COMMENT:

If your cat is grumpy, you may only have yourself to blame – according to research published this week that is!

People often say that dogs are like their owners, and many dog lovers select a breed that reflects their own personality. Dogs are seen as social creatures, whereas cats – stereotypically – are more independent. New research out this week, however, finds that the personalities of domestic cats might actually directly mirror that of their owners.

The ability to transmit learning without needing to go through direct experience has been demonstrated in many animals. This skill can help animals to learn how to forage for food in groups, how to determine edible foods and how to identify fear - and therefore danger - in the area.

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Many animal species - sheep, rats, monkeys, humans and cats for example - are capable of learning to fear a stimulus just by observing the behaviour of another animal. Being able to detect fear in others could be the difference between life and death for some animals – for some humans, however, their fear response can be over-elevated.

In humans, when it comes to personality traits, individuals who score high for neuroticism are more likely to experience and show feelings such as fear, worry and anxiety. Researchers wanted to understand if this demonstration of fear could be picked up by other animals in the household.

They studied the relationship between the personality of cat owners as determined by personality tests, and the health, lifestyle and behaviour of the cats that they owned. More than 3300 cat owners were tested for the "big five" personality traits: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism and openness. Their cats were then studied for physical health, breed type and behavioural traits to see if there was a correlation.

This research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, found that cat owners who showed higher levels of neuroticism were more likely to own cats that were overweight and scratched the furniture. Their cats were also more likely to have ongoing medical conditions and behavioural issues such as being more aggressive, anxious or fearful. Due to their own anxiety these owners were much more likely to prevent their cats from going outside, which could help to explain the increase in obesity and behavioural issues in their pets.

At the other end of the spectrum, owners who displayed personality traits with increased agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness were more likely to let their cats explore outdoors and in general owned the most healthy, least anxious and least aggressive cats of the group.

This study may seem somewhat light-hearted but it is more serious than it looks as it connects the relationship between caregiver personality and the wellbeing of those within their care. That has significant potential ramifications for human-human relationships, beyond the relationships we have with our furry friends.

Based on the results of human parent-child studies, 30 to 60 per cent of personality traits are thought to be genetically inherited by the child from its parents. The rest are thought to depend on the personality and emotionality of the parent during the child's upbringing.

High scores in neuroticism as a personality trait among parents have been strongly linked to long-term negative outcomes for those parents' children. These outcomes include poorer physical and mental health, in addition to a generally lower quality of life.

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The results of this recent study of cats correlate strongly with previous research into human parent-child relationships. This, then, could suggest that high neuroticism scores among carers are a predictor of the long term health and wellbeing of children and/or animals in their care.