I killed a dog once. In a story. It was back when I was still writing mysteries. And I got some pretty strong reactions from editors. “How could you kill a cute, little dog?” Now, mind you, I’d killed a few people in this novel, but that was par for the course. Kill a dog, and I heard about it. But more than a few editors responded with notes that said, “Killing a dog in a mystery is risky, but NEVER kill a cat.” I guess that an inordinate amount of mystery lovers are cat lovers–so just like in Egyptian times, kill a cat & the gods might smite you.
I wrote some short stories for a Barnes & Noble anthology once, Crafty Cat Crimes–got lucky and had two accepted–but the trick was to have the cat solve or help solve the crime. I know that a lot of my friends are fans of Lilian Jackson Braun and some of the new “cat” mysteries, but I had never, ever written a mystery where an animal brought justice to the villain. I have to admit, that slowed me down for a minute.
I learned from experience, though, that I got strong, passionate feedback when I included animals in stories. I wrote a novella where I had the hero race his horse home, hand him to a groom, and tell the groom to give him an extra treat–that he’d earned it…and got feedback about how the horse should be wiped down and walked to cool off, etc. BEFORE he went to the stables and was fed. Which was great, because the reader obviously loved horses. And I obviously should have mentioned that the horse was well tended.
I’ve used children in stories, and I think they add a nice, not-adult view of happenings that give a different take on plot points. And people seem to like kids in fiction, but I don’t get nearly the strong feedback on a kid as on a beast of some sort. In my Babet/Prosper novellas, I had a wise, poisonous boa constrictor (magic makes her poisonous) that chooses to be Babet’s familiar, and a few people actually squirmed at my writers’ group when I read about Morgana slithering onto Babet’s shoulders and wrapping her coils around Babet’s arm.
All that I’m saying, I guess, is that people aren’t the only characters that can make an impact in a story. Weres and shifters aren’t quite as effective. In readers’ minds, they’re still humans–just with a few animal instincts thrown into the mix. But toss in a dog, a cat, or a parrot–and you’d better treat them right. Readers will forgive grisly murders, betrayals, and mass destruction–but kill a dog..or a cat.. or a bird.. and you’re in a LOT of trouble:)