Just How Different Are Cat People and Dog People?

A closer look at studies of pet owners' personalities provides fresh insights.

Posted Apr 16, 2016

Source: Neangell/Shutterstock

There’s a general belief that cat people and dog people are as different in personalities as are the species they love: Cat owners, or so it’s thought, are quiet, shy, and a bit anxious. Dog owners, conversely, like to wag their proverbial tails as they venture out into the world; they should seemingly be extroverts.

The assumption underlying these beliefs is that people acquire the pets they do because those pets fit their personalities. However, we all know perfectly well that people don’t always acquire their pets through their own actions. You might decide to live with and/or marry a person with a beagle—let's call him King—and so now you qualify as part owner of a dog. Now, it’s possible that the reason you were attracted to your partner is that both of you are extraverted, but it’s also possible that, because like doesn’t always pair up with like, you are a complete introvert, although now one who lives with a dog.

Taking this one step further, after some time as King’s co-owner, perhaps spending time with such a large and friendly animal starts to have an impact on you and your personal qualities. You have to take the dog out for walks, and because the dog goes ahead and sniffs other dogs, you are almost forced into conversations with strangers that you never would have engaged in otherwise. Over time, perhaps you grow to be a little bit less introverted; you start to find these conversations to be pretty enjoyable and even rewarding. You never thought of yourself as "a dog person," but now you do.

Therefore, when we talk about the personalities of pet owners, it’s important to recognize that one's personality doesn’t always drive the choice of living with a cat or dog. Having said that, however, let’s work from the assumption that people can self-identify as one or the other, regardless of what they actually have roaming around their homes. Some people may not even live with a pet at all, but still label themselves based on their personal preference or their past history of pet ownership. Do these two groups, defined by hypotheticals, reliably fall into two distinct personality profiles?

What appears to be the definitive study on this question was published in a somewhat obscure journal in 2010 by University of Texas psychologist Sam Gosling and colleagues. Several Psychology Today bloggers have published posts based on this study, including animal behavioral scientist Stanley Coren, and they have analyzed the study from a number of angles.

Unfortunately, critical looks at this study tend to gloss over its limitations.

Surveying a large online sample on the Five Factor personality traits—Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism—Gosling et al. asked pet owners to describe themselves, within the context of the survey, as being "a dog person,” "a cat person,” “neither,” or “both.” The authors concluded that their overall findings for the most part support the stereotype that that dog people are more extroverted, agreeable, and conscientious, but less neurotic and open to experience than those who self-identify as cat people. This conclusion has been the emphasis of most stories based on the study.

The findings raised questions for these personality psychologists about what other behaviors your personality might influence, besides seeing yourself as a dog or cat person. A subsequent study, again using the Five Factor personality measure, was conducted by University of Texas psychologist Carson Sandy along with Sam Gosling and John Durant, of Mindset Media (2013). It found that people’s television viewing preferences could be predicted from their personality, but not their consumer behavior when purchasing cell phones, lottery tickets, or newspapers. Even television watching habits, however, were predicted by demographic factors (as were the other consumer behaviors). Separated from income, education, age, and gender, personality may only weakly affect many of the choices we make in our everyday lives.

Returning then to the dog-cat question, are the advertised differences identified in the Gosling et al study actually that consistent with the data? What about other factors not measured in the study? Unlike the subsequent study on the role of demographics and personality in predicting consumer choices, the 2010 study did not take income or education into account. Gender was the only factor examined in relationship to personality and self-identification as dog or cat person. In this regard, the dog-cat difference in neuroticism was greater for men than for women, although it was not reported as significant by the authors.

One finding that isn’t typically included in reports about this study but is worthy of attention is the fact that only about slightly more than half of the sample (57%) expressed any pet personality preference at all. Subsequent analyses comparing dog and cat people left those non-pet personality people out altogether. But when you examine all four groups, everyone rated high on agreeableness, low on neuroticism, and high on personality openness. These were, after all, volunteers, willing to take the time to complete an online personality survey. Maybe they really just wanted to learn about themselves, which would be one explanation why their openness scores were so high.

Finally—and this is the most important qualification in my opinion—the findings did reach statistical significance by the usual measures of probability. However, the large sample size (more than 4,500 people) made it possible for very small ticks on the personality measure to produce significant effects. If you examine the mean scores on the personality traits, everyone falls within .20 points of each other on a scale whose range is from 1 to 5. To translate: On neuroticism, the dog people’s scores were about 2.9; the "neither" and "both" groups were the same, and the cat people scored about 3.1. The spread was a little bit wider on Extraversion, but "neither" and "both" still fell between the extreme of dog and cat people. If you like both cats and dogs, then, you’re just about as extraverted as whether you just like dogs.

This study provides an object lesson in the importance of examining the facts behind the hype. Not only might your personality change as a result of the type of pet you have (as noted above), but maybe identifying with one or another species isn’t really that strongly related to your personality.

It’s also possible that liking “both” means you’re the most open and flexible of all—not a bad quality to have.

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Gosling, S. D., Sandy, C. J., & Potter, J. (2010). Personalities of self-identified 'dog people' and 'cat people.'. Anthrozoös, 23(3), 213-222. doi:10.2752/175303710X12750451258850

Sandy, C. J., Gosling, S. D., & Durant, J. (2013). Predicting consumer behavior and media preferences: The comparative validity of personality traits and demographic variables. Psychology & Marketing, 30(11), 937-949.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016