Many studies have tried to understand the factors that affect whether people own pets. One recent study (Perry & Burge, 2020) examined the role of religion in pet ownership and found that people who attended religious services more frequently tended to own fewer pets. More specifically, they were less likely to own cats than other people, but not less likely to own dogs. The reasons for this are unclear, but they might relate to the personality traits of those who prefer dogs over cats.
To examine the relationship between religious service attendance and pet ownership, the authors (Perry & Burge, 2020) used data from the General Social Survey, a large-scale survey of American adults aged 18 years and older that is conducted every few years. The survey included questions about several factors that might affect respondents’ pet ownership, including their income, education, political party affiliation, urban vs. rural residence, number of children, church attendance, and views on whether the Bible is literally true or not, which was treated as a measure of religious conservatism.
After adjusting for all the other factors, they found that people who attended church or religious services more often tended to have fewer pets generally. However, when they specifically looked at cat ownership and dog ownership, they found that frequent church attenders were less likely to own a cat than others, but no less likely to own a dog.
Most of the other factors considered, such as age, education, political party affiliation, and Biblical literalism, did not make a difference, although people who lived in urban areas were less likely to own either a dog or a cat. It is worth stressing that the effect of church attendance on cat ownership still held even when controlling for urban residence, though, so this latter factor did not explain why more frequent attenders were less likely to own cats.
The explanation proposed by Perry and Burge for their finding was that people who attend church frequently might have additional social expectations that place demands on their time and, therefore, may feel less need for animal companionship or simply have less time for it. Conversely, people who like cats might find the social situations they encounter in church unappealing and consider cats to be relatively undemanding companions, as they come and go as they please, being rather independent creatures. However, this proposed explanation does not really make sense. If frequent church attenders have less need for animal companionship or lack time for them, then they would also be less likely to own dogs, yet this was not the case.
Furthermore, cats require less maintenance than dogs and so may be less demanding on one’s time, and therefore might be more suitable companions for otherwise busy people than dogs. Yet, this obviously did not apply. Therefore, it might be helpful to look at some of the personality characteristics of people who like cats more than dogs and how these might be relevant to people who do or do not attend religious services often.
A number of studies have found differences in personality traits between people who self-identify as “dog persons,” i.e., someone who has a particular affiliation with dogs, compared with those who self-identify as “cat persons.” For example, one study (Gosling et al., 2010) using the Big Five personality model, that I reviewed in a previous article, found that self-identified dog persons were more extraverted, agreeable, and conscientious compared to self-identified cat persons, while the latter were more neurotic and open to experience than dog persons.
A more recent study (Guastello et al., 2017) using more specific personality traits than the Big Five (the 16 PF model) also found distinct differences, such that dog people were higher on warmth, rule-consciousness, social boldness, and liveliness, while cat people were higher on reasoning (intelligence), abstractedness (imaginative, etc.), emotional sensitivity (sensitive and intuitive rather than utilitarian and practical), and self-reliance (solitary, individualistic). The authors of this study found that the most prominent differences in these personality traits were that dog people were particularly higher in rule-consciousness, liveliness, tough-mindedness (i.e., being pragmatic rather than idealistic), and extraversion, while cat people were particularly higher in reasoning and emotional sensitivity.
Based on this, the authors suggested that cat people seemed to have a personality profile associated with being more creative, non-conforming, and unconventional, because of their greater imagination, intelligence, and emotional sensitivity, as well as their willingness to disregard social norms. Dog people, on the other hand, tend to be more practical and more interested in fitting in with their social group.
Why these differences between dog and cat people might occur are open to speculation, but it probably has something to do with the behavioral differences between dogs and cats that may make each more appealing to some than others. For example, dogs can be trained to follow rules and are eager to please their owners, while cats basically do whatever the hell they like. Hence, people who are rule-conscious, for example, might find dogs a better fit for their preferences.
Previous research has found that religious people tend to value conformity and adherence to tradition highly (Saroglou et al., 2004). Hence, people who attend church frequently tend to be conventional and traditional, and therefore very concerned with fitting into their own religious communities and do not like to question authority. In these respects, they would seem to be closer to the typical profile of rule-abiding dog people than unconventional cat people. Therefore, they might find dog ownership a more satisfying experience than owning a cat.
Conversely, people who are non-conforming and prefer to do their own thing are less likely to find attending religious services to their taste, and so might have a greater appreciation for the free-wheeling, independent lifestyles of felines. Admittedly, this is rather speculative, and further research would be needed to confirm these conjectures.
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.
Gosling, S. D., Sandy, C. J., & Potter, J. (2010). Personalities of Self-Identified “Dog People” and “Cat People.” Anthrozoös, 23(3), 213–222. https://doi.org/10.2752/175303710X12750451258850
Guastello, A. D., Guastello, D. D., & Guastello, S. J. (2017). Personality Differences between Dog People and Cat People. Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 5(1), 41–57.
Perry, S. L., & Burge, R. P. (2020). How Religion Predicts Pet Ownership in the United States. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 59(1), 190–201. https://doi.org/10.1111/jssr.12637
Saroglou, V., Delpierre, V., & Dernelle, R. (2004). Values and religiosity: A meta-analysis of studies using Schwartz’s model. Personality and Individual Differences, 37(4), 721–734. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2003.10.005