Cats, Dogs, and your Human Identity

by sarahgroat

It’s the quintessential question for a first date: are you a cat person or a dog person? Almost everyone can answer it definitively. Many know deep in their heart of hearts which animal they connect with more. Even when someone is a general animal-lover owning both types of pets, when you ask them if they’re a cat or dog person, they’ll answer something along these lines: “I really love both, but I’m definitely a cat person,” or vice versa.

I am a cat person. I enjoy their antics and appreciate their rare cuddles. But mostly, I just get them. I know how to interact with them (i.e. leave them alone). I’ve read books on cat behavior and watched “My Cat From Hell” to fine-tune my knowledge, and while I’m no Jackson Galaxy, I think I understand my cat’s moods pretty well. It comes almost naturally to me.

My boyfriend, on the other hand, does not. He likes cats, sort of (moreso when they act as much like a dog as a cat can), but he doesn’t get them, nor does he care to. But he loves dogs and every part of owning one, even (or rather, especially) the training.

I started thinking harder about this difference between us while we housesat a while ago for his coworker. Her two dogs had related to both of us relatively the same until that night when he decided to work on commands with them for fun. Watching him interact with these two dogs almost entranced me. It seemed so effortless. He was able to seamlessly command their attention, change his facial expressions, and give social cues in order to build a working relationship with them. Afterwards, they had eyes for no one but him.

Of course, I wanted a try – I wanted the dogs to adore me too. The sting of rejection is hard to bear– the pups paid me half as much mind as they had my boyfriend. I just didn’t have the touch.

To me, being a cat or dog person didn’t seem to be simply a matter of which animal we like better. Maybe it could say something about who we are as individuals.

Recently, a study was published from Carroll University that attempted to answer this question. In results that disgruntled 50% of the population, it was shown that cat and dog people do at least exhibit different trends in personality traits. The study found that dog people tend to be energetic and outgoing. Cat people are more introverted, sensitive, and…(to the displeasure of canine lovers) intelligent.

Researcher Dr. Denise Guastello said of the study:

“It makes sense that a dog person is going to be more lively, because they’re going to want to be out there, outside, talking to people, bringing their dog. Whereas, if you’re more introverted, and sensitive, maybe you’re more at home reading a book, and your cat doesn’t need to go outside for a walk.”

Guastello mainly correlated the types of environments people prefer with their animal of choice as a possible cause for the results.

But it’s also interesting how this research ties in with what we know about the evolution of dogs and cats. Though humans have a long history with both animals, dogs were domesticated much earlier than cats – at least 5,000 years, by modest estimates. And they were domesticated for different reasons, in different ways, with different results.

Although the details of the early domestication of dogs are fuzzy, it is widely believed to have been based on a mutualistic relationship. Wolves that were more social and unafraid were more likely to receive food (in the form of scraps) and shelter, and they passed these traits to their offspring. At some point, we discovered they were useful and kept them. Dogs were put to work at first for hunting meat and, as they developed a bark, protecting the camp. Later they herded flocks and carried packs or pulled loads, and more recently they have provided aid and assistance. They lost the wolf-like physical traits and turned into the cuddly goofballs we love today. As we found more things they were good for, dogs became ubiquitous companions among humans, who influenced their evolution into something unique.

From their relationship with humans, dogs adopted special behaviors uncommon among animals. They learned to interpret subtle social cues, demonstrate the ability to read human facial expressions, and recognize when a human’s attention is on them. Dogs are also the only non-primate species to gaze at the right side of the face when encountering a human, as humans do for facial recognition within the right brain. For dogs, this only happens when they see human faces, and does not occur with other canines or any other animal.

On the other hand, the domestication of cats was a much more passive process. Humans just kind of tolerated their existence, and natural selection went to work as cats hung around villages and hunt vermin. Furthermore, though they have high intelligence, cats didn’t undergo any of the changes of domestication that dogs did. They’re still basically tame wildcats, and can survive fairly well on their own.

Humans and dogs evolved together so closely that dogs became more like humans. We learned how to appeal to their inner pack animal by playing the role of alpha-dog, and interacting with them became an animated and almost social process. Cats remained separate, aloof, and virtually unchanged. While they do bring social comfort and companionship to their owners, interaction happens on their terms.

As such, ownership of cats and dogs are very different experiences, and pet owners often state that they see themselves in the personality of their pets. They feel compatible with that animal, similar to compatibility with close friends. This seems to suggest deep behavioral differences between cat people and dog people beyond environmental preferences. It’s less fun fact for a first date and more a core part of our identity. Further research into factors such as childhood pets and the way cat and dog people relate to others could help us understand more about ourselves, our natures, and even our history.