Time spent with cats is never wasted. — Sigmund Freud
The more cats you have, the longer you live. If you have a hundred cats, you’ll live 10 times longer than if you have 10. Someday this will be discovered, and people will have a thousand cats and live forever. It’s truly ridiculous. — Charles Bukowski
We love our pets, we really do. For many of us, they are our closest companions, trusted and steadfast, as important as our children, members of the family, excellent listeners who never have a bad word to say about us, a part of our very identities, keepers of our most private secrets, attentive audiences for our off-off-broadway living room productions, and snuggly bed-warmers.
As reported by the ASPCA, US households are home to approximately 78 million dogs and 85.8 million cats. According to the CDC, aside from potentially transmitting certain diseases, pets are good for us. Pet owners enjoy greater fitness, lower stress, and more happiness. Having a pet can lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels, make us less lonely, provide opportunities for more exercise and outdoor activities, and help us to socialize.
For cat-lovers only
Cats, in particular, have always been enshrouded with mystique and legend. The companions of Pharaohs, the familiars of witches, defenders of the home from pests and vermin, cats have lived alongside humanity without becoming fully domesticated. Cats have quite the reputation. Unlike dogs, generally seen as amiable and eager-to-please, cats are viewed as aloof, proud, and willful. Whether this is really true or not, or is more a function of our projections, is a matter for consideration. Regardless, there is no question that we can define ourselves by the kinds of pets we love most, often into rival camps of “dog-person” and “cat-person” — nothing against herpetophiles and entophiles, of course. While dog-owner relations have been studied extensively, aside from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (upon which the musical Cats was based), felines have been short-changed.
According to researchers from the University of Liverpool (2018), there is a considerable body of research on animal personality, including psychological and behavioral disorders, temperament and coping style. Understanding how we get along with our pets is important because we expect to spend a long time with them and as with any other relationship, we want relationships with our pets to be satisfying and sustainable. Having to return an adopted pet to the shelter (“rehoming”) because there were problems with behavior, fit, or other issues is the last thing we want.
According to rehoming research (2015), in a 5 year survey period, 6 percent of pets were rehomed, representing over 6 million households. Sometimes people couldn’t keep pets because of housing or other practical issues, but for over 40 percent of dog and cats, problems with the pet’s behavior, health, or size was the reported reason for rehoming. Understanding pet personality and pet-owner match can help to ensure a good fit, but most research has looked at canines.
Research on how cat and owner personality affect pet relationship satisfaction
In order to better understand what predicts cat owner satisfaction, the Liverpool researchers surveyed 126 cat owners, 115 of whom were women, about their personalities, their cats’ personalities, and their level of satisfaction with their cats. They only surveyed people who picked their cats out themselves, as contrasted with those who received cats as a gift.
Participants completed the following, in addition to providing demographic information:
- Owner personality was measured using three scales. The first (the IPIP-BFM) looks at Big 5 traits including openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. In this study, researchers focused on agreeableness, extroversion, and neuroticism. The second scale (the Computerized Adaptive Assessment of Personality Disorders Scales Static Form) measure owner dominance, and the final scale (the Dirty Dozen) measures Dark Triad traits, including narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.
- Pet personality was measured using the Cat Tracker Project Questionnaire. Participants completed a 25-item measure of their cat’s personality, looking at agreeableness, extroversion, dominance, impulsiveness, and neuroticism.
- Owner satisfaction was measured by asking participants to rate their level of satisfaction with their cat on a scale from 1 to 10. Cat satisfaction was not measured.
Factors associated with cat owner satisfaction
While there were a variety of significant correlations between different components of cat and owner personality, the only significant predictors of owner satisfaction were about the cat’s personality. Pet owners reported they were more satisfied owning agreeable cats, and less satisfied owning neurotic cats. Cat personality accounted for almost 20 percent of owner satisfaction.
In terms of cat-owner personality associations, more dominant owners reported having more dominant, extroverted, impulsive, and neurotic cats, whereas more agreeable owners were less likely to have dominant or neurotic cats. More impulsive owners tended to have more impulsive cats, as well. Owners with greater Dark Triad traits reported having more dominant, impulsive, and neurotic cats. It seems like owners pick cats who are, in these ways, similar to themselves.
It may also be that owners simply rate their cats as being similar to themselves, and the cats have different personalities than the owners report. In my experience, people tend to ascribe much more complicated motivations and thoughts to cats than the cats could possibly be having, often to a fantastical extent. We tend to anthropomorphize our pets in different ways, depending not only on who we are, but on the species of the animal.
Future studies could address this source of error by having a third party rate the cats’ personalities. Another possibility is that cats’ personalities are shaped by their owners’ personalities and behaviors, so that the cats become more similar to their owners… or, in the case of high Dark Triad owners, who tend to treat animals harshly, their cats may become more anxious and neurotic as a result of their owners’ behavior toward them.
Finally, the study authors derived a measure of cat-owner personality overlap to see whether similarities or differences between cat and owner personality were related to owner satisfaction. They found that satisfaction was higher when there was a mismatch between owner dominance and cat agreeableness (e.g. low owner dominance-high cat agreeableness, or high owner dominance and low cat agreeableness), a mismatch between owner impulsivity and cat agreeableness, and a match between owner Dark Triad traits and cat agreeableness (e.g. high owner Dark Triad traits and high cat agreeableness).
They also point out that, if these preliminary findings hold true, people with more Dark Triad traits may prefer more agreeable cats. More sadistic, self-centered and manipulative owners may pick more such animals because they are more tolerant of mistreatment, with implications for protecting animal welfare.
Although further research is required due to statistical limitations, the researchers suggest that cat-owner matchmaking will improve from figuring out which human personality traits line up best with which feline personality traits.
How do we decide which cat to adopt?
Our pets are so important to us, and for some, relationships with pets are at least as important as relationships with people. Enjoying satisfying relationships with our pets, given the major role they play in many of our homes, is really important. In the absence of sophisticated matchmaking based on analysis of cat-human personality fit, people seeking to adopt a cat are more likely to be satisfied by agreeable cats with stable, balanced (non-neurotic) personalities.
Bear in mind that you may be in for a challenge if you choose a pet which has itself lived through significant abuse, physical and emotional injury, or illness. In some cases, I’ve found that people who have lived through adversity will adopt pets with a similar history, often through unconscious identification. In my experience working with developmental trauma in adults, especially for those of us who have difficulty trusting other people, pets are sometimes the only safe and stable attachments available.
Adults are seen as untrustworthy (or the risk of trusting adults is too great), children can be too much of a reminder of ourselves, and pets are able to give and receive unconditional love without the complications and uncertainties of human relationships. Pets can be tremendously therapeutic, though this is tempered for many by the inevitability of loss. While it can be rewarding to take care of recovering animals, and the need is great, it can turn out to be more than we bargained for. Before adopting a pet which requires special attention, make sure you know your motivations for doing so, and your capacity to go the distance.
If you seek a relatively uncomplicated, satisfying feline relationship, take time to get a good read on the cat’s personality, and ask the staff to recommend a mellow, easy-going cat. Find out the cat’s history, if possible, to see if it has had any behavioral or health problems you won’t want to deal with, or if it is a breed which won’t do well in your household. Getting emotionally involved with a pet, and then having to consider taking it back to the shelter, is a situation to avoid, if possible. However, if you have a more dominant or impulsive personality, you may consider a somewhat less agreeable cat to keep you on your toes.
Originally published at www.psychologytoday.com.