Personality Differences Between Dog and Cat Owners

Dog and cat owners differ in personality.

Posted Feb 17, 2010

Image licensed from Clipart
Source: Image licensed from Clipart

Virtually any discussion among pet owners is bound to reveal clearly that there are dog people, and there are cat people. In some cases, the depth of feeling for their chosen species can be quite intense. However, according to an Associated Press-Petside.com poll, there are a lot more dog people out there, since 74 percent of their test sample like dogs a lot, and only 41 percent like cats a lot.

The flip side of the coin is that some people seem to be quite exclusive in their preferences, liking either dogs or cats and loathing the other species. Apparently cats appear to be much easier to hate. Fifteen percent of the adults questioned said they disliked cats a lot, while the number who said they disliked dogs a lot was only 2 percent.

There are sound reasons to suspect that the preference for dogs or cats reflects some underlying human personality differences. Certainly the relationship between cats and humans has always been quite different than the relationship between dogs and people. This reflects the behaviors that both species have kept from their heritage prior to domestication. In the wild, cats are usually solitary hunters and often are active mostly at night. In contrast, wild canines are usually sociable pack animals that work in groups and are active between dawn and dusk. Our domestic dogs retain this need for social interaction to the degree that without a master and a family, a dog seems unhappy — almost lost. Dogs will intrude on a person's ongoing activities if they are feeling lonely and want some company or play. Cats, on the other hand, are often invisible during the day, seeming only to appear in the evening, especially if that is when they are fed. Cats will occasionally engage in social activities or play with people, but their interest is limited. Usually, after only a few minutes, cats will abandon the game and wander away. Dogs, on the other hand, will often engage in play, like fetching a thrown ball, for hours at a time, and it is usually the human that quits the game first.

Recently, Sam Gosling, a psychologist at the University of Texas in Austin, and his graduate student Carson Sandy conducted a web-based study in which 4,565 individuals were asked whether they were dog people, cat people, neither, or both. The same group was given a 44-item assessment that measured them on the so-called Big Five personality dimensions that psychologists often use to study personalities.

Gosling summarized his results, saying, "There is a widely held cultural belief that the pet species — dog or cat — with which a person has the strongest affinity says something about the individual's personality, and this research suggests there are significant differences on major personality traits between dog people and cat people."

Just on the basis of the nature of dogs being more sociable than cats, one might expect that the personalities of dog lovers would also reflect higher sociability. The results showed that dog people were generally about 15 percent more extroverted and 13 percent more agreeable, both of which dimensions are associated with social orientation. In addition, dog people were 11 percent more conscientious than cat people. Conscientiousness involves a tendency to show self-discipline, to complete tasks and aim for achievement. The trait shows a preference for planned rather than spontaneous behavior.

In comparison, cat people were generally about 12 percent more neurotic; however, they were also 11 percent more open than dog people. The openness trait involves a general appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and variety of experience. People high on openness are more likely to hold unconventional beliefs, while people with low scores on openness (dog people) tend to have more conventional, traditional interests.

Gosling's recent study seems to confirm the findings of some research that I did for my book Why We Love The Dogs We Do. I used a different personality measure, namely the Interpersonal Adjective Scale, because I was mainly interested in items reflecting social interactions and social tendencies. It gives scores on four scales: extroversion, dominance, trust, and warmth (which is close to agreeableness on Gosling's measure).

My study involved 6,149 people, aged 16 to 94. I attempted to get as many dog owners as I could, so this group included 3,362 dog owners, but also 1,223 people who only owned cats, and 1,564 people who owned neither a cat nor a dog.

My results showed that people who owned only cats seemed to be somewhat different than dog owners, or people who owned both dogs and cats, in terms of their personalities. People who own both dogs and cats seem to be much like the people who own only dogs. You should keep this in mind, since from here on, at least for the purposes of this discussion, when I mention a cat owner, I mean someone who lives only with a cat, while when I mention dog owners, I will mean a person who owns a dog or both a dog and a cat.

According to my data, cat owners were one-third more likely to live alone than dog owners and twice as likely to live in an apartment or flat. Being married, living in a house, and having children living in the home are all factors that are more likely for dog owners than cat owners. A single woman was the most likely individual to have a cat. Of the people who grew up in a house with cats as pets, 47 percent were likely to have cats today, while only 11 percent of people whose childhood years were spent in a house with a dog have only a cat as a pet.

Turning to the personality profile of the person who owns only cats, we find a reasonable overlap with Gosling's recent findings. To begin with, we find that people who own only cats tend to be relatively introverted (low on extroversion) and also reasonably cool (low in warmth or agreeableness), which is the pattern confirmed by the more recent data.

Looking at the other two measures, we find that cat owners are relatively low in dominance. People who are high on dominance are generally described as being forceful, assertive, persistent, self-assured, and self-confident. They are the people who stand out in social gatherings, as opposed to people who are low in dominance that come across as being more timid, bashful, shy, and unaggressive. The final dimension that I looked at was trust, and cat owners appear to be fairly trusting. People high on this dimension are often described as obliging, modest, straightforward, and "good sports." People low on this dimension can be more suspicious and manipulative.

The general pattern that comes out of both studies is that dog owners are more social, interactive, and accepting, and cat owners (who own cats exclusively) are more introverted, self-contained, and less sociable.

Perhaps one of the most telling differences between dog and cat owners is illustrated in a single comparison. I asked people who own only cats, "If you had adequate living space, and there were no objections from other people in your life, and someone gave you a puppy as a gift, would you keep it?" The answer to this was compared to what I got when I asked people who own only dogs the same question about a kitten. More than two-thirds of the cat owners (68 percent) said that they would not accept a dog as a pet, while almost the same number of dog owners (70 percent) said that they would admit the cat into their household. This suggests that most people who own only a dog are potentially dog and cat owners, while most people who own only a cat are exclusively cat owners.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

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