For many of us, family life is a multispecies affair—and although we don’t get to choose our relatives, we do get to pick our pets. What makes us identify with and select one type of animal over another? We explored this and several other aspects of pet ownership in Scientific American MIND’s recent online survey. We were gratified that more than 2,000 readers took the time to respond.
If one thing is clear from the results, it’s that the answer is complex. This is reflected in the incredibly heterogeneous responses we received from readers who, as it turned out, keep a remarkable array of pets. Nevertheless, a few patterns did emerge—particularly in answer to this question: Explain why you prefer cats, dogs, neither or both. The answers yielded such distinct camps that we decided to visualize them as word clouds (in which the size of each word reflects how frequently it was used).
Cat people tended to focus on practical reasons for loving felines, namely the lower maintenance demands. More than any other descriptive, the word “independent” dominated, perhaps because it both describes the feline personality and the ease of cat care. It came up a whopping 139 times in the explanations that the 520 self-described cat people gave for their preferences.
Dog people, on the other hand, emphasized classic canine personality traits. Words such as “loyal,” “loving,” “affectionate” and “companions” came up repeatedly. Some more practical considerations came up as well, particularly allergies to cats that all but disqualified felines as pets. But it was clear that, above all, dog people valued the close interactions they have with their pets—a sharp contrast from cat people’s emphasis on independence.
Although the majority of pet owners in our poll kept either a cat or a dog, more participants identified themselves as both cat and dog people than either or neither type. In their explanations these cat- and dog-loving people tended to emphasize that each species appeals to different parts of their personalities and that they are fond of many other kinds of animals as well.
Personality data from poll participants also revealed a few patterns. We asked readers to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, how strongly they identified with certain descriptors, such as assertiveness and empathy. As in previous studies and polls, we found that cat people tend to rate themselves as more reserved and quiet than dog people do. Findings like these support the notion that certain personality traits may predispose a person to choosing one pet over another. But our survey also found that on many measures these two archetypal pet owners were not so different. Their self-ratings of openness to new experiences and dependability, for example, were very similar.
Although cats and dogs were by far the most popular pets, participants in our survey also reported keeping shrews, squirrels, potbellied pigs and fennec foxes (among other unusual animals). After dogs and cats, the most popular pets in our survey were fish, birds, rabbits, horses and turtles, in that order.
Another piece of the pet preference puzzle is that, of course, many people keep more than one type of pet. We found a few pet-pairing trends. For example, more than 80 percent of horse owners also own a dog and, more surprisingly, 25 percent of snake owners also own a bird.
An important caveat: our survey was informal, not scientific. In fact, rigorous research on the subject remains scarce. Even so, our findings contribute to a growing appreciation of the powerful bond between pets and people, and how much about it remains to be explored.