Does being a “cat person” or a “dog person” (or neither or both) reveal your true personality? There’s a body of research that says it does, and suggests that we’re probably giving the question short shrift when we’re scouting out prospective dates or deciding whom to marry; hiring an employee or a nanny; choosing a therapist, dentist or lawyer; or meeting someone new.
(Full disclosure: Historically, I have been both a cat and dog person, but now cats are more my style. This does not make me a crazy old cat lady. But I admit that I am wary and suspicious of people who don’t have pets or plants and do have all-white homes and force you to take your shoes off at the door, despite the fact that they were not raised in a culture where it’s traditional.)
It’s obvious that canines and felines are different in many ways: Owning a dog is by nature a social experience, thanks to the need to walk them. A cute dog—especially a puppy—or one with an expressive face or impressive ears provides the engine for all manner of social interactions with young and old potential admirers. Impromptu friendships spring up in parks, at dog runs, and in elevators, not to mention on suburban streets and country lanes. Dogs are also a lot more work than cats, which says a lot. Does it mean that the dog person is by nature more accommodating, willing to work harder at relationships, and lives a more complicated life than a cat person? After all, like those who bring the mail, neither rain nor sleet nor heat nor gloom of night deters the dog owner.
On the other hand, the cat person enters into a longer contract, since cats generally live longer than dogs (though nowhere near as long as parrots, which is a whole other story). Is the cat owner someone you can trust for the long-haul commitment and quiet evenings at home? It’s worth saying that cat “owner” may be a misnomer since cats tend to own their people; that, too, differentiates the cat person who may not have the control issues a dog person might, may be more self-sufficient, and might not need the external validation a dog person gets. Winston Churchill nailed it when he said, “Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us.” Having a cat doesn’t endow you with many social benefits in the real world—unless you are like the twenty-something girl in my New York neighborhood who has a double stroller for her two kitties and since they often sit next to her on a borrowed stoop, basking in the sun as she texts or chats, there’s often a crowd of onlookers. But she is the exception; generally, only visitors to your home actually get to meet Fluffy, Oliver, or Sophie in the flesh, and then not always. Constitutionally unsuited to be flacks, cats are not reliable meeters and greeters.
While a cat, unlike a dog, won’t expand your social circle in the real world, cyberspace is another story. Cats, not dogs, are the stars of Facebook, You Tube, and Instagram; Grumpy Cat, thanks to his social media presence, has now become a real-world star, raking in the very big bucks for his zeitgeist-savvy “owner.” (What does it say about me that I envy his nearly 7.3 million Facebook “likes?”)
So if you’re decidedly either a cat person or a dog person, you’ve definitely signed up for a different experience—but what does it say about you?
Here’s what science has ferreted out:
1. Dog people are more extraverted.
1. Dog people are more extraverted.
Yes, studies confirm our general cultural beliefs: One, conducted by Samuel D. Gosling and others, looked at the Big Five personality traits in self-identified cat and dog people. Their findings confirmed the results of other studies—that dog people were more extraverted and less neurotic than the cat ones. Makes me wonder: Did cat people make Susan Cain’s Quiet a bestseller? But this study also showed that the feline group was more open to experience than canine folk.
2. Cat people score higher in intelligence and are more intellectually curious.
That’s what a study of 600 college students by Denise Guastello and colleagues found, while also re-confirming earlier findings that dog lovers are more outgoing and lively. This suggests that you want your realtor to be a dog person for sure. But those preferring felines—while more introverted—are more sensitive and open-minded. Additionally, this study did not find them to be more neurotic. They also tend to be more non-conformist—perhaps echoing the independence for which cats are famous—and score higher on intelligence tests. (Does that mean my shift to the cat camp means I'm getting smarter? I hope so.)
This study also found that the motives for having a pet were different for cat and dog aficionados—38% of dog lovers were looking for companionship, while 45.6% of cat lovers wanted affection.
3. The pet you identify with may reflect your view of the world.
One survey, by Time, showed that liberals tended to prefer cats, while conservatives were more likely to be dog people. I wonder about this, given FDR’s Fala and the fact that both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had a cat and a dog living under the White House’s roof. But some research suggests this might be true: Working from the proposition that “people prefer pets that behave in a way that complements their own personalities,” Beatrice Alba and Nick Haslam hypothesized that dog people preferred “having pets that are submissive to them” and that, therefore, this group should score higher on personality characteristics associated with dominance. They tested for Social Dominance Orientation (SDO), interpersonal dominance, competitiveness, and narcissism. SDO is an ideological stance, a belief that there is a hierarchy in the world among people and groups, and that “inequality is natural and desirable.”
What they found was that while dog people scored higher on SDO and competitiveness, they were actually neither more assertive nor narcissistic than cat folk. These findings imply that dogs are more popular with conservatives—and they note that 9 of the top 10 dog-owning states voted solidly Republican in the 2012 election, while 9 of the bottom 10 dog-owning states voted for President Obama. So, does your dog reveal your hidden “Red” side, despite your liberal leanings? Or, alternatively, does your kitty prove that there’s a certain shade of Blue coloring your political views? The jury is still out.
(Of course, then there are those who think the whole cat person/dog person debate is a sub rosa discussion of stereotypes, including sociologist Lisa Wade, who wrote a great blog post called, “My cat people/dog people rant.” She explains that the distinction between dog people and cat people is just a blind for assessing whether a person is more masculine or feminine:
"After all, don’t we stereotype women as cat people and men as dog people? And don’t we think men with cats are a little femmy or, at minimum, sweeter than most… even, maybe, gay? And don’t we imagine that chicks with dogs are a little less girly than most, a little more rough and tumble? The cat person/dog person dichotomy is gendered.”
She adds out that nobody ever worries about becoming a crazy dog person.)
There’s plenty of room for both dog and cat people in the world. Whether they should marry each other is a different question ...
Copyright © Peg Streep 2015
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READ MY BOOKS:
Gosling, Samuel D., Carson J. Sandy, and Jeff Potter, “Personalities of Self-Identified Dog People and Cat People,” Anthrozoo (2010), vol. 23, issue 2, 213-222.
Alba, Beatrice and Nick Haslam,” Dog People and Cat People Differ on Dominance-Related Traits,” in press, Anthrozoo.
Sara Braun, Jose Gutierez, Kristen Jolsten, Brianna Olbinski, and Denise Guastello,“Personality Differences of Self-Identified Canine and Feline Lovers,”