Virtually any discussion among pet owners is bound to reveal clearly that there are cat people and there are dog people. In some cases, the depth of feeling for a chosen species can be quite intense. In a study conducted at Ball State University, pet owners were surveyed about their personalities and their pet ownership. In general, the results showed that people believe that their own personalities are similar to those of the pets they keep. Cat owners saw themselves as being more independent while dog owners described themselves as being friendly.
There are sound reasons to suspect that the preference for cats or dog 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 behaviours 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. Cats are the least tame of our household pets but are surprisingly successful for a species that retains so much of its wildness. Perhaps their success is due to this wildness they hold onto, a part of their appeal and magic, both at odds with and highlighting the specialness of their place in our households. 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 is unhappy. Cats fare much better with alone time—which is not to say, however, that they don’t require (demand?) attention and affection…just on their own terms and schedule.
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. This group was given a 44-item assessment that measured them on the so-called Big Five personality dimensions 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, and indeed the results showed that dog people were generally about 15 percent more extroverted.
In comparison, cat people were 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 lower scores on openness (dog people) tend to have more conventional, traditional interests.
But really, perhaps it’s just a matter of attachments formed early on.
In a study I conducted, the people who grew up in a house with cats as pets were 47 percent more 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 as an adult.
So where does that leave us? Back at the old nature vs nurture debate, which is most satisfactorily if not scientifically resolved by determining it’s a combination of both.