Our Similarities and Differences
By Carly Piatocha
Psychologists, biologists and pet owners themselves have always been curious about the question of why people choose to own pets at all, and what the different choices these owners make such as which species or breed – says about who they are. Also, considering that 50% of people in developed countries choose to own either a cat, a dog, or both (5), and since research shows that pet owners move through the five stages of grief when coping with the loss of a pet (5), just like the loss of a human being, clearly there must be some definite answers to why some people want a pet and why others don’t. Recent research has already proven that there are some strong connections between a person’s personality and the type of pet they choose to own, even if those pets are more unconventional than a cat or dog: for example, turtle owners are reliable and hardworking, horse owners are low in interpersonal warmth and nurturance, and snake owners are unconventional and likely to take risks (10). Contrary to these unusual and less common examples, most of those 50% of pet owners have a cat, a dog, or both, and thus most of the available research focuses on these two species – let’s take a look at those findings.
Differences Between Pet Owners and Non-Pet Owners
Not unlike choosing a romantic partner, pet owners generally prefer to form a relationship with an animal because it compliments their own personality. Many researchers agree that pets and their owners tend to be very similar because “having a similar partner helps to maintain the relationship by reducing the risk of conflicts and disagreements and validates our beliefs about the world and ourselves” (9). Non-pet owners fulfil this need with only human relationships, whereas pet owners get their relationship needs met by the people in their lives and their pets – leading to some striking personality differences. Several well known and reputable tests in the world of research psychology were used in these studies including, but not limited to: The Five Factor Model (6), The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (6), and The NEO Personality Inventory (6); further details of study methodology can be found in the sources below (1-10). It is important to note that some (but not all) of these studies had shortcomings such as small sample sizes and lack of randomized and/or blind trials. However, despite these noted shortcoming, since the data comes from multiple sources, it is still quite reliable.
From these particular studies, conducted mainly at Eastern Kentucky University, Miami University and Saint Louis University in the USA, we can see that, although non-pet owners are more independent and less dismissing of others opinions (6, 7), pet owners are more extroverted and are more conscientious (essentially this means more industrious, diligent and hardworking) than non-pet owners (6). They also have higher self-esteem, higher social sensitivity and willingly take on long lasting obligations, suggesting that they are potentially better at long term planning (7). In addition, people who do not own pets tend to be more preoccupied with small details, more fearful of change and new experiences, and less likely to form strong social bonds with other people, thus tending to be lonelier (6).
These studies focused their efforts on studying average pet owners and average non-pet owners who both had healthy, normal social lives and no reported disorders or serious inter-personal issues. This is a very important distinction because this means that the people in this study represented the majority of non-marginalized society members; basically, there is no evidence to support that owning a pet and having a bond with that pet comes at the expense of healthy, loving relationships with people in the owners lives (6). However, despite having healthy relationships with people, pets do form an indispensable part of the inner social circle of pet owners lives, being rated as lower in importance than best friends and parents – but as important as siblings (6). Among pet owners, only some are likely to anthropomorphize their pet (speak to them as if they were another human being). These people were ranked as being more agreeable and easygoing than the pet owners who did not have this trait (6). In another study on the effects of social needs fulfillment on dog owners and non-pet owners, dog owners that had a strong bond with their dogs were substantially more likely to be less lonely, less depressed, more stable and to be happier overall with their lives and accomplishments thus far(6, 3); the predicted reason behind this is that the feeling of respect and unconditional love, received from these owners dogs, boosted their confidence in their overall social interactions, causing a positive snowball effect (6). Furthermore, the more conscientious and agreeable the owner was, and the less fearful the dog – the stronger the above listed effect (6).
