Interview with Lauren Finka about The Cat Personality Test

"There probably are a lot of cats that are living with us in our homes as pets that might prefer us to treat them more as an expensive lodger than a very attractive companion."

Interview with Dr. Lauren Finka (pictured) about The Cat PersonalityTest
Dr. Lauren Finka

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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An interview with Dr. Lauren Finka about her great new book, The Cat Personality Test: How well do you really know your cat?, which is a lot of fun and packed with useful information for cat owners.

Zazie: Why did you decide to write The Cat Personality Test?

Lauren: I was actually approached by Penguin Random House mid last year, and they had the idea that they wanted to basically create a book that was similar to The Cat IQ test, which came out a couple of years ago now. That did very well, so the idea was to create something in a similar format that would focus on personality. They found me, I think, because I’d written some popular articles about cat personality on the internet. I think they basically googled. They wanted a science basis so they thought it would be nice to have someone with a doctor title and they were interested in somebody that has an academic background, but also worked in this sort of area. So my name came up and they contacted me that way.

Zazie: Awesome!

Lauren: I was not expecting that to happen so it was a really wonderful surprise and quite flattering to be approached and recognized as somebody that could write it, so that was nice.

Zazie: The subtitle of the book is ‘how well do you really know your cat?’ Do you think most people know their cats quite well, or have quite a bit to learn?

Lauren: It’s difficult to answer. In some ways we know our cats very well, so we are often the best people to detect if there’s something a little bit off with their behaviour that might indicate that there’s some sort of underlying medical condition like they’re in pain or there’s something a little bit wrong. So I think we’re very good in that way. We see them more than anyone else does, so we get a really good idea about their idiosyncrasies and their likes and dislikes. But I think there’s a lot of behaviour that we miss or we misinterpret, and a lot of that is to do with the way we culturally see cats, the way that they’ve been presented to us.

In terms of society, we’ve had them as pets for a very long time. We very much integrate them into our homes, but at the same time we don’t necessarily understand a lot about their species-specific needs. We still don’t know a lot about their behaviour and body language. This is primarily because they’re a very hard species to study and to work with, and there hasn’t been a lot of research in this area compared to dogs, so that makes things difficult. And also most people aren’t engaged with the scientific literature, so it can be very difficult for the average person to really understand in-depth about their cat’s behaviour and their expressions when that kind of world, the scientific world, can often be something they cannot easily engage with or learn from. I think they’re the ways that we may struggle to really understand our cats. And because they’re so small, because they’re so cute, because they can’t do a lot of damage in the way that dogs potentially can do, I think we treat them in a way that they don’t necessarily always feel very comfortable with, or we expect a lot from them. As we know they’re not historically very social, but we put them in these very socially-focused environments. I think in some ways that our needs and expectations can often be very different than the needs and expectations of the cat. So I think they’re the sort of ways that we can struggle to fully understand our cats and what they need and what they are okay with.

Zazie: The first section of the book is about how your cat feels about you. I wonder if you have a sense of how many people have a super friendly cat, and how many people have the kind of cat that you say it might be best to think of as an “expensive lodger who comes and goes as they please”?

Lauren: I have most experience from UK cat owners and I know there’s a lot of people who basically have been adopted by their cat. You hear quite a few stories of stray cats turning up and basically just deciding to move in. Some of those cats can be very friendly, and some cats can remain quite aloof and quite cautious. Many of those cats may just hang out in gardens and come in for a little bit of food and tolerate the fuss and then go outside again. I think also what has happened historically in re-homing centres is that there has been this underlying assumption that all cats need to be pets. So when stray cats and cats that haven’t been well-socialized or aren’t really suited, based on their personality, for a domestic existence, when those cats come in quite often, particularly in the past, they would have been adopted out as pets. I think actually there probably are a lot of cats that are living with us in our homes as pets that might prefer us to treat them more as an expensive lodger than a very attractive companion. I think the super friendly, very social, dog-like cats are actually atypical for the species. I mean you do get quite a lot of them, but they are the product of a very specific interaction between their genes, their parents’ personality, and also having the right experiences at the right time. All that is really necessary to have happened to create these hyper-social and very friendly cats. And at a species-level they are probably one end of the spectrum, and the expensive lodgers are at the other end of the spectrum as well.

Zazie: Some of the questions and possible answers in the book are quite delightful and some are quite humourous. Do you have a favourite question or answer?

Lauren: The thing I like in general is that some of the tests I created were based on actual scientific studies.  For example, one of the tests in the first section is on how does your cat feel about you, does your cat prefer you or food? That’s actually a very simplistic version of the study that was carried out by Shreve and Udell in 2017 in Behavioural Processes that was basically looking at the preferences of cats in rescue centres. I really like to take these social cognition studies and translate them into very practical, easy-to-execute tests for cat owners. That’s something I thought was quite fun.

"It’s really hammered home for me the importance of doing as much outreach as possible ...and making it accessible, making it practical."

I tried to very sneakily put as much science into the book as I possibly could, but at the same time make it a bit cute, and a bit silly, and a bit anthropomorphic when necessary. Something I’m really interested in at the moment and actually I’m going to be doing some research on at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home – they’re going to support this – is looking at how we interact socially with cats and the difference between when we give them more or less autonomy and we allow them more choice and control in that situation. I feel that this something that’s been under-researched and that is something that potentially makes a big difference to the cats living with us, how we physically touch them. So one of the bits I quite like in the book is quite silly, but it’s asking about what kind of massages cats prefer if they go to a day spa. The idea is to take this quite serious issue of many cats being handled far too much and people not actually reading the signs when the cats are saying they’re not comfortable or I like this, I don’t like this. And encourage people to think about it, to think about their cat’s preferences, think about where they like to be touched, how firm they like the pressure, how long for. I felt that that was quite a nice way to make it fun but also it has quite important and serious welfare aspects to it as well.

