Personality

What a Cat’s Personality Says About Their Owner

Researchers traced cats’ personalities back to their owner’s personality traits.

Posted Sep 06, 2020

Recent research suggests that cats may not be as cold and aloof as many of us think, and that they may in fact bond with their owners like a child bonds with their parents. Therefore, just like a child’s personality is impacted by their parent’s personality, a cat’s personality may be impacted by their owner. Finka et al. (2019) conducted a study to examine this possibility.

Finka et al. (2019) focused on the well-studied Big Five Personality traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. They posited that an owner’s neuroticism may be particularly important to a cat’s outcomes as the trait may result in “chaotic and unstable home environments” (e0211862). Neuroticism in parents has been found to predict lower well-being in children, whereas the traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness have been found to predict greater well-being. Prior research also indicates that an owner’s neuroticism may be particularly consequential for cats. While dogs do not spend less time interacting with neurotic owners, cats do.  

3331 cat owners (92% female) participated in Finka et al.’s study. Participants were recruited through social media, cat-oriented websites, and posters in veterinary offices in London. Participants were required to have owned their cat for at least 6 months. Participants completed the Big Five Personality measures and answered questions regarding their cat’s personality, behaviors, health, and lifestyle. Those with multiple cats responded regarding only the cat they knew the best. On average, participants were extremely happy with their cats (Mean satisfaction = 14.12/15). Only 20% reported behavioral problems with their cats, defined as “aggression, pica, house soiling, scratching on the furniture, and attention seeking” (e0211862).

Results revealed interesting links between the cat owner’s personality and the cat’s personality, lifestyle, and well-being:

1.  Openness. More open cat owners...:

  • Had friendlier cats.
  • Had less aggressive cats.
  • Had less aloof cats.
  • Were less likely to allow their cat to roam outside freely (an unexpected finding).
  • Had more cats.
99mimimi/pixabay
Friendlier cats are more likely to belong to open, conscientious, or extraverted owners.
Source: 99mimimi/pixabay

2. Conscientiousness. More conscientious cat owners...:

  • Had friendlier cats.
  • Had less aggressive cats.
  • Had less aloof cats.
  • Had less anxious/fearful cats.
  • Had more cats.

3. Extroversion. More extroverted cat owners...:

  • Had friendlier cats.
  • Were more likely to have a normal weight cat.
  • Were more likely to allow their cat to roam outside freely.
  • Had fewer cats.

4. Agreeableness. More agreeable cat owners...:

  • Had less aggressive cats.
  • Had less aloof cats.
  • Were more likely to have a normal weight cat.
  • Had fewer cats.
  • Were happier with their cats.
oe4yla/pixabay
Aggressive cats may belong to neurotic owners rather than to open, conscientious, or agreeable owners
Source: oe4yla/pixabay

5. Neuroticism. More neurotic cat owners...:

  • Had more aggressive cats.
  • Had more anxious/fearful cats.
  • Were more likely to have a cat with a “behavioral problem.”
  • Were more likely to have a cat with a medical problem.
  • Were more likely to have a cat with a stress-related illness
  • Were more likely to have an overweight cat.
  • Were more likely to own a non-pedigree (randomly bred) cat.
  • Were less likely to allow their cat to roam outside freely.
  • Had fewer cats.

In addition, pedigree cats were found to be friendlier, less aggressive, less aloof, and less anxious/fearful than non-pedigree (randomly bred) cats. They were also more likely to be kept indoors and less likely to be allowed to roam freely outside.

doanme/pixabay
Anxious cats are more likely to belong to neurotic owners and less likely to belong to conscientious owners.
Source: doanme/pixabay

Overall, as anticipated, an owner’s neuroticism predicted negative health and behavioral outcomes in a cat, whereas the other personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness) predicted positive outcomes. The researchers posit that neurotic cat owners may be overprotective, authoritarian, or unpredictable (e0211862). They did not know why neurotic individuals were more likely to own a non-pedigree cat, but they propose that people may look for a personality match in their cat: Perhaps these individuals prefer cats that are more aggressive, anxious, and aloof; and less friendly (traits more common in non-pedigree cats). Indeed, past research indicates that cat owners are the happiest with their cats when they match with regards to warmth.  Interestingly, cat owners were also happiest if their cats differed from them in dominance/submissiveness.  Research on dogs has not found a link between the owner’s neuroticism and dog breed; however, owners who are high in the trait of “psychoticism” are more likely to own a dog breed stereotyped as aggressive.

The study also unveiled interesting results with regards to indoor versus outdoor access. Cats that were not allowed to freely roam outside showed more stress-related illness. It is possible that owners of indoor cats were better able to detect and report such illness, but according to the authors, this explanation is unlikely as indoor and outdoor cats did not differ in their non-stress related health outcomes. That said, findings regarding indoor versus outdoor access must be interpreted with caution, as most participants resided in the UK where the norm is to allow a cat outdoors (only 26% were indoor only). The stress that a cat experiences indoors versus outdoors may also depend heavily on the outdoor environment (e.g., whether it is urban, suburban, or rural).

There are some important limitations of this study. First, cats tend to mask their pain, so owners' reports of their cats' health may be inaccurate. Second, the owner’s report may be skewed by their own personality traits. For example, a neurotic owner may be more likely to perceive health or behavioral problems in a cat. Meanwhile, a conscientious owner may be more likely to take their cat to the vet, thus detecting health problems. This study also cannot determine causality. Even if owner reports were accurate, it is unknown whether an owner’s personality directly impacts the cat. As mentioned, people may instead select cats based on their own personalities. Nonetheless, the findings of this study are consistent with prior research on parents and child outcomes, highlighting in particular the significance of neuroticism. It seems that our cats' personalities just might tell us a little about ourselves.

Facebook image: Kristi Blokhin/Shutterstock

References

Finka, L. R., Ward, J., Farnworth, M. J., & Mills, D. S. (2019). Owner personality and the wellbeing of their cats share parallels with the parent-child relationship. PloS one, 14(2), e0211862. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0211862

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