A new study shows that the most affectionate pet owners also rate the highest in traits of neuroticism and conscientiousness, suggesting that the qualities that make for overbearing parents might actually work for pets, who tend to require lifelong parenting.
While prior research has focused on people’s attachment to their pets, this is the first U.S. study to incorporate the principles of human attachment theory — which analyzes the bond between parents and children or between romantic partners — with pet owners’ personality types, including whether they identify as a “dog person” or “cat person.”
The study is the first to establish a correlation between neuroticism, anxious attachment and the care of and affection for pets, said co-author Dr. Gretchen Reevy, a psychologist at California State University-East Bay .
“The fact that higher levels of neuroticism are associated with affection and anxious attachment suggests that people who score higher on that dimension may have high levels of affection and dependence on their pets, which may be a good thing for pets,” said co-author Mikel Delgado, a doctoral student in psychology at University of California, Berkeley.
For the study, the researchers recruited 1,000 male and female pet owners of all ages through the Craigslist classified advertising website, their personal Facebook pages and pet-related pages on the Reddit news and social networking site.
The participants completed an online survey which allowed the researchers to identify and analyze the key personality traits and nurturing styles of people who identified as a “cat person,” a “dog person,” “both” or “neither.”
Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed said they liked dogs and cats equally, while 38 percent identified as dog people and 19 percent as cat people. Three percent favored neither.
The survey was based on both human and animal attachment assessments, including one that measures the “Big Five” universal human characteristics (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism).
Pet owners were also rated according to the Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale, which measures affection for pets, and the Pet Attachment Questionnaire, which measures “anxious attachment” and “avoidant attachment.”
In general, individuals who score high on anxious attachment tend to need more reassurance from the objects of their affection, and in the survey those tended to be younger people who were self-proclaimed cat people.
Both dog and cat lovers scored low on avoidant attachment, which refers to a less affectionate and more withdrawn temperament (those who have this temperament would be more likely labeled as a “commitment-phobe” in romantic relationships). This suggests that pet owners desire a close relationship with their pets.
“We hypothesized that more attentive and affectionate pet owners would receive higher affection scores and lower avoidant attachment scores, as higher levels of avoidant attachment would suggest distancing behaviors between the individual and their pet,” Delgado said.
Delgado and Reevy plan to dig more deeply into the link between neuroticism and affection for and dependence on one’s pet.
“We will investigate further whether greater affection for and greater anxious attachment to one’s pet, and neuroticism, are associated with better care and understanding of the pet’s needs,” Reevy said.
The findings are published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.