Why Bella is now the most popular dog name

A pug named Bella.
A pug named Bella.
Image: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
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The first time I ever dog-sat for a friend was in 2009. The dog was a pint-sized Yorkie named Bella who loved to sleep on your lap. The next year, I adopted my first dog, and she often played with my neighbors’ rambunctious boxer puppy named Bella. Then, a friend from college got a beagle, and named her—you guessed it—Bella.

At first I thought maybe it was just a glitch in the system, that it was only in my small slice of the world that there were a ton of dogs named Bella running around. But then my colleague Dan and I investigated, and found out it’s been at the top of popular dog-name lists since 2009. While there aren’t detailed national data available, data from the New York City government on dogs licensed in 2016 showed there are 1,360 Bellas in the city. (Max is a close second; there are 1,287 puppers by that name in New York.) And it’s not just New York; it’s the most popular dog name overall in the US, as well as in New Zealand and Australia.

When the name Bella first became popular, people chalked it up to the Twilight series, four books and four movies that featured a protagonist named Bella. But now that it’s 2018 and it’s safe to say that Twilight-mania is behind us, there must be something else going on here.

Top names of dogs in New York City in 2016 by year of birth

Laura Wattenberg, who runs the website Baby Name Wizard, points to an important trend fueling Bella’s popularity: dog are now more likely to receive human names. “This probably reflects a change in how people think about their pets,” she says. Whereas we once kept dogs or cats to perform certain tasks—hunting or herding dogs, or cats that keep the home rodent-free—pets are now more likely to just be members of the family, and recent studies show people are now more likely to think of pets as equal in status to children.

There are other pet trends suggest people are thinking of their pets more like children: dog food increasingly looks like human food; pets are now often put in their owners’ wills (paywall); and owners are more and more known to describe their relationship to their pets in terms previously reserved to the parent-child relationship, like “dog mom” or “fur baby.” In New York, 19 of the top 20 dog names could double as people names. (The exception is Lucky, and even that qualifies if you’re Britney Spears.)

Bella, in particular, also conveys the right feel for a dog name. As with other popular dog names like Max and Lucy, Bella is a classic, more old-fashioned name, which Wattenberg says are typically received as “warmer” than more contemporary names. Bella is also short and cute, and often used as nickname for names like Isabella, Arabella, and Annabelle—which also conveys warmth.

Annesha Bhattacharya, who works on Quartz’s research and insights team, says her immediate family, which lives in the US, named its chocolate lab Bella because it was cute and short. It’s also easy to pronounce, an important quality for incorporating their new doggo into their extended family in India.

It also could be the case that our human ideas of gender extend into the dog realm. Wattenberg has observed that just as baby names are becoming more masculine, with more girls receiving traditionally male names like Charlie, Frankie, or Blake, dog names that focus on “hyper-masculine” features like Rocky, Tank, or Diesel have remained popular, while names highlighting “ultra-feminine” qualities like Precious have fallen out of style. “Feminine markers are considered almost a pejorative,” says Wattenberg. Perhaps Bella, which means “beauty” in Spanish and Italian, walks the line in connoting desirable female attributes without being too frou-frou.

Bella also seems particularly flexible. Some traditionally popular dog names feel breed-specific or appearance-specific; for instance, Patches connotes a spotted dog, while Curly connotes a shaggy-haired dog. Wattenberg says that, for a while, Mickey was a popular name for chihuahuas because of their large ears. But a dog of any breed can be a Bella.

Top names of dogs in New York City in 2016 by breed