“Because of the dog's joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?” ~ Mary Oliver
Like most people, my life is divided into chapters, and those chapters can be written out into long or short versions. The short versions involve the bulleted details of key things you’ll need to know so I can devise some other story.
Here are the bullet points to know so I can tell you this one:
At one point, in my twenties, I lived alone with five cats, though I owned three.
I was known as the ‘cat lady’ in many of my social and work circles, a title I neither celebrated nor denied.
In my late twenties, I moved into an apartment with a friend in central London. My cats went to live with my mother.
I moved across the world to Australia to be with the man I love. Three years later, he adopted a dog for us.
Three years after that, I adopted another dog.
In my social and work circles, I’m now referred to as a ‘fur-mum’, a title I neither celebrate nor deny.
Now that’s clarified, here’s the real crux of this story. Since having dogs, I am repeatedly asked; What happened - I thought you were a cat person?
There’s a narrow sense that I’ve somehow been dishonest those years ago when my cats were a significant feature in my life. One or two people have felt cheated, ‘jokingly’ calling me out for ‘switching to the dark side’. I’ve casually laughed along, flippantly responding; you can be both.
The idea that we, and those around us, hinge so much of who we are on labels isn’t foreign to me. I’ve written about it a number of times, and labels do have their uses. They help us to navigate a variety of social situations and can help establish social connections quickly and fluidly.
I never realised how much this also applied to whether we are ‘cat people’ or ‘dog people’. Growing up in a household filled with both, it never occurred to me that you had to ‘pick a side.’
Imagine my intrigue when I discovered that research (here, here, here and here) has been dedicated to establishing the key differences between cat and dog people, most of it asserting that there are indeed fundamental personality differences - and further yet, that understanding whether someone is a cat or dog person can reveal insights to their character.
One study that particularly interested me looked at responses to the Big 5 Personality Traits (something I refer to a lot in my work) and whether they self-identified as a cat or dog person, as well as those who advised they didn’t have a preference or didn’t like either animal.
The Big 5 is a psychologically-validated metric for measuring our key personality traits across five key domains. It’s recognised by the acronym OCEAN: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Each character trait sits across a scale, and as individuals, we sit somewhere on that scale.
In short, the study found:
Cat people are more likely to be women and tend to be more neurotic, open, curious, unconventional, introverted, and more likely to be worriers or anxious.
Dog people are more likely to be agreeable, extroverted, social, trusting, easy-going and conscientious, with a strong sense of duty and discipline.
It’s not lost on me here that anthropomorphic characteristics we might generally attach to each of these animals seem to come through in the traits of those who self-identify as being more attached to them; cats are generally seen as more aloof (neurotic) and dogs as more social (extraverted). We've all done it at some point, as well, used whether someone is a cat or dog person to 'explain' certain characteristics or differences (the first date that didn't go well, the ex-partner, the colleague).
Personality traits have been associated with individual subjective well-being. Extraversion is associated with greater positive emotionality, and neuroticism is associated with greater negative emotionality - which begs the question, are dog people happier than cat people? And what’s the influence of the pet on this emotionality? Are people who identify as cat people but don’t own a cat the most unhappy of all groups?
As always, no research can be taken at face value - several nuances need to be considered. Internet and social media culture have further shaped the ways we think about animal companions and how they show up/fit into our lives (as well as the ‘type’ of person who might own a particular animal or breed).
The biggest nuance to consider, according to the lead researcher of the above study, Mikel Delgado, a postdoctoral researcher and applied animal behaviorist, is treating cats and dogs as though they are somehow equivalent - they’re not. They’re distinctly different animals, with different needs, domestication histories, cultural attachments and attachment styles to the humans they live with.
It also assumes that all cats are the same and all dogs are the same. As the owner of two dogs, one of whom has anxiety, I have had a baptism of fire in how inherently wrong our collective consciousness is when it comes to dogs.
The social acceptance we have for how these animals behave goes a long way to us believing ‘how’ a cat and/or dog ‘should’ be. My eldest dog is people reactive - he has an inherent fear of new people, meaning he will bark and lunge at anyone he doesn’t know who enters his space. This behaviour has required me to completely relearn how we think about dogs and people - alongside handling regular judgements from the general public who believe ALL dogs are social, people-loving creatures who ‘should’ love affection and attention from anyone they meet. People actively ignore me when I tell them ‘give us space’ or ‘my dog is not friendly’, so entrenched is the belief that all dogs will want to be fussed over by humans. The shock when they learn this isn’t the case is palpable.
The trope of the Hallmark dog, who will willingly bound up and accept pets from any human master, is a fallacy that absolutely needs to be scraped from human memory. As every dog trainer will tell you, dog personalities sit across a spectrum - not too dissimilar to humans. We have labels here (of course) where we talk about dogs as ‘social’, ‘selective’, ‘tolerant’ and ‘reactive’.