This next study was only done on dog owners and it asked what happens if a dog owner did not choose their own dog and obtained it as a gift, or by some means other than direct, purposeful selection? It turns out that this seemingly small detail is actually a strong predictor for a person to own at least two, if not more, dogs (9). The reason behind this: although most owners subconsciously choose to buy or adopt a breed or specific dog that suits their personality, if this is not possible, owners often feel the need to get a second dog in order to feel they have a fully satisfying relationship of similarity (9). Although these owners still love their first dog, there are generally certain aspects of their first dog’s personality that they feel is a mismatch to their own – hence the subconscious drive to own more than one dog and achieve a personality balance between the two. Conversely, owners with only one dog – that can afford two or more, should they so choose – have a fulfilling enough relationship with dog #1, so additional dogs in the home feels unnecessary and like too much work (9). Fascinatingly, if someone owns a small dog – defined as breeds under 20 pounds – not only are they more likely to own more than one dog, but they are also more intolerant of animal abuse; this effect is multiplied by the number of small dogs they own (8). It is clear from these studies that there is undoubtedly a strong positive impact on peoples emotional and social lives when they choose to own a pet – but there are also many physical benefits as well.
The Physical Benefits of Pet Ownership
There is a lot of reliable research that points to pet ownership improving the physical health of owners, including findings in 2013 by the American Heart Association that dog owners specifically got at least 3 hours of strenuous exercise per week, had lower diastolic blood pressure; thus, a reduced risk of cardio-vascular disease (5). Pet owners in general also had a lower risk of dying from sudden severe seizures as well as epileptic seizures (5) – although scientists are still unsure why this effect occurs (5). People also reported less pain after serious joint surgery, to the point that they required less medication than people who had the same surgery and didn’t own pets (5). In addition, children that grow up with a pet in the home from infancy, are substantially less likely to have any allergies (not just animal related allergies), as well as a much lower risk of developing asthma (5). Overall, it seems that owning a pet will give you a healthier heart, less risk of death by seizure, less joint pain and less allergies – adding to the list of mental and emotional benefits above. From this evidence, we can see that being a pet owner seems to better in many ways than not owning a pet, but does the type of pet you own – either a cat or a dog – make a difference? It turns out that whether your pet woofs or meows actually determines a lot about your personality as well.
The Truth: Are Cat and Dog Owners Really that different?
Winston Churchill once said that “dogs look up to us, cats look down on us” (1), and whether or not you think that this quote is true, there is collaborative scientific evidence from veterinary scientists in the UK and psychology researchers at Carroll University in the USA, showing us that there are many differences, not only between cat and dog people, but also between the genders and type of pet each sex prefers as well. Dog people are more generally more energetic, outgoing and friendly, but cat people, are more open-minded and adapt better to change (2,4). Dog people like to follow the rules more closely and tend to be more conventional, more competitive, and – very interestingly – are substantially more likely to be politically conservative (2,4,1). This can be partly explained in a separate study by researchers at the University of Melbourne on people’s levels of natural dominance, dog people were much more likely to have highly dominant personalities and were more likely to be seen as confident and in charge by others, hence they preferred to own a pet that naturally deferred to them and behaved submissively – this effect was heightened if the dog owners disliked cats (1). Cat people are more sensitive, are generally likely to be non-conformists, are often artistic and – unsurprisingly – are much more likely to be politically liberal or even more leftist (2,4,1). In addition, (dog people will scorn this finding), cat people are generally found to be more intelligent than dog people as well as being more likely to hold a university degree (2,4). The researchers of this study were careful to point out that the positive and negative traits of both cat and dog people, could have been be a reflective choice based on their overall lifestyles, before a pet was involved. For example, a dog person who is already naturally active and outgoing – may be more likely to get a dog as a first pet, since they feel it is a more natural fit. Concurrently, a cat person who is possibly more shy and sensitive, is also more likely to choose intellectual and artistic pursuits in their spare time; thus, when it comes time to get a companion, they may feel that the independent and more low-maintenance nature of cats is a better choice (2,4). Essentially, more research is needed to determine the reasons behind owners’ choice of species. In addition to these differences, there is also a substantial personality effect on both cat and dog people, which is gender dependant.
