We all know how our parent’s personality impacted on us and likewise, how our own behaviors impact on our children. Most of us also know at least a few people who refer to their pets as their ‘children”. Which begs the question… can our personality affect our pet’s health in the same way it does our offspring? According to a report published earlier this year in PLOS One, the answer is a decided yes… at least, it is when it comes to cats (dogs might be a question for another day). But how exactly does this work? Cats can’t speak, they can’t understand what we say (or perhaps more accurately, deign not to), and our body language is so dissimilar to theirs, you’d have to question how they can pick up on the intricacies of their owner’s personality to the point their health is affected by it. But however they do it, do it they apparently do….
During the study (which, for reference, was conducted by Lauren R. Finka, Joanna Ward, Mark J, Farnworth, and Daniel S. Mills via Survey Monkey from June-July of 2016), 3331 cat owners were asked to respond to an online questionnaire exploring their personalities alongside the management, health, and behaviors of their feline companions. The study measured the owner’s personalities using the Big Five Inventory (BFI): Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Neuroticism, and Openness. Information on the cat’s welfare, meanwhile, was gathered by questions centered around their behaviors, physical health, breed type, and management. Once all the data had been gathered, generalized linear mixed models were used to determine the relationship between personality and the factors that impact on feline welfare.
The results of the study showed a marked correlation between owner personality and cat management, health and welfare. Cats belonging to owners who scored highly for Neuroticism (which presents itself in mood swings, emotional instability, weaker coping skills, and poorer physical and mental health) were found to have higher incidences of obesity, mental or behavioral problems, aggression or anxiety, and stress.
In contrast, pet owners who scored low for Neuroticism and highly in other traits were found more likely to own a cat in good health. Owners who scored highly for Conscientiousness, for example, were found to have gregarious, sociable cats with few of the undesirable traits of fearfulness, aloofness or fearfulness exhibited in cats belonging to owners scoring highly for Neuroticism. People who scored highly for agreeableness, meanwhile, where (perhaps unsurprisingly) more likely to describe themselves as satisfied with their cat’s health and happiness than those who scored highly for Neuroticism.
The Parent/ Child, Owner/ Cat Link
The results of the study closely mirrored those of previous investigations into the relationship between parent personalities and child health. Numerous reports have shown that parents with high scores for Neuroticism tend to display an anxious or authoritarian style of parenting, which in turn results in children who are more inclined towards shyness, anxiety, or aggression. Conversely, those who score low for Neuroticism and high for other qualities like agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, and openness tend to display better parenting styles with more favorable outcomes for their child’s mental and physical health.
According to Dr. Lauren Finka, one of the researchers involved in the study, the report is highly suggestive of a link between the personality of pet owners and the behaviors of their cats. In an email to Psychology Today, she elucidated further on her conclusion: “For me, these results further highlight the potential ways in which our lifestyle choices for our pets, as well as our general behavior around them, might impact on their well-being. I think we very often underestimate such relationships, so it’s important that we bring this more into our awareness as responsible animal caretakers.”
Of course, correlation is not causation; before we jump on the bandwagon, it’s important to consider a few of the potential pitfalls of the study. Firstly, the greater incidence of sickness reported in cats owned by those with neurotic tendencies may be less that the owner’s personality is influencing their cat’s well-being and more that such owners are more likely to be concerned about (and therefore more likely to spot) signs of illness than those with a more laid-back personality.
Similarly, neurotic owners tend to over-exaggerate both their own symptoms and those of their pets, leading to over-reporting of illnesses, medical symptoms, and obesity. What could be a perfectly healthy, slim, active and gregarious cat in the eyes of an owner with an agreeable personality might be an overweight, sickly, fearful or shy cat in the eyes of a neurotic. That said, just as neurotics are prone to hypochondria when it comes to their own health, they can also show the same tendencies in their pet management style. Frequent vet visits (especially when unnecessary) can lead to stress, while misjudging an animal’s weight can lead to unnecessary dietary changes or food restrictions that can quickly turn an imagined problem into a real one. There is also evidence to suggest neurotics tend to use similarly authoritarian, overly controlled and unpredictable caretaker styles when raising their pets as they do when raising their children, which can lead to the same types of stress and psychological problems in cats as it does in children.
While the conclusion of the report is speculative (even the researchers acknowledge that further study needs to be done in the areas of determining how (or indeed, if) owner personality determines the selection of cats that are more likely to display specific behavioral or physical problems, and how owner personality is related to the two way interactions between humans and cats) it does suggest a credible link between our personalities and our pet’s health. Next time your cat gets sick, maybe grab a mirror before reaching for the pills…