If you are a cat owner, you may well be nodding sagely along to this blog post already, despite only reading the title! Cats are well known for their characters, both good and bad, and are often full of personality. But can cats actually be psychopaths? A recent scientific paper tried to determine the answer to this interesting (and slightly concerning!) question. This is what they found out. 

What exactly is psychopathy?

The most common definition of psychopathy in the human medical field is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist which measures two factors. Firstly, “selfish, callous and remorseless use of others”. Secondly “chronically unstable, antisocial and socially deviant lifestyle”. In 2009 this was updated and now the Triarchic Psychopathy Measure adds a more modern perspective. The triarchic measure uses ‘boldness’ as a significant factor, as it is thought to indicate people born with naturally low levels of fear, a common finding with psychopaths. 

Cats are solitary creatures, and are often thought of as being manipulative and selfish: classic traits of psychopaths. Before they were domesticated, traits of psychopathy may have been useful to wild cats, leaving them more likely to acquire food, territory and mates. However, this is no longer hugely relevant for the domestic cats lounging on our sofas today. In fact, an increased ‘boldness’ score can actually be detrimental, with those cats more likely to have injuries caused by fighting or road traffic accidents. Cats with traits linked to psychopathy may also have more problematic cat-owner relationships. 

Do we know anything about cat behaviour?

Cat personality traits have been the subject of some research. A study in 2017 defined these character areas as: agreeableness, dominance, extraversion, impulsiveness and neuroticism. Read more about the Feline Five here

The triarchic model of psychopathy can build upon this to provide a basic template to measure cat behaviour specifically in relation to psychopathic tendencies, with three main areas being boldness, disinhibition and meanness. Boldness relates to low levels of fear and reduced stress responses. Disinhibition refers to reduced restraint of impulses and urges – often thought of as disobedience when related to pets. Meanness can be shown as aggression and reduced social empathy. 

Most animal studies done so far on psychopathy have been in primates. An important point to note is that, unlike the primates these psychopathy studies have been based on, cats have not been proven to have ‘theory of mind’. Which includes the ability to feel empathy (and therefore the opposite: meanness). However, most cat owners believe that their cats can experience emotions and feelings, and are capable of empathy. 

What did the study show?

Three questionnaires on cat triarchic psychopathy were developed to give to owners. They were designed to explore whether cat personality traits can be linked to psychopathy, and how this may affect their relationship with their owners. The eventual aim was to be able to develop a system to best match cats to a household that may suit their personality best. For example in terms of other household pets, outdoor access and other factors. 

The first questionnaire (answered by 549 owners) identified the owner’s perception of their cat’s personality in the context of the triarchic model: bold, mean and disinhibited behaviours. They were then asked to provide examples. The traits listed by owners were then condensed into similar themes, such as dominance and meanness. 

Each of the traits found in the triarchic model of psychopathy were discovered in cats

giving strength to the idea that this model could be used to assess behavioural traits in felines. 

The second study asked 1463 owners to complete the questionnaire about their cats, their character as described by both the triarchic model and the feline five, and lastly about their relationship with their cat. 

Boldness, meanness and disinhibition again were shown to be three factors, but they also found human-unfriendliness and pet-unfriendliness to be characteristics. 

This is different from human and primate research, and may be because cats are generally more solitary. Boldness and aggression (meanness) were both linked to a lower quality of cat-owner relationship. Disinhibition, however, was linked to a higher quality of bond; probably as owners value the attention-seeking and physical closeness that these cats display. 

The third questionnaire, answered by 25 owners, linked cats’ daily activity to their character. But found no significant links to personality traits. 

Overall, the study found that cats do display certain character traits that are associated with psychopathy in humans: aggression (meanness), fearlessness (boldness) and disobedience (disinhibition). 

These traits exist in varying levels, and do seem to affect the relationship these cats have with their owners. 

Why is this important?

The personality of our pets is hugely important as it affects our relationship with them. This in turn affects how happy the cat-owner bond is. Sadly, many cats are given up to adoption centres with owners often citing behaviour as a cause. So understanding cat personality traits, and therefore how to manage them, may make a big practical difference to the welfare of pet cats. 

So, could my cat be a psychopath?

As with all great questions, there is no easy answer to this! The study above, and others, have found that cats have distinct personality traits, and that some of these traits correlate to characteristics that in humans are linked to psychopathy. These personality components are difficult to measure. And there is likely to be a wide spectrum of behaviour within these confines. You are the best placed to judge your own cat’s character, so we will leave the final call up to you!

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