Research shows that there really are “cat people” and “dog people.” Being one or the other is associated with differences in personality and well-being, according to new data analyzed by 23andMe.
While the data reveals a clear cat and dog divide, what is less clear is whether it reflects pre-existing differences or whether owning a dog or a cat contributes to those differences. In other words, does owning a dog or cat make you feel better, or less stressed, or even improve your overall health? Does it influence how outgoing you are or how much you exercise?
Those are interesting questions, especially now during this period of social isolation due to the pandemic. Since the start of stay at home orders, there has been a surge in pet adoptions in the United States, for instance. This surge has even resulted in fewer pets to adopt and a so-called “puppy shortage” just as the holidays approach.
The increased demand for cats and dogs also suggests that owning a pet offers the potential for companionship and solace during these stressful times for some people. That’s been true for ages. People have kept cats and dogs as companions for millennia. The bond with dogs goes back 30,000 years, while cats took a little longer to cozy up to humans and that bond goes back 4,000 years. The domestication of cats and dogs was beneficial for both humans and our canine and feline friends. Over time that relationship has evolved beyond merely catching rodents or guarding us by the campfire.
Some Differences Between Cat and Dog Owners
- If you are married without kids, you’re more likely to own a cat.
- Cat owners are a little more stressed than dog owners.
- Cat owners are more likely to live in an urban setting than dog owners.
- Women, particularly middle-aged women, are more likely to own a cat.
- Cat owners are on average more highly educated.
For years, scientists have studied pet ownership and its correlation to differences in personality and health outcomes. There is some good research around the heritability of dog ownership. In addition to genetic factors, 23andMe’s data reveals that cat and dog ownership is a good barometer for health, personality, and even certain behaviors. We also saw differences between those who owned a cat versus a dog. (See sidebar for some of those clear differences in the data.)
For instance, our data showed that women, particularly middle-aged women, are more likely to own a cat than men. Also, if you are married but do not have children, you’re more likely to own a cat. And cat owners are a little more stressed than dog owners.
But whether you own a dog or a cat is also correlated with other things. Where you live, in a city or a more rural community, plays a role, for instance, as does your income and family status. And those demographic factors play a role in your health and personality as well.
So what did we find?
Pets and Stress
- Dog owners are more likely to be married with kids.
- Dog owners get a lot more exercise than people who don’t own a dog, 14 percent more likely to exercise each week.
- Dog owners are more extroverted than those who don’t own a dog.
Some of it was surprising considering the surge in pet adoptions. 23andMe’s data — from more than 1.5 million customers who consented to participate in research — found an association between owning a cat or a dog and more stress, not less. We used a 10-item Perceived Stress Scale to compute a relative stress score. Our data, however, doesn’t show whether individuals get pets because they are already stressed or whether their stress comes from the added responsibilities of owning a pet. People with more stress may be more likely to own pets, and we do not have data to show whether owning a pet helps to reduce that stress or not.
23andMe’s findings offer a slightly different take on other studies that associate lower stress with pet ownership. But both cat and dog owners are more likely to be stressed. We simply can’t say whether owning a pet helps to lower their stress.
Our data also highlighted some differences between cat owners and dog owners. For example, dog owners are more likely than cat owners to be married with kids, and they’re more likely to exercise each week. And dog owners are more extroverted than those who don’t own a dog.
While the dog versus cat divide may tell us something about personality traits and well-being, it’s not the complete picture. Some of those differences may have more to do with whether you live in a city or live in rural areas, which may have something to do with demographics.
Urban and Rural Divide
Below is what we saw when we plotted some of this data on maps of the US. We found distinct regional differences, and differences between urban and rural communities. For example, we saw that customers in Alaska, which is mostly rural, are much more likely to own a dog than a cat. That’s likely because it’s too cold in Alaska for cats to be outside.
Simultaneously, being in a rural county didn’t necessarily mean you’re more likely to be a dog owner. For instance, in states in the Northeast, specifically in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire, that are similarly rural, customers are more likely to own a cat, which may be because cats are used for pest control.
So why do we ask these kinds of questions? What does owning a cat or a dog have to do with genetics or your health?
23andMe asks customers many questions, not just about their health and traits, but about other seemingly unrelated things like being able to do a cartwheel or curl their tongues. We ask these questions because it adds layers to what we can learn about how the environment and genetics play a role in personality, well-being, and even health risks.