Popular stereotypes suggest that those who identify as “dog people” differ in their personality traits from “cat people.” A typical dog person has been described as “loyal, direct, kind, faithful, utilitarian, helpful, and a team player” while the typical cat person has been said to be “graceful, subtle, independent, intelligent, thoughtful, and mysterious” (Gosling, Sandy, & Potter, 2010).
A 2010 study suggests that these beliefs have a kernel of truth. An online survey of over 4,500 people found that those who self-identified as a “dog person” were more extraverted, agreeable, and conscientious compared to those who self-identified as a “cat person.” Cat persons were also more open to experience and more neurotic than dog persons.
One thing I found especially interesting was that dog people tended not to differ much from those who identified as both a dog and a cat person and from those who were neither. Cat people, on the other hand, tended to differ noticeably from all the other groups, suggesting that cat people stand out from the crowd more. Future research could look at whether dog and cat people differ in important life outcomes associated with personality traits. For example, are dog people happier than cat people?
A good description of the methodology used in this study can be found here. PT blogger Stanley Coren also discusses the study here. An important thing to note is that the idea of being a dog or cat person is not the same as whether or not one owns one of these pets. Not all dog or cat owners self-identify as a dog or cat person, and not all self-identified dog or cat people have pets. There are many factors that can influence pet ownership. For some people, lifestyle factors may be the main factor determining if they own a pet, and if so, what kind. The focus of the study by Gosling, Sandy, and Potter (2010) was whether people identified themselves as being a dog person, a cat person, both, or neither.
Reasons for the differences between dog and cat people are not really known. One explanation of these findings is that the respective behavioural characteristics of dogs and cats may particularly appeal to people with compatible personality traits. Dogs are noted for their sociable and affectionate nature, hence people with more sociable and warm personalities (i.e. extraverted and agreeable) may feel more affinity for them than for more aloof cats. Additionally, dogs require greater care than cats; hence people with more conscientious traits (e.g. attention to detail, hardworking) may be more drawn to looking after dogs, whereas more laidback individuals may prefer low maintenance cats (Hergovich, Mauerer, & Riemer, 2011).
Cats are also noted for “doing their own thing” whereas dogs tend to “follow the crowd.” People who are high in openness to experience tend to be non-conformists who like to follow their own interests rather than blend in with other people. Perhaps people who are higher in openness to experience may perceive cats as more individualistic than dogs, and therefore more similar to themselves. Why cat people would be more neurotic than dog people is much less clear. I can only speculate, but I wonder if more neurotic people, who are more prone to stress, see cats as having a more calming influence than dogs? Or perhaps cats are seen as more emotionally sensitive, and people who are emotionally sensitive themselves feel more affinity for them?
Interestingly, when dog and cat people were compared within each sex, the difference between the two types was more pronounced in men than in women. That is, male cat people were quite a bit more neurotic than male dog people, but female dog and cat people differed much less in this respect. Cats might be more appealing to neurotic males than neurotic females.
Cat people appear to have a personality profile that sets them apart to some extent from most others, more so than dog people. Self-identified dog people represented the largest of the four categories (over 45% of the sample) whereas self-identified cat people represented the smallest category (11.5%). (27.7% identified as “both” and 15% identified as “neither.”) Although the focus of the study was to compare cat and dog people, I noticed that dog people in the study tended to be most similar to those in the “neither” or “both” categories, whereas cat people tended to stand out the most. To see what I mean, consider the diagram below that compares each category on all of the five personality traits.
Dog people tended to be very similar or even the same as the “neither” and “both” groups in agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism, and about the same as the neither group in openness to experience. Only in extraversion, did the dog people appear to be somewhat higher than the “neither” or “both” groups. Cat people on the other hand, appeared to stand apart from the other three groups in extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. In openness to experience, they were the same as the “both” group. What these results suggest to me is that self-identified dog people are fairly similar in most respects to people in general, whereas self-identified cat people represent a more distinctive subset of people.
As stated previously, no one has yet really explained why people develop into cat people or dog people. However, it does seem that being a cat person may require more explaining than being a dog person. Being a dog person might almost be the default state for people in general, perhaps due to the popularity of dogs as pets. Perhaps being a dog person is more socially desirable than being a cat person? Gosling, Sandy and Potter (2010) noted that all of the Big Five personality traits have a socially desirable pole. Specifically, higher levels of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience, and lower levels of neuroticism are generally considered preferable to their opposite poles. Therefore, dog people rate themselves in a more socially desirable way on all of these traits except openness to experience, in which cat people score higher.
However, it is worth noting that openness to experience probably has a more complex relation to social desirability than the other traits. This is because people generally tend to dislike those who differ from themselves in openness to experience (McCrae & Sutin, 2009). That is, people who are more closed to experience tend to look on more open-minded people as out of touch with reality, while those who are high in openness to experience tend to look down on those who are more closed as dense and uncultured. Therefore, dog people might not care too much about openness to experience, whereas cat people might prize it as part of their individuality.
Personality traits are associated with important life outcomes, such as subjective well-being. One intriguing implication of the personality differences between dog and cat people is that the former might be happier people. Extraversion is associated with greater positive emotionality and neuroticism is associated with greater negative emotionality. Hence, cat people, being more neurotic and less extraverted than dog people might tend to be unhappier in general.
Another possibility to consider is whether cat people who actually own a cat are happier than cat people who don’t. If it is true that cat people are more prone to unhappiness than dog people, perhaps owning a cat might have a therapeutic effect? Future research might examine if this is the case, perhaps by comparing the mental health of dog and cat people and considering their actual pet ownership status as well.
Finally, it needs to be noted that differences in personality traits between dog and cat people tend to be modest in size and there is considerable overlap between the two groups. That is, there are plenty of cat people with happy outgoing personalities and plenty of dog people who are shy and nervous. Other factors besides personality would appear to play a role in whether a person develops into a cat or a dog person. Future surveys might consider other such factors, such as pet ownership during childhood, that would give us a fuller understanding of this feature of human identity.
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.
Graph is reproduced from Gosling, Sandy, and Potter (2010). This is considered fair usage for purposes of copyright.
Gosling, S. D., Sandy, C. J., & Potter, J. (2010). Personalities of Self-Identified Dog People and Cat People. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 23(3), 213-222. doi: 10.2752/175303710x12750451258850
Hergovich, A., Mauerer, I., & Riemer, V. (2011). Exotic Animal Companions and the Personality of Their Owners. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 24(3), 317-327. doi: 10.2752/175303711x13045914865349
McCrae, R., & Sutin, A. R. (2009). Openness to Experience. In R. H. H. Mark R. Leary (Ed.), Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior (pp. 257-273). New York/London: The Guildford Press.