The study of animal personality—or the expression of enduring, stable behavioral patterns—has a long and rich history (Whitham and Washburn; Dugatkin) and we have robust literature in exploring personality traits in chimpanzees, dogs, pigeons, mice, and even spiders. There has also been some work on personality traits in wild felid species kept in captivity, such as cheetahs. Yet until now, relatively little work had been done in trying to understand the personality of cats we know best: the domestic cats with whom millions of people around the U.S. and the world share their homes and under whose rule many of us live.
A study published last week by Carla Litchfield and colleagues in PLOS One, called “The ‘Feline Five’: An exploration of personality in pet cats (Felis catus)” set out to investigate personality in a large sample of pet cats. The aim of the study was two-fold: to create a personality profile of psychologically healthy cats (most behavioral research on domestic cats has focused on the behavioral problems of stressed cats) and to explore ways in which this personality profiling could help cat owners and veterinarians improve the care of cats in the home environment. Cats are far more social than most people realize, and shape their behavior both in relation to other cats in the home or in the neighborhood and in relation to the behavior of their humans. Lack of attention to the social and emotional needs of cats may contribute to poor welfare. As Litchfield et al. note, “many urban cats may be suffering chronic stress, as a result of lack of control over their environment.”
Building on studies of human personality and previous research into animal personality, Litchfield et al. asked several thousand cat owners to rate their cats using 52 personality traits. The results suggest five cat personality factors: Neuroticism, Dominance, Impulsiveness, Agreeableness, and Extroversion. Each individual cat will score somewhere along a continuum—from very low to very high—on these five factors. The Feline Five have significant overlap with the Big Five human personality assessments (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism).
This research will surely be of interest to cat owners, and may offer insights that can help us better understand our cats and provide home environments that optimize their health and happiness. Litchfield el al. offer some specific examples of how personality profiling might help. Cats who score high on Neuroticism (a shy cat), may benefit from having multiple hiding places or quiet zones in the house. Cats who score low on Neuroticism (bold cats) may, if given access to the outside, be more likely to roam and thus may have increased exposure to diseases such as feline HIV. Vaccinations would be high priority for such cats. Cats who score high for Extraversion (smart, curious, inventive) may be more easily bored and might benefit from additional stimulation and play. Knowing the “normal” personality of our cats may also help us track their health: a change in personality—for example, an outgoing cat who becomes withdrawn—may indicate an underlying medical problem.
Another possible value of better understanding cat personality is to increase the success rates of shelter adoptions. In the U.S., some 3.4 million cats will enter the shelter system each year. Many of these cats will cycle through multiple homes, and nearly half will wind up being killed. Personality assessment of both a cat and a potential owner may improve the chances that a placement will be successful. For example, Litchfield el al. note that people who score high on Neuroticism “may have fewer and less complex interactions with a cat,” and may not provide an ideal match for a highly social, extroverted cat. Personality assessments might also help improve the chances that a cat entering a multi-cat household will be comfortable and get along with the others.
Carla A. Litchfield , Gillian Quinton, Hayley Tindle, Belinda Chiera, K. Heidy Kikillus, Philip Roetman. “The ‘Feline Five’: An exploration of personality in pet cats (Felis catus).” PLOS One, August 23, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0183455