On April 13, 2018, I posted Pets: A Treasure Trove for Writers focusing on how people treat their pets and how pets might fit into plot points and scenes. Now, I’m turning to the ways pets reflect their owners, and the things an informed character might deduce from simply knowing another character’s pet choice(s). These are group data, of course, so as a writer you need to decide whether your character reflects the norm or is an outlier.
Cat owners are the most dependable and emotionally sensitive.
Reptile owners are the most independent.
2) Comparing dog people and cat people:
Dog people are 15% more extroverted, 13% more agreeable, and 11% more conscientious.
Cat people are 12% more neurotic and 11% more emotionally open.
Dog owners are healthier: handled stress better, were more relaxed, had higher self-esteem, and were less likely to be diagnosed with depression.
3) Richard Wiseman concluded that people often see their pets’ personality as a reflection of their own. Maybe a character could ask, “So, what’s your X like?”
4) Younger people who are disagreeable tend to prefer aggressive dogs.
5) Dog owners tend to seek different qualities in their dogs depending on their political leanings:
Liberals want dogs that are gentle and relate to their owners as equals.
Conservatives want dogs that are loyal and obedient.
6) Likelihood of owners cleaning up after their dogs:
35.3% of males; 58.2% of females.
18.2% of those who are lower income; 68.7% of those with higher income.
72.6% of those who kept their dogs on a leash.
The website medium.com has published at least two articles on this topic: “What Your Pet Says Abut Your Personality and Career” (Mitch Fodstad, 3/6/2017) and “What Your Pet Says About You” (Dustin Bilyk, 1/10/18). The Bilyk article was written for humor and is basically an opinion piece, but you might want to read it for inspiration about a character’s opinions. In addition to personality and career, life stage is addressed. All of the following points come from these two articles. Not surprisingly, there is some overlap with the points above. So, by pet, here are the generalities:
Snake people: Owners are unconventional and novelty-seeking, may be bad-ass or wannabe bad-ass, and may have a kinky side. FYI, male snakes are so focused on reproducing that they don’t even eat during mating season and many of them die. Snake owners tend to lead unusual lives and make impulsive decisions. They’re eager for the next move, even when unsure what that move might be.
Common careers: engineer, social worker, marketing/public relations professional, editor/writer, or police officer.
Turtle people: They are hard-working and reliable. Turtle owners harness exceptional commitment, which drives quality performance and bodes well for upward mobility to a higher social class.
Common careers: engineer, social worker, marketing/public relations professional, editor/writer, or police officer.
(VL: Note the similarities with other reptile people as described above.)
Fish people: They are optimistic and not materialistic, unconcerned with possessions. They prefer low-maintenance pets. Fish owners are hopeful and confident about the future.
Common career choices: human resources, financial professional, hotel and leisure professional, farming/fishing/forestry professional, or transportation professional.
Bird people: These pet owners tend to be outgoing and friendly, expressive, and socially confident. They communicate effectively and may include some of the most powerful visionaries.
Common careers: advertising professional, sales person, construction worker, or administrative professional.
Cat people: Cat owners tend to be adventurous, creative, and anxious. They enjoy new experiences, often have vivid imaginations, and are likely to be less sociable than dog owners.
Common careers: physician, real estate agent, science/medical technicians, machine operator, or personal caretaker.
Dog people: These people tend to be extroverted, confident, and risk-averse.
Common careers: professor, nurse, information technology professional, military professional, or entertainer.
Frankly, I find the links between pet, personality, and careers more suggestive than factual. Writers should still consider the narrative possibilities of such links.
Scientific American MIND published on-line an overview of the research into what pets say about their owners (Karen Schrock Simring, 9/1/15). There isn’t much data published in peer-reviewed academic studies, but lots of information is available from huge market surveys within the pet industry and survey responses from pet owners. Because I don’t want to footnote specific statements, I am not combining info from this article with related statements above.
If a character has a dog, he or she is more likely to be in senior management and consider their pet part of the family; live with family members, not have a college degree (although other research suggests dog owners are likely to be a professor, nurse, information professional, military professional, or entertainer); be extroverted, agreeable, and conscientious; have gotten the dog from a shelter or rescue group; live in Arkansas, New Mexico, Kentucky, Missouri, or West Virginia.
If the character’s pet is a cat, they are more likely to be divorced, widowed, or separated; live in an apartment; be neurotic and open to new experiences; be college educated; be a physician, real estate agent, science or medical lab technician, machine operator, or personal caregiver; be less socially dominant; live in Vermont, Maine, Oregon, South Dakota, or Washington state.
If the character owns a bird, they are more likely to be unemployed, describe themselves as caring and polite, be outgoing and expressive (and socially dominant if female), and live in California, Oregon, Washington state, or Nevada.
Horse owners tend to be more assertive and introspective and less warm and nurturing; be aggressive and socially dominant if he is male but non-aggressive and easygoing if she is female; hold an advanced degree; be married and a homeowner; live in a rural area; reside in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, or Louisiana. They are most likely to describe themselves as dependable and self-disciplined.
