simon’s Cat is defined by his innocence, however; anyone who has lived with a cat knows that while they’re more affectionate than popular conception believes, they lack any sense of a moral compass and simply don’t understand the concepts of right and wrong. This is the crucial detail that Tofield nails perfectly.
Watchers, by Dean Koontz
If you’ve read more than one Dean Koontz novel, you’ve probably noticed how much he dotes on his canine characters—often telling portions of the story from the dog’s point-of-view (see: Dragon Tears). And no Koontz dog is more beloved than Einstein, the dog at the center of what is, not coincidentally, Koontz’s defining work. Einstein is the product of a government experiment that has gifted him with human-level intelligence and, with the help of a contraption involving Scrabble titles, he eventually gains the power of speech, after a fashion. Unsurprisingly, this golden retriever turns out to be just as lovable and loyal to his human caregivers as you’d expect. Koontz also wrote A Big Little Life, a memoir about the special golden retriever in his own life.