Hey, did you know that cat people are smarter than dog people? Or that they’re more sensitive? Or more independent? And dog people, there’s good news for you guys, too. Dog owners tend to be more satisfied with their lives, possibly because they make more money, enjoy more robust social lives, and have more sex. It’s true. Google it.
Except, here’s the thing — it’s probably not. Google hard enough, and chances are you can find any number of flattering findings about your animal preference, many of them from studies that are less than scientific. The stat about dog owners having more sex, for example, came from a small survey conducted by a company that manufactures pet nutraceuticals — but still, it generated a bunch of headlines when it was released. If the sheer amount of dog-people-versus-cat-people content out there is any indication, people love to line up on one side or the other.
Are the divisions actually so stark, though? A recent blog post by psychologist Susan Whitbourne on Psychology Today took the rivalry to task, arguing that there’s not really much of a compelling case for dog people versus cat people as definable personality categories.
“Personality may only weakly affect the choices we make in our everyday lives,” Whitbourne argued, including the choice of what type of animal to own:
“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 named King, and so now you qualify for a new status as part owner of a dog. It’s possible that the reason you were attracted to your intimate partner is because both of you are equally extraverted, but it’s also possible that because like doesn’t always pair up with like, you are the complete introvert.
Taking this one step further, now that you’re King’s co-owner, perhaps having such a large and friendly animal starts to have an impact on you and your personal qualities. Now you have to take this 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 get a little bit less introverted as you find these conversations to be pretty enjoyable and rewarding. You never thought of yourself as a dog person but now you do.”
Fair enough. But even if the lines aren’t quite so tidy as the internet makes them out to be, there is some sound research out there suggesting that you can glean at least a little information about a person from the type of pet they own.
In one of the most well-known studies of dog and cat people, published in the journal Anthrozoos in 2010, researchers used an online survey to collect information from 4,565 respondents on their levels of the “Big Five” personality traits — extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, and neuroticism — and whether they identified as a cat person, a dog person, both, or neither. (Importantly, they put the questions on pet preferences at the end of the survey, a way of making sure that respondents weren’t primed to answer the personality questions the way they imagined a dog or cat person should.) The results more or less conformed to the existing stereotypes: The researchers found that dog people scored higher on extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, while cat people showed higher levels of neuroticism and openness.
Less clear, though, is the cause-and-effect relationship between personality and pet preference: In some cases, says study author Sam Gosling, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, the pervasiveness of the stereotypes themselves could be enough to push a person in a certain direction: “People could be extraverted, so they think, ‘Oh, I must be into dogs.’”
There’s also a performative aspect to it: Do people like dogs or cats because their personalities drive them in a certain direction, or do they like dogs or cats because they want to convey that they’re the type of person to prefer one over the other? “We choose things because they have symbolic value, because they send value to other people,” Gosling says — a person who wants to broadcast an interest in music, for example, may buy physical copies of albums rather than iTunes downloads. “You could quite reasonably think of dogs and cats that way, too.”
And an owner’s personality is just one layer; another is the type of personality people look for in their pets. A 2007 study in the journal Society and Animals found that cat owners tended to rate their pets as more hostile, while dog owners rated theirs as friendlier, more loving, and more submissive — traits that may speak to to their owners’ emotional needs.
In 2015, a pair of researchers from the University of Melbourne published a paper in Anthrozoos that found some evidence for “a reciprocal relationship between the needs of the owner and the dispositional characteristics of the pet.” In a survey of around a thousand people, dog owners scored higher on competitiveness and “social dominance orientation,” or a preference for hierarchy over equality, suggesting that people are drawn to dogs when they want a pet that will be submissive to its owner. (There’s a “top dog” pun to be made here, but I’ll spare you.) By this same logic, cat owners — who cared less about who’s in charge — may be more okay with having a pet that’s more aloof.
In the end, though, our interest in categorizing pet owners may reveal more about our relationships with one another than it does about our relationships with our animals. “We’re naturally primed to be interested in other people,” Gosling says, so “we use these sorts of shortcuts — these stereotypes, essentially — to try and make that job a simpler task.”
Not that that dampens the rivalry at all. “You know you’re getting into dangerous territory talking about this stuff,” he warned me when we spoke. “Passions run high in this domain. Don’t read the comments.”