Cold-blooded exotic pet owners if female, are more open to new experiences than male owners or female owners of traditional pets; if male, they are much less agreeable than female owners or male owners of traditional pets.
If the pet is a snake, the character may describe themselves as neat and tidy, relaxed and unpredictable; be unconventional and novelty seeking; and consider their pet “part of the family.”
If the character’s pet is a turtle, that character is more likely to be hardworking, reliable, and upwardly mobile, and describe themselves as rational and goal-oriented.
Fish owners are most likely to describe themselves as calm and emotionally stable.
Rabbit owners describe themselves as sympathetic, warm, and open to new experiences.
Hamster owners were the most likely to have an advanced degree.
Guinea pig owners were least likely to describe themselves as extroverted.
Owners of unusual pets were more likely to have a menagerie. For instance, more than half of ferret owners said they had six or more pets. Dog owners, on the other hand, were the most likely to have only one pet.
More than half of cat owners are fond of both cats and dogs. More than half of dog owners say they only like canines.
Beyond the most common pets, people make a pet of almost any animal: chickens, exotic insects, possums, pigs, etc.
Writers note: For people who have pets, those pets are often integral to how owners see themselves. For example, some men who want to look tough may get a tough-looking dog. Some people have rabbits or poodles because that’s the family tradition. Some people who feel misunderstood may seek “misunderstood” pets such as spiders. If you give your character a pet, choose it for a reason!
And in spite of it all, keep in mind that although 68% of U.S. households have pets, that leaves 32% pet-less.
This insert with the Sunday Richmond Times Dispatch has been lying around since March 11, thoughts of ways it might be useful to writers niggling at me. It’s finally come to fruition. And I can testify—on the basis of my middle daughter—that the points made in this brief article apply to pets other than dogs!
Most obviously, you might have a character who is overboard on his/her pet. (If your character owns a cat, surely you can get comparable info online.) Indulging a pet could lead to teasing, ridicule, even ostracism.
But moving on: What about the pet service providers? Suppliers of pet party items. People make and/or sell pet gifts and toys. Someone who runs a pet daycare. People who design, make, and/or sell pet clothes. Any of these could provide an interesting job for a character.
What about pets as a source of conflict?
Last year pet owners spent almost $70 billion on their pets, approximately a 70% increase over a ten-year period. Money spent on pets could be a source of conflict between characters, or a source of financial difficulty. The American Pet Products Association says dog owners shell out about $3,000 per year, depending on the breed. But owners say they spend $8,000, $10,000, or more on everything from pet health insurance to new furniture to travel. (Nearly 40% of dog owners take them on vacation.)
And what about other heirs of the 44% of dog owners who provide for their dogs in their wills?
More than half of dog owners let their dogs sleep in their beds. What if the spouse/partner/love interest doesn’t like that?
The Emotional Upside to Owning a Pet
Scientific studies have documented the positive effects of pets on mood. Your body produces oxytocin and endorphins, hormones that lift mood and strengthen the emotional bond between owner and pet. Oxytocin is the hormone that creates bonds between mother and child or between lovers. So how dependent is your character on animal love? And at what cost?
Other Bits that Might Come in Handy
My oldest daughter trained with her rescue dog to make therapy visits. Is that something your character might do? What about a character who is the recipient of such visits? Where might that lead?
My youngest daughter is surgical veterinary technician. During a recent visit, she gave us a tour of her workplace.
Most of us are vaguely aware that animal hospitals do things similar to human hospitals. But to actually see the oncology lab, the MRI equipment, the physical therapy suite, the surgical areas, the precautions for animals in isolation, the incubator for preemies, and the site of the future serenity garden brings home the parallel.
But one unusual bit: this hospital maintains blood banks for dogs and cats.
The dog blood bank is filled by donations from the pets of staff and clients. Star donors (like Bruce Lee, above, who is a universal donor) donate blood every six weeks or so. Each donation can be used to treat more than one patient.
The hospital maintains colonies of cat blood donors. The cats come from animal rescue. At the hospital they are treated, vaccinated, and spayed. Even so, there are separate colonies for males and females. The cats are maintained as donors for a year and then placed for adoption.
Cat donors must be 1 yr old and at least 10 lbs
Dogs must be 1 yr old, at least 50 lbs
Both: no blood born diseases, no condition requiring chronic medication except NSAIDS, hypothyroidism, or meds for flea/tick/heart worm
Bruce Lee (the dog donor pictured) is 6 yrs old, has been a donor for 18 mos., and donates more than 6 times per yr. He’s a universal donor, like Type O for humans.
What if your character has a pet that is or was a blood donor?
I would have adopted Olaf in a nanosecond but he isn’t yet available. He’s affectionate AND has one blue eye, one green one.
Bottom line: Consider the value of pets in your writing!