Journal Scan: Personality killed the cat?

May 8, 2019
Sarah Mouton Dowdy
Sarah Mouton Dowdy

Sarah Mouton Dowdy, a former associate content specialist for dvm360.com, is a freelance writer and editor in Kansas City, Missouri.

or at least made it sick? A recent study suggests that cats of neurotic owners are more likely to have negative behavior styles and poorer health.

Photo: chalabala/stock.adobe.comWhen it comes to the welfare of your veterinary patients, you already know to pay attention to things like nutrition, housing and enrichment. But based on findings from a recent study, you may want to add another factor to the list: the pet owner's personality.

Taking inspiration from research on parent-child relationships, the study's authors wanted to explore whether moms and dads of furry children-specifically cats-affect the well-being of the creatures in their care. If the welfare of human animals is impacted by a parent's personality traits (both negatively and positively), the authors hypothesized, couldn't the welfare of nonhuman animals be similarly affected-especially at a time when pets are increasingly viewed as and treated like children? 

What they did

More than 3,000 cat owners participated in an online survey in which they answered questions about their cat's breed, behavior and physical health. The questionnaire was also designed to assess respondents' management style and personality. The latter was measured using the Big Five Inventory, which assigns scores along five different personality dimensions: openness (imaginative, insightful, having wide interests), conscientiousness (organized, thorough, planful), extraversion (talkative, energetic, assertive), agreeableness (sympathetic, kind, affectionate) and neuroticism (tense, moody, anxious).

What they found

At the most basic level, higher scores in cat owner neuroticism were associated with more negative well-being outcomes for cats, while higher scores in cat owner openness, conscientiousness, extraversion and agreeableness were associated with more positive outcomes.

Digging a bit deeper, respondents who scored higher in neuroticism were more likely to report that their cat had ongoing medical conditions. They were also more likely to describe their cat as “overweight” or “very overweight” and as displaying stress-related sickness behaviors, “behavior problems,” and aggressive or anxious and fearful behavioral styles. Respondents who scored higher in agreeableness, on the other hand, were more likely to report that their cat had a normal weight and displayed less aggressive and aloof or avoidant behaviors. Those high in agreeableness also reported being more satisfied with their cat.

 

Respondents who scored higher in conscientiousness and openness were more likely to describe their cats as more sociable, but less aggressive and aloof or avoidant. Cat owners scoring higher in conscientiousness reported less anxious and fearful behavior styles in their cats as well.

Culture counts

Interestingly, one of the welfare measurements used in the study was whether or not cats were allowed to go outside. Access to the outdoors was considered a positive, while restricted or no access was seen as negative. The study's authors note that in the United Kingdom, where the study took place, outdoor access for cats is the norm. They acknowledge that in other parts of the world (including the United States), cat owners are encouraged by veterinary professionals to keep their feline friends indoors. Thus, cultural norms could confound the effect of a cat owner's personality on their outdoor access decisions.

What it means

According to the study's authors, the results provide “the best evidence to date of the relationship between owner personality and cat behaviour, welfare and lifestyle parameters, showing for the first time clear parallels with the parent-child relationship and the associated well-being outcomes for children.”

But before you blame a feline patient's illness on its owner, it's important to note that the findings point to a correlation, not causation. Information about the cats' health and behavior came solely from the reports of their owners, which could be affected by a number of biases. For example, perhaps owners scoring higher in neuroticism reported more medical problems simply because they monitor their cats more closely than those who let their feline companions roam unrestrained outside.

 

Thus, this study is a starting point for discussion and future research. But if you've always had a hunch that a neurotic client negatively affects more than just you and your veterinary team, you might be onto something.

 

Reference

Finka LR, Ward J, Farnworth MJ, et al. Owner personality and the wellbeing of their cats share parallels with the parent-child relationship. PLoS One 2019;14(2):e0211862.

Sarah Mouton Dowdy is a former associate content specialist for dvm360.com and is a freelance writer and editor in Kansas City, Missouri.