21 February 2016

RESEARCH Who's Happier - Dog People or Cat People?

Researcher, Katherine Jacobs Bao, didn't mean to unleash debate in controversial territory. But when she tried to determine which are happier - cat people or dog people - that is exactly what she did.

“As a pet owner, I have always been interested in how pets relate to our happiness,” Bao, who works in happiness research, told InfoStream.

The goal of her study out of Manhattanville College, which was announced at the recent Society for Personality and Social Psychology Convention in San Diego, was to determine if there is a difference in what some might call “happiness,” (i.e. life satisfaction, more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions,) between pet owners and non pet owners. But Bao concedes it is far from the final word on the topic.

What the study did show is that “dog owners were higher in well-being, marginally more extroverted, less neurotic and more agreeable,” than cat-owning counterparts. Dog people reported higher levels of happiness and positive emotions than cat people, however, the study did not show differences in life satisfaction or negative emotions. “I'm a cat person, so this was a little upsetting” she scoffs.

And while it was revealing, Bao's findings - gleaned in part from a questionnaire given to 263 participants, half men and half women, aged 19 to 68 years - also left many questions unanswered.

“Do happier people adopt dogs, or do dogs increase people’s happiness?” Bao muses. “One could ask whether extroverts seek out dogs, or whether dogs make people more extroverted.”

No doubt, studies have shown animal owners, in general, lead a more satisfied life than non-pet owners and many studies back claims there are health benefits to owning a pet; like lower blood pressure, less depression and reduced risk of death after heart attacks. But little research has been done on happiness.

And despite Bao's bid to delve into the topic, the question remains – which group is happier?

Katherine Jacobs Bao
Currently continuing her research on the topic, Bao hopes to learn which group, cat owners or dog owners, leads the pack when it comes to happiness. The answer, she says, lies in following pet owners over time to see, for instance, if newly adopted pets indeed boost happiness but owners return to baseline levels of well-being after the passage of time, and if personality actually changes as a result of pet ownership.

Either way, Bao figures pets help make people happier given they help “fulfil the basic need of relatedness, (to) feel connected.” That is especially the case with people who treat pets “as part of the family rather than something else in the house.”

And until her subsequent research reveals more, Bao is intrigued by the reaction to her recent findings. “Some publications are taking it too far and saying, 'Everyone needs to get a dog,'” she says of conclusions drawn by media from her recent study. “I didn't expect it to pick up quite as much attention as it did. Now, it seems to have sparked some cat/dog owner rivalry.”

By Nadia Moharib
Nadia Moharib is an animal lover who has adopted everything from birds to hamsters, salamanders, rabbits, fish and felines. She has written about all-things-pets for years and was a long-time editor of a pet magazine in a daily newspaper which featured a Q & A column, Ask Whit, penned by her pooch (ghost written, of course.) The serial dog owner lives in Calgary, Alberta and most days can be found at a dog park picking up after her rescue pooch, Scoots.

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