Psychologists have known for many years about the huge impact that parenting has on children. As an adult, if you go for therapy to help you deal with issues in your personal life, you can be sure that the therapist will ask you many questions about your upbringing, and about your relationship with your parents. Many adult problems relate to your environment in the early years of your life. As a parent, I find this thought a little frightening: despite my best intentions and efforts, what might I have done "wrong" that may affect my children adversely in future years?
Now it seems that our personalities also have a direct effect on our pets. The newspaper headlines reporting a research paper last week summed it up: "Cat owners pass on personality traits to their pets". Researchers found that neurotic owners were more likely to have pets with behavioural issues.
The newspaper story was only a summary of the research: the details of the project are worth delving into.
The research investigated all sorts of owner personalities, examining how this related to cat behaviour and well-being. The work was done by asking over 3300 people to complete an online survey about themselves and their pet cats.
Owner personalities were assessed first, using a psychological analysis known as the "Big Five Inventory" (BFI): Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Neuroticism and Openness. They were then asked a series of questions about the physical health, breed type, management and behavioural styles of their cats. Complicated statistical techniques were then used to work out correlations, connections and relationships between the different types of human personalities and various aspects of their cats' lives.
The researchers then looked for areas that stood out as being significant, and there were a number of interesting findings. The most startling aspect was that the simple fact that there is a link between human personalities and cat personalities. In other words, it seems that cats pick up our attitudes as we interact with them, day to day, and their own personalities change depending on how we behave with them.
Owners who had personalities that featured "agreeableness" were more likely to report satisfaction with their cat, and their pets were more likely to have a normal body weight.
Human personalities that ranked highly for "conscientiousness" were more likely to have cats that were gregarious and sociable, displaying less anxious/fearful, aggressive, or aloof behaviour.
Owners who were classified as extroverts were more likely to allow their pet cats free access to the outdoors, while people who ranked highly for "openness" were more likely to keep their cats indoors.
However the most interesting part of the research involved the owners with personalities that ranked highly for neuroticism. These are people who are prone to psychological stress, with a tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, including anger, anxiety, depression, and vulnerability. They may have worse psychological well being than the other categories.
Anyway, the research discovered that cats belonging to people who ranked highly for neuroticism were more likely to suffer from behavioural problems, displaying more aggressive and anxious/fearful behaviour and suffering from more stress-related issues. They were also more likely to have an ongoing medical condition and they were more likely to be overweight.
So just as the behaviour of human parents has a deep effect on the way that children's personalities develop, the same may apply to the impact of the behaviour of cat owners on their pets. Nobody knows why this is, but it isn't surprising. If you talk to any animal trainer, they will stress the importance of behaving in a consistent, disciplined way when teaching an animal to carry out a certain behaviour. It follows that if we humans, because of our own personalities, behave in a similar way, in every interaction with our pets, day after day, week after week, we accidentally teach them to respond to us in a particular way. This regular response then becomes part of their personality.
One of the interesting aspects of this cat research is that it has not been strongly duplicated in similar studies with dogs. While one study found that tense, shy, undisciplined and less emotionally stable owners were more likely to have dogs that behave aggressively, another study found that dogs belonging to such people had lower cortisol levels, suggesting that they suffer from lower levels of stress. It's not surprising that dogs and cats react differently to humans: they are entirely different species, with their own evolved way of interacting with the world.
The most interesting aspect of the results is that they mirror the findings of research on parental personality, parenting styles and child behaviour. More neurotic owners are likely to have a more over-protective, overly anxious, caretaking style. And just as children are affected by this type of continual background angst, so are cats.
We just need to master the art of communicating clearly with cats, and there may be a huge market for therapists, helping older cats come to terms with the trauma of their early life with neurotic owners.