The eternal question over which animal is a better pet—cats or dogs—can now be answered with data: Dogs win by a hair; they make their owners happier.
There's an enduring list of topics that arouses vigorous debate among most groups of people. Some questions are serious and some less so, such as liberal versus conservative ideologies, abortion, school uniforms, or whether there's a relationship between video games and violence. Another surefire way to start a debate is to bring up the question of whether dogs or cats make better pets. This discussion typically contains a lot of passion and many anecdotes, but very little hard data. Recent research published in Anthrozoos may change this.
When weighing the relative merits of cats versus dogs as pets, it is natural to try to use as facts information based on the popularity of these animals, but the answer turns out to be a bit of a tossup. There are more pet cats than pet dogs in the United States (86 million owned cats compared with 78 million owned dogs), but that doesn't really mean that cats are more popular: If we look at another statistic from the same survey we find that 39 percent of American households own a dog, while 33 percent of households have cats. The reason is that 52 percent of cat owners own more than one, while only 40 percent of dog people have more than one dog. However, the underlying question is not really answered by the popularity of these pets. What we want to know is which of these two pets most improves the overall happiness of their owners.
Katherine Jacobs Bao and George Schreer of Manhattanville College in New York recently published research in the journal Anthrozoos. In their study, 263 American adults completed an extensive series of online surveys which tried to explore the relationship between pet ownership and positive aspects of mental health, such as happiness. The research project was meant to test several different hypotheses, and the researchers took many measurements, making their data set large and complex. For our purposes, I focus on the main question of whether dog or cat owners are happier.
One survey the investigators used was the Satisfaction with Life Scale. This includes items such as, “In most ways my life is close to my ideal,” and “The conditions of my life are excellent,” to which participants respond using a seven-point scale running from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Here the results were simple, in that pet owners, as a group, were significantly more likely to be satisfied with their lives than people who did not own pets.
It is important to note that the researchers classified people on the basis of whether they currently own a dog or a cat. This tends to give much more reliable and interpretable results than simply asking individuals whether they consider themselves to be "dog people" or "cat people." When we look at the satisfaction with life measure, we find our first indication of a trend: The data reveals that dog owners are significantly more satisfied with their lives than cat owners.
Another measure the researchers examined was the Subjective Happiness Scale, which consists of questions such as, "Some people are generally very happy. They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting the most out of everything. To what extent does this characterization describe you?" The participants rated each question using the same 1 to 7 scale. Here the researchers also found that dog owners seem to be better off and, as a group, happier than cat owners.
To assess another aspect of the day-to-day lives of dog versus cat owners, the researchers included the Modified Differential Emotions Scale, which asks participants to indicate the frequency with which they had experienced various clusters of emotions during the past week. For example, one negative cluster of emotions might be "angry, irritated, annoyed" while a positive cluster might be feeling "amused, fun-loving, silly." In all, participants rated 21 different clusters of emotions covering a broad range of positive and negative responses. The results are consistent with the previous two sets of measures, and there are consistent and statistically significant differences between dog and cat owners. Dog owners are much more likely to experience a greater number of positive emotions, and cat owners are more likely to experience a higher frequency of negative emotions.
There's a lot more data in this study, some of it involving complex statistical analyses. For instance, the researchers looked at differences in personality between dog and cat owners, with results very similar to those reported by other researchers. (Click here for more about that type of research.)
Our main question about the relative impact that dogs and cats have on the quality of their owners' lives appears resolved by this investigation. The experimenters believe that their data provides a clear and unambiguous answer when they say, "In sum, the answer to research question two ('Are there differences in subjective well-being between cat owners and dog owners?') appears to be yes, that dog owners are happier than cat owners."
Katherine Jacobs Bao & George Schreer (2016) Pets and Happiness: Examining the Association between Pet Ownership and Wellbeing, Anthrozoös, 29:2, 283-296, DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2016.1152721