Cat owners around the world will not be surprised to learn that a new study has shown cats to be absolutely chock-full of personality. Of course, we’ve known this since the first cats wandered into human homes (probably loudly demanding a fishy snack, or a head-rub!). But it’s officially official now, thanks to new research. 

What did we already know about cats and character?

Despite cats cohabiting with humans for many thousands of years, most research on cat behaviour has been done via veterinary surgeries, adoption shelters and feral colonies, rather than pet cats. A study into behaviour and personality of pet cats living in homes is therefore well overdue, given how popular they are as pets. This latest personality survey has actually been adapted from a survey based on Scottish wildcats.

Various studies have looked at the behaviour of cats living in rescue shelters, and on the impact of stress on illness and disease. But not much has been done on normal, healthy cats living in people’s homes. Most of what we know about behaviour and stress comes from observing feral cat colonies, which is then difficult to apply to pet cats.

We all know, of course, that cats have bags of personality! However, these researchers weren’t just looking at which kittens are most likely to pounce on your toes under the duvet at 3a.m., or who is the most cuddly on those cold winter evenings. They have attempted to fully determine the differing personality traits of normal domestic cats into five major categories. 

What is this study and what’s it all about?

The study “The Feline Five: An exploration of personality in pet cats” was published recently in the scientific journal Plos One. It assessed over 2800 cats living as pets in private homes in Australia and New Zealand. The study used owner questionnaires to assess 52 personality traits. After statistical analysis, the researchers found evidence of five key character traits: neuroticism, extraversion, dominance, agreeableness and impulsiveness. 

The research aims to be able to improve cat health and welfare by understanding their personalities better, and how these may be affected by stress and illness. 

What exactly do those five traits MEAN?

The five main personality traits extrapolated from the original 52 can be explained here:

  1. Neuroticism: this reflects those cats who are shy, suspicious, insecure and anxious
  2. Extraversion: includes traits such as curiosity, vigilance and active
  3. Dominance: describes cats who are aggressive and bullying to other cats
  4. Agreeableness: sums up affectionate, gentle and friendly to people
  5. Impulsiveness: reflects those cats who are reckless and impulsive

Each cat will have all five of these personality traits but in varying levels. Being able to assess cats along these five lines may help with various management issues.

How can they help?

It is hoped that being able to assess the personality of individual cats will mean being better equipped to understand their behaviour, and to adapt their environments to best suit them. This may be especially useful in rehoming rescue cats, for example. Pairing them with the most suitable home environments. It could also help people with multiple cats to understand disagreements or stressors between the cats, and help pet professionals give best advice to owners of new kittens.

Cats with particularly low or high scores in some of these areas may particularly benefit from assessment and help. Those who score very highly on extraversion, for example, may need lots of stimulation and benefit highly from puzzle feeders, toys and climbing opportunities. Conversely, a low extraversion score, indicating aimlessness or clumsiness, may signal some medical issue.

High scores in both neuroticism and impulsiveness could indicate some degree of environmental stress, leading to erratic and nervous behaviour. These cats would benefit from access to a quiet hiding place, or safe zone away from other pets or children. 

Agreeableness is obviously a desirable trait for most pet owners. This can indicate a happy, well-adjusted cat. A low agreeableness score, however, indicates irritability and could be a cat’s way of telling us that something isn’t right. 

High or low dominance scores may be useful for assessing the suitability of individuals for multi-cat households.

Is the study accurate?

The study used a large group of cats. Just over 2800, and cross-validated their results between the Australian and New Zealand populations to ensure robust results. The length of the study seemed off-putting to some, which led to some incomplete answers. The authors also didn’t ask how long they had known the cat, which may limit some answers’ correctness. However, it is a large, well-designed study with robust statistical analysis which would suggest valid conclusions. 

In summary:

Valid research into the behaviour of ‘normal’ pet cats in standard home environments has been long overdue. As one of the most popular choices for pets, we owe it to our wonderful feline friends to try and understand them as well as we possibly can, so that we can provide them with the best environment to be healthy and happy. This study is both an interesting insight into the varying characters of this popular companion, and also a great first step into how we can use this knowledge to best look after them.

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