What Does Your Pet Say About You?

Studies point out personality differences between cat, dog people.

February 8, 2010, 6:44 PM

Feb. 9, 2010— -- Are bookish people more likely to be cat lovers than dog lovers?

Maybe so. New research from the United Kingdom's Bristol University found that people with a college degree or higher were more likely to own cats than dogs.

In a study intended to determine the dog and cat populations in the U.K., researchers found that of 2,524 households polled, 47 percent of those with a cat had at least one person educated to degree level versus 38 percent of homes with dogs.

"It's possible that it might have something to do with working hours. If you're educated to a higher level, perhaps you're working a longer day and having a longer commute to work. Maybe you don't have enough time to care for a dog," said Jane Murray, the study's lead author and lecturer in epidemiology, adding that her team looked at household income too, but didn't find any significant differences.

She emphasized, however, that it was all speculation.

"Someone else suggested dog owners tend to be outdoor people and maybe less inclined to study, but we don't know," she said.

But while Murray's study only hints at personality differences between cat people and dog people, a study published in January explores the issue more explicity.

"People are always asking me, what is the difference between dog people and cat people," said Sam Gosling, a University of Texas at Austin psychologist who focuses on human personality. "I assumed there would be some research. And there was some research but no clear answers. We thought, 'okay, let's take a look.'"

So Gosling and his team asked 4,565 volunteers if they were dog people, cat people, neither or both. And then they administered a personality test that assessed the so-called "Big Five" personality dimensions: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

Pets Allow for Expression of Personality Traits

He said that they deliberately sought out volunteers on neutral territory, as opposed to previous researchers who questioned pet owners in results-skewing veterinarians' offices. He also pointed out that they did not interview cat and dog owners necessarily, but let people self-identify.

Gosling said that while the study did find differences between those who described themselves as cat people and those who identified as dog people, "it didn't portray one to be more positive than the other."

Those who self-identified as "dog people" were 15 percent more extraverted, 13 percent more agreeable and 11 percent more conscientious than their cat-loving counterparts.

"Cat people" were generally about 12 percent more neurotic and 11 percent more open than the dog folks.

"These are very broad dimensions," Gosling said. "Open", for example, refers to the willingness to try new things, he said, and "conscientious" refers to thinking before acting and planning. And he acknowledged that the study only speaks in general terms, there are many cat owners more extroverted than dog owners and dog owners more neurotic than cat owners.

Still, he said, just as some people are drawn to libraries over, say, monster truck rallies, some people prefer activities associated with cats over those associated with dogs. All allow for the expression of personality traits.

"Extroversion and agreeableness play out in social interactions," he said. "It makes sense to have a species that is sociable and the keeping of a dog affords and promotes socializing in people."

He was not affiliated with the Bristol University study but said that while conscientiousness (which is associated more with dog people) is a predictor of high school success, openness (which is associated more with cat people) is indeed a predictor of college success.

Gosling also said that having a pet is both an expression of identity – in that a pet choice can send deliberate signals – as well as what he called a thought and feeling regulator. Similar to music selection, he said, choosing different kinds of pets can encourage certain feelings.

"If we want quiet companionship we might buy a cat, if we want active companionship, [a pet] to go on adventures with, we might buy a dog," he said.

Lisa Peterson, a spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club, said she recognized some truth in the studies' findings.

"We tend to gravitate to pets that reflect our own personalities," she said.

As social pack animals, she said she observed that dogs tend to attract extroverted humans who are fond of socializing. Cats, on the other hand, normally don't travel in packs and seem to complement humans who are more introverted.

Cat lovers too agreed with some of the recent research.

Pamela DelaBar, president of the Cat Fanciers' Association, said that the cat owners she could think of off hand were indeed a highly-educated bunch.

"I look around my board table and people do have a lot of degrees," she said. "There's lots of paper on the wall."

She also said that it's possible that part of the reason why the Bristol University study found an educational discrepancy between cat and dog owners is that more educated individuals might cluster in cities, where professional opportunities exist in greater numbers.

"It's much easier to have cats in the city than it is dogs," she said. "It becomes a matter of convenience."

Cats, Dog Lovers Not so Different

But some animal lovers said that the line between cat and dog lovers wasn't so fixed.

Jennifer Leigh Schwerer, a 33-year-old New Yorker, said she's always thought of herself as more of a cat person and identified with some of the researchers' findings.

"I definitely would classify myself as more introverted," she said, adding that as a psychology major she can also relate to those with neurotic tendencies.

When she was younger, she said she used to be somewhat biased against "dog people."

"I always felt like cat people were more intuitive, more patient and willing to build a connection over time," she said.

But Schwerer emphasized that after recently visiting her cat- turned dog-loving sister, she's revisited her former notions about pets and the people who own them.

"It's been an interesting adjustment," she said. While, at first, she was put off by her sisters new companion, over the course of the week, her relationship with it changed.

"I think I got used to it, the dog seemed bright to me and willing to connect with me the same way that cats are," Scherer said. When she arrived home, she said her own cat seemed aloof and detached. The whole experience, she said, made her think that perhaps cats and dog owners aren't so different after all.

"I think pets maybe just say something about where the owner is. … What mood they're in at that point in time," she said. "You find a pet that you enjoy and you start to learn to love the things about it."

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