When I think back to my cats, I can see similar differences. One of my cats didn’t give two hoots if I was around - preferring to be left outside, wild and roaming the streets like she owned the world. Another was tolerant; she’d be pleased to see me but quickly tire of any attention I might give, and a third was exceptionally needy and snuggly. Another cat I owned when I was in my teens, defied all cat-like stereotypes. He attached himself to me from day one, slept not only in my bed, but draped over my neck or curled around my head. He would push people away from me if they tried to sit next to me and yowl ferociously outside my bedroom door whenever I was away until my mother opened the door to show him I wasn’t there - after which he would sulk about my room or wait on the wall outside the home, watching for my return.
Let’s dance for a moment with the idea that the animals we choose offer definitions or insights of our personality. My dogs are dachshunds, and if you’re not in the know, these dogs hold unique personality traits. Not least, they are one-person dogs, forming firm attachments with their primary caregiver and snubbing pretty much anyone else. They (can be) highly strung, somewhat neurotic, and impossibly intelligent.
In short, they share a lot of supposedly similar character stereotypes with cats. Some of the world’s most renowned creatives (Picasso, Warhol, Hockney, Bowie, Orwell) have all been dachshund owners (thinking back to the trait of cat owners being more creative than dog owners).
Perhaps further research should explore breed traits, the specific breeds pet owners choose, and see how they align with individual personalities, more so than blanket 'cat' or 'dog' choices?
I have purposefully never labelled myself as a dog or cat person - and I wouldn’t use either label now because I love(d) all my pets in the unique ways they need(ed) to be loved. If my dogs have taught me anything, by holding onto these labels - whether for ourselves or our animals - we create expectations that won’t (often cannot) be met because we are all unique.
The question of being a cat or dog person is ultimately a simplistic one to a much more complex matrix of who we are, might be and want to be. It denies room for growth and change as a person is wont to do across a lifetime. It’s a narrowing of definitions of self and others to make us feel more comfortable (as labels so often are).
I find people who cling to labels in any form, whether horoscopes or Myers-Briggs (which in recent months seems to have been replaced with human design. eep!), introvert or extrovert, cat person or dog person, are perhaps grappling with an as-yet-undefined or unlived sense of self.
The single individual who is desperate to marry and start a family might hold onto labels that help them fulfill a sense of who they are that they’re unable to grasp. Likewise, the settled down parent may turn to labels to hold onto some sense of identity they feel slipping further away as their life priorities shift.
We could go one step further - if we want to get psychoanalytical here - and determine why someone might be a cat or dog person at one stage or another of their life? Could the single woman who has decided she is a cat person be so because of internalised fears of commitment? An independent cat who occasionally likes a cuddle in bed would be the ideal companion, never demanding or expecting too much.
(There's also much here to be explored around the gender essentialism that too often gets attached to cat or dog person labels, but perhaps that's a conversation for another time.)
While labels can be helpful, they become deeply problematic on bigger sociological levels. Labelling Theory explores how agents of social control attach stigmatising stereotypes to groups and how the stigmatised change their behaviour once labelled.
I have seen it in my work in schools, where we label children as 'bad' or 'naughty' from one day to the next, and the subsequent outcome in the classroom. Imagine as a teen, reflecting on your behaviour deciding to make a change, only to walk into class and be greeted with "and what trouble are you going to cause today?"
'Bad' behaviour becomes self-fulfilling when the child isn't given the chance to change in reality - and in expectations. When we hold expectations for how a child might behave and we keep holding them, we narrow the space for what might be possible.
On individual levels, holding firm to labels - no matter how innocent they might seem - can see us clinging to ideals rather than exploring growth and maturity as we change over time.
We all want to feel understood and understand ourselves. I understand the need and attraction to labels, but I also work to avoid them because I'm developing as a human being. I don't ever want to stop exploring who I might be because I think I've found the 'right' set of labels for myself. I prefer to live along the guidance of renowned psychologist Carl Jung.
A pioneer of personality testing, even Jung insisted that personality types and testing (in any format) could only reflect an individual’s preferences, not definite traits or abilities. Jung ascertained that these types are a “snapshot” of a person at one particular stage of their life. This changes over the course of a lifetime as we gain more insights, experience, feedback and self-knowledge.
I loved my cats because they fit neatly into the lifestyle I was living at the time, and when my lifestyle shifted, and there was room for dogs, it was a no-brainer to add them to my home. All of the animals I’ve invited into my life were the right ones for me when I needed them.
So, perhaps above and beyond the vice-like grip we place on labels of being a cat or dog person, it is more pertinent to ask ourselves - who am I right now, and how might a pet fit in with this?
And most importantly of all - why?