To delve even further into the labyrinth of personality differences, we can next examine the differences between male dog and cat owners, and female dog and cat owners in yet another study done by researchers at Eastern Kentucky University. For example, male cat owners tend to be more autonomous than male dog owners and less nurturing than both male and female dog owners (7). Male dog owners, on the other hand, tend to rate themselves as more masculine, and are more athletic, competitive and aggressive than male cat owners, but not more than female dog owners (7, 1). Women show even stronger differences when compared by the type of pet they own. Female cat owners are less nurturing and more independent, as well as being lower in aggression and dominance than every other category, including cat-owning males (7); this seems to suggest that women that own cats do not want to be controlled, nor do they want to try to control others. In contrast, female dog owners rate themselves as possessing more traditionally masculine traits, as well as being more athletic and more assertive than female cat owners (7,1). Finally, women who are dog owners are seen by others as more confident, more professionally competent and more active; men who are cat owners are seen by others as more warm, gentle and loving – some observers in this same study even stated they felt male cat owners were more likely to be better fathers! (7). This demonstrates how dogs are commonly perceived as a ‘masculine’ pet, while cats are seen as a ‘feminine’ pet, and this reflects how people of the ‘opposite’ gender that own these animals are seen by others. Whether these differences are simply an observer bias and untrue, or whether they are true but the owners (in this study) who already had those traits chose to get a pet that matched this unconscious societal bias – will require further research. None the less, these differences are intriguing as they offer a way of looking at people through the lens of gender, as well as based on the known personality differences between cat and dog people in general.
From the various studies listed above, it is clear that there are not only definitive personality differences between pet owners and non-pet owners, but also even between pet owners depending on: the owners sex, their choice of species, and even size and breed of pet. Although it is important to evaluate personality-based research with a critical eye and avoid making sweeping or grandiose conclusions, it is still important to note that there is real, justifiable evidence of why a female owner of two large dogs is truly quite different than her male, cat owning neighbour – no barks or meows about it!
1) Alba, Beatrice & Nick Haslam 2015 Dog People and Cat People Differ on Dominance-Related Traits. Anthrozoos. 28:1, 37-44.
2)Browne W.J., Gruffydd-Jones T. J., Murray J.K., Roberts M.A. 2010 Number and Ownership profiles of cats and dogs in the UK. Veterinary Record.
3)Gosling, Samual D., Virginia S. Y. Kwan., & Oliver P. John. 2003 A Dog’s Got Personality: A Cross-Species Comparative Approach to Personality Judgments in Dogs and Humans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 85:1161-1169.
4)Gustello et al. 26th Annual Association For Psychological Science Meeting in San Francissco, California. May 22-25 2014.
5)Matchock, Robert L. 2015 Pet ownership and physical health. Current Opinion – Psychiatry. 28:5, 386-392.
6)McConnell, Allen R., Christina M. Brown, Tonya M. Shoda, Laura E. Stayton & Colleen E. Martin. 2011 Friends With Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 101:6, 1239-1252.
7)Perrine, Rose M. & Hannah L. Osbourne. 1998 Personality Characteristics of Dog and Cat Persons. Anthrozoos. 11:1, 33-40.
8)Ragatz, L., W. Fremouw., T. Thomas., & K. McCoy. 2009 Vicious dogs: The anti-social behaviours and psychological characteristics of owners. Journal of Forensic Science. 54:699-703.
9)Turcsan, Borbala., Friederike Range, Zsofia Viranyi, Adam Miklosi, & Eniko Kubinyi. 2012 Birds of a feather flock together? Perceived personality matching in owner-dog dyads. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 140:154-160.
10)Wells, L. Deborah, Peter G. Hepper. 2012 The Personality of “aggressive” and “non-aggressive” dog owners. Personality and Individual Differences. 53:770 -773.