Paw Preference, Gender, and Personality

February 8, 2018
Amanda Carrozza

Amanda Carrozza is a freelance writer and editor in New Jersey.

Paw preference is believed to play a role in cognitive behavior. Two studies looked to identify the relationships between limb/paw preference, gender, and personality traits in dogs and cats.

Recent studies from Queen’s University Belfast in Ireland sought to identify he relationship between limb bias and gender in cats, as well as how paw preference might be used to identify personality traits in dogs.

Cats’ Choice

For the first study, published recently in Animal Behaviour, 24 male and 20 female mixed-breed, neutered cats ranging in age from 1 to 17 were studied in their individual homes using owner-collected data. This was done to ensure that the gathered information reflected cats as they went about their normal tasks. Cats’ lateral preferences were assessed using 2 approaches: an experimental, forced food-reaching test in which food was placed inside a 3-tier feeding tower, and observations of 3 spontaneous behaviors: stepping down, stepping over, and sleeping.

Most of the cats showed a paw preference when reaching for food (73%), stepping down (70%), and stepping over (66%), and the preference for right and left was consistent for most tasks. In all instances, female cats showed a substantial preference for using their right paw, while males were more inclined to use their left paw. The only exception was that neither male nor female cats showed a side preference while sleeping.


  • Dogs May Be Smarter Than Cats, But Which Animal Is the Smartest?
  • New Insights Into the Phantom Complex for Small Animals

The authors noted that previous studies have shown a male-female split in both dogs and cats; that this was the first study of its kind to show that spontaneous actions were related to gender. According to the investigators, their study provided “the first evidence that the domestic cat displays motor laterality on specific spontaneous behaviors, notably those involving limb use.”

For future studies, the authors recommend exploring other forms of lateral bias in addition to limb preference as an indicator of cerebral asymmetry. “Exploring lateral biases beyond limb preference may further our understanding of cerebral functioning in nonhuman species,” they wrote.

Dogs’ Disposition

The second study explored whether limb preference testing might offer a faster approach for identifying dogs predisposed to having a negative mindset. Dogs were chosen as the study group because they have been shown to display both lateralized motor bias in the form of paw preference, as well as positive and negative emotions.

First, limb preference was determined by observing 30 mixed-breed dogs as they stabilized a Kong ball with their paws to retrieve food. Each dog was tested individually in its own home; investigators recorded how the left and right paws were used for this purpose.

One month after the paw preference test, the dogs were brought to the university’s Animal Behavior Centre for a second test. While there, the dogs were trained to learn the position of a bowl that contained food and the position of a bowl devoid of food. Once the dogs successfully made the association between which bowl would have food, the bowls with and without food were moved to different locations. The goal was to determine whether dogs ran as quickly to the empty bowl as to the baited bowl in the same location and whether they were hopeful or discouraged about the likelihood of finding food there.

From the results, researchers concluded that dogs that favor their right paws tend to be more optimistic. Alternatively, dogs that were more strongly left-pawed were slower to approach the food bowl in its new location and deemed to have a more negative outlook. These findings were in line with the previous understanding that the right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for processing fearful information and encouraging withdrawal. Therefore, left-limbed individuals, which are more right-hemisphere dominant, are more likely to be fearful.

The authors concluded that the ability to use simple tests to determine paw preference and related pessimism or optimism would “enable appropriate interventions to be put in place with the aim of improving animal well-being.” Animal shelter environments are one example of where this testing may be useful. “Paw preference testing might be of use in this context, allowing kennel staff to identify animals at heightened risk from developing behavioral or physiological symptoms of stress,” the authors wrote.