Do you love cats? Prefer dogs? Whether you love cats or dogs—or aren’t a pet person at all—may reveal something about your personality. We use our personal intelligence to notice whether someone loves cats, for example, and use that information to form a picture of what the person is like. Disclosure: I’ve lived with cats during two periods of my life; I like dogs too.
Samuel Gosling of the University of Texas at Austin and his colleagues surveyed 4,565 volunteers in an internet survey. Their participants were a diverse group—of different ethnicities, nationalities and ages. 63 percent were female. On the survey, the participants identified whether they were “cat people,” “dog people,” liked both pets, or had no pets. They completed measures of five big personality traits: extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openess-to-experience. Although the sample was large and diverse, it wasn’t necessarily representative of the general population. That acknowledged, data is always imperfect and their results are among the most informative we have.
In Gosling's study, dog people were more outgoing, agreeable and conscientious than cat people. On neuroticism, dog people were less neurotic than average and cat people were closer to average. Cat people were more open-to-experience than dog people. People who preferred both pets were mostly in between dog and cat people, except they were as high in openness as cat people. Non-pet people were also in between except for being as high in conscientiousness as dog people, and relatively low in openness, like dog people. The patterns for each group were the same for both men and women.
Other studies have reported less clear results than this one: Two other studies by Gosling and his colleagues found no differences between cat people and dog people or only a slightly elevated level of negative emotions among cat people relative to dog people. I interpret this state of affairs as follows: While there may be differences among different kinds of pet people, they are fairly small. If cat and dog people were hugely different, I’d expect all the studies to obtain the same results.
In another study, Aline Kidd of Mills College and Robert Kidd of the V. A. Medical Center in Martinez, CA, asked veterinarians in Alameda County, California to distribute surveys to adults with dogs and cats who visited their clinics. The researchers also passed out surveys to participants in two cat shows and two dog shows. Altogether they had a 44 percent return rate—highly respectable—obtaining 223 respondents. The Kidds noted that, unsurprisingly, pet preferences were highly associated with people’s choices of animals: Cat lovers arrived at the vets with cats, and dog lovers with dogs, although there were a few exceptions. Three of the many cat lovers said they also had dogs for protection.
The Kidds examined six groups in their sample: male cat lovers, female dog lovers, female pet lovers, and so on. Among their key findings, males with cats had the highest levels of autonomy, pet lovers (both male and female) were a bit lower in autonomy than average (excepting the males with cats); male pet lovers (including dog lovers) were higher in dominance than the other groups. In addition, female pet lovers were higher in nurturance, and cat-lovers were lower in nurturance than the remaining groups. Overall, all those with pets were lower in their levels of aggression than test norms for the general population.
Horses, Snakes, and Turtles, Oh My!
When it comes to figuring people out, a general rule may be that more distinctive clues are more revealing: In this context, having more unusual pets may be stronger clues to personality than favoring cats or dogs. Helen Kelley of St. Mary’s College worked with the Kidds to examine the personalities of people who had turtles, snakes, birds and horses. The researchers recruited veterinarians, pet-store owners, special interest groups and stable managers to direct them to 200 people who devoted a good deal of their non-work time to one of these animals.
There were a relatively large number of meaningful differences among these four groups. Horse-lovers were assertive, introspective, and relatively low in warmth and nurturance. Turtle lovers were hardworking, reliable and upwardly mobile. Snake owners were unconventional and novelty-seeking. Bird lovers were high in dominance and sociability. Kelley's sample was modest in size, but this is often the case when researchers seek out people who are a smaller percentage in the population such as people devoted to turtles and snakes.
The Bottom Line
What’s the bottom line? When it comes to cats and dogs, differences between pet lovers and the general population are slight. That said, dog people may be a bit more emotionally stable, outgoing, and conscientious than others. After all, they have to regularly walk their dogs. Cat people are a bit more autonomous and open. At least in the late 1970s, male dog lovers and female cat lovers may have expressed traditional gender roles of autonomy for men and nurturance for women more than average. Overall, liking a cat or dog might be a small clue to personality in these ways, and is worth considering—but it’s only a start in getting to know someone. A person who prefers less usual animals as companions—especially turtle, snake and bird lovers—may be providing a stronger clue to their personality: unconventionality in the case of snakes; reliability for turtles, and outgoingness for birds.
A Personal Reflection on a Cat and My Own Personality
The Kidds' research also showed that adults often choose to own the same kind of pet they had as children. That fits my experience: I grew up with a cat and when my present-day family considered getting a pet, I expressed a preference for a cat. Eventually we adopted a cat named Layla.
Layla was my frequent companion during the hours and days I spent at home researching and writing my recent book, Personal Intelligence. Most of the time when I headed for my desk to work, Layla anticipated what I was about to do and was on my lap almost as soon as I was seated. If I had forgotten something en route—a cup of tea or an article I needed to consult—I would gently move her to the floor and get back up again. Once I returned, she would jump up on my lap again.
This quickly became tiresome—I get up and down a lot—but ultimately we reached a compromise. When I sat down to write, I would pull up a chair for each of us. Layla would move onto her chair if she sensed I was about to get up, or I would move her over if she didn’t move on her own accord. Once I sat down again, she was free to wander back onto my lap without needing to jump from the floor (a plus for an older cat).
My family and I suspect that Layla may have enjoyed the book creation process more than anyone, as she would sit in my lap for hours, day after day—a particular pleasure during the cold New Hampshire winter. I certainly appreciated her companionship as well, and her purr was a calming influence as I worked on some of the trickier parts of the narrative.
Gosling’s work suggests our family cat indicates that I should be a relatively autonomous male who is generally open to experience. True or false? Well, my authorship of articles and books would suggest that I’m somewhat autonomous. As far as openness to experience—a combination of intellectual and cultural pursuits—my work as a professor supports the intellectual part; my interest in movies, books and artwork allows me to make some claim to being cultured—although my often lowbrow interests temper that idea: summer blockbuster moves, tawdry detective stories—and walking through art museums quickly. Overall, though, the “cat thing” seems to fit at least a bit. A perceptive individual who used that clue in my instance might be barking—or meowing—up the right tree.
Gosling, S. D.; Sandy, C. J.; Potter, J. (2010). Personalities of self-identified 'dog people' and 'cat people.' Anthrozoös, 23, 213-222.
Kidd, A. H. & Kidd, R. M. (1980). Personality characteristics and preferences in pet ownership. Psychological Reports, 46, 939-949.
Kidd, Aline H.; Kelley, Helen T.; Kidd, Robert M. (1983). Personality characteristics of horse, turtle, snake, and bird owners. Psychological Reports, 52, 719-729.
Photo Credit: "Layla" by Sarah Mayer
Copyright © 2014 by John D. Mayer