So you think you understand your cat? Think again

By Karin Brulliard

Most cat owners will agree their pets have a personality. A new study will help them work out which one. Photo / AP
Most cat owners will agree their pets have a personality. A new study will help them work out which one. Photo / AP

What's better than an online personality test? An online cat personality test.

Researchers in Australia are now administering them, and they've found something interesting: Cats are not too different from us.

Many psychologists subscribe to the theory that all people have five broad personality traits, known as the "Big Five": extraversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, conscientiousness and neuroticism. And cats, the team at the University of South Australia has found, have their own Big Five.

They drew this conclusion after administering personality tests to about 2800 domestic cats in Australia and New Zealand. Needless to say, the tests were completed by the felines' owners, who ranked their pets on a scale of 1 to 7 for each of 52 behaviours and traits, including "clumsy", "reckless" and "vocal". By aggregating the responses about those micro-traits, a computer analysis revealed five broad feline personality dimensions, and it gave the cats scores for each one.

Three of the "Feline Five" traits correspond to those in humans, said Philip Roetman, who leads "citizen science" projects for the university, including the cat research.

The Feline Five are skittishness, outgoingness, dominance, spontaneity and friendliness.

Previous research using feline personality tests focused on wild and shelter cats, but the Australia study is the first to analyse personality test results from a large number of domestic cats. Most of the participants fell somewhere in the middle for each trait, Roetman said.

Older cats tended to be slightly more dominant and less outgoing than younger ones, Mr Roetman said. But there were no significant variations between genders, or between cats in New Zealand and Australia.

And most important to Mr Roetman, the results revealed no major personality differences between indoor and outdoor cats. He said that finding could be helpful in cat "management", which is a huge topic in Australia, where politicians have declared "war" on the predatory feral cats they accuse of driving out native species.

Some Australians worry that keeping their cats inside will negatively affect their personalities, Mr Roetman said. But most cats rank as typical whether they're behind closed doors or roaming the streets, which is "really good news for people who keep their cats indoors", he said. "The research suggests that it's actually okay to cats."

Cat owners received charts showing where their cat fell on the spectrum for each trait and suggestions about how to interpret them. Highly skittish cats would benefit from hiding spots at home, it might note, and cats with low spontaneity scores "may enjoy routine." "What I've found talking to cat owners about these results is that they intuitively make sense," Mr Roetman said.

The study is open only to cats in South Australia at the moment. But there's good news for cat lovers in the United States who like online personality tests (and we assume there must be a decent overlap): Researchers in North Carolina are planning to expand the study to include American cats, Mr Roetman said.

The Feline Five

Skittishness: This one's akin to neuroticism in people. Cats that earned high skittishness scores are more anxious and fearful; calm and trusting cats had low scores.

Outgoingness: This is the equivalent of extroversion in humans. Highly outgoing cats are curious and active; those with low scores are aimless and "quitting", according to the test.

Dominance: This one belongs just to felines. Cats that are bullying and aggressive to their peers got high scores; cats that are friendly and submissive to other felines scored low.

Spontaneity: Another one that's cat-specific. High scores indicate impulsive, erratic cats; low scores went to predictable, constrained cats.

Friendliness: This is akin to agreeableness in people. Highly friendly cats tend to be affectionate, while those with low scores are solitary and irritable.

- Washington Post

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