Zazie: In the book, you have several ‘science corner’ sections where you talk about recent research. One that caught my eye was about some research you did that found pedigree cats are friendlier than non-pedigrees. Why do you think that is the case?

Lauren: We don’t definitely know. There could be two main things. In terms of selection, most of that has a focus on aesthetics of cats with, compared to dogs, a much more limited focus on the behaviour and personality of them. But it does seem to be the case that pedigree cats, ones that have been more heavily selected, are different in terms of the way that they interact with the world and with people. It might be that because there has been more selection of these types of cats, they’re actually further removed from their wild counterparts so they’re less likely to have been the result of a tom (un-neutered male) sneakily mating with a female. These are cats that have been controlled and selected in a way that we’ve done on purpose. So they have probably quite different basic temperaments as a whole compared to your average moggy, which might be second-generation street or feral cat. So they have much more of an influx of these wild cat genes coming in, which is keeping the spirit of the wild cat alive. I think in comparison we know breed cats are further removed from that.

Also I think maybe the owners of pedigree cats are slightly different. They may have different expectations of how they want their cat to behave, and they actually interact with those cats in a different way. It might be that they are just a lot more social, and see their cats as more social and engaged with them based on their views of cats and how they’re perceived. So potentially it might be both of those things interacting together. I certainly think that the selection is playing a part there too.

Zazie: The book also has a section on ‘the cat’s cat’ – how well cats get along with each other. When cats in the same household aren’t getting on that well, what are the signs that people often miss?

Lauren: I think a lot of people will just focus on physical indications, so they’ll put a lot of weight on whether the cats are actually fighting, are they hissing at each other, are they chasing each other away. And they’re really important signs to focus on, but of course cats can be very subtle and they can bully each other from a distance. Actually what you see is a lot of cats just passively avoiding each other, or one cat will maybe stare at another cat from across the room, or just place itself in between another cat and an important resource. And if you look out for them they’re pretty obvious, but if you’re only looking out for the physical fighting and hostility you’re probably going to miss all these other signs which are really, really important as well. I think that would be the main thing to focus on.

Also what can happen is a lot of people will say, well my cats must like each other because they eat together or they sleep together or they are in the same area a lot. I would try and pick that apart and say, are they together because they actively enjoy each other’s company, or are they maybe just sharing the same bed because it’s the only place to be that’s high up? Or are they using the same litter tray because the other one is soiled or there is only one litter tray? Or are they eating together because they’re both hungry, they’re competing for food, and the food is only in one place? So I think it’s looking in a bit more detail about how the cats are interacting together and what they’re doing, not just focusing on the very obvious fighting.

Zazie: In each section of the book, people can interpret their answers and you have tips for them, and also some really nice drawings. How did you go about making the book so user-friendly?

Lauren: I’m not really sure. It was actually surprisingly easy to write. I think the reason why is because it’s kind of a culmination of all my experience of doing the very applied stuff I’ve done over the years. A lot of time has been spent developing information sheets for customers who are re-homing cats. I work quite closely with Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and also with International Cat Care, and I’ve also lectured and presented a lot at quite applied conferences. So for me, it’s always been meaningful to do good scientific research but make sure that it can be directly applied to the everyday cat owner or the everyday person who’s working in a cattery environment. So I think when I was writing the book I really thought about it from that perspective.

"We integrate them into our homes, but at the same time we don’t necessarily understand a lot about their species-specific needs."

My brief was to create a book which was engaging and fun for the average cat owner. That was really heavily in my mind. I wanted to make sure it was a fun book that could be a good stocking filler that would be great as a Christmas gift or birthday gift, but I also wanted it to be something that was meaty and substantial and actually gave you lots of good stuff to do with the information. So you’re doing these quizzes, you’re engaging with the tests, generating scores so you can find out about the cat, but then I thought it was really important to know what to do with that. So it’s not just about getting a better understanding of your cat, it’s about how do I then now manage the cat’s environment, how do I change how I’m doing things in order to actually make sure my cat’s happy and we have a good relationship. That was the framework and then it just flowed quite easily from there.

Zazie: I know you’ve done some research on personality and pets. How does the person’s personality affect their cat?

Lauren: We can’t definitely say there’s cause and effect going on because we just looked at correlation. But what we did find was that people who scored more highly for neuroticism, which is one of the big 5 personality measures, their cats generally scored more negatively on various well-being measures, and they were also managed a little bit differently as well. The main findings were that when owners scored higher for neuroticism, their cats were more likely to score highly for a range of stress-linked behaviours, such as cystitis, vomiting, diarrhea, and coat condition. They were also more likely to be overweight, they were more likely to behave in an aggressive way or be more fearful, and they were also more likely to be kept strictly indoors than let outside. So it’s quite interesting with this suite of different indications that were linked to the cat’s wellbeing which are quite different in these sorts of populations.

What we don’t know is whether owners that are more neurotic have a different perception. So are they doing things differently, or do they just see things as being worse? Are they more attentive, are they more worried about their cats, are they noticing more? We’re not sure. But it would be really interesting to look at this more. And actually in collaboration with Battersea I’m going to be doing some research looking at how adopter personality relates to the way that they socially interact with cats. We might be able to show that there is a difference in terms of human personality and the way that they’re engaging with animals.

Zazie: That sounds really fascinating. You have a section at the end of the book about what kind of cat parent are you and what kind of cat is right for you. When someone is looking to get a cat or kitten, how can they ensure their cat will be compatible with their family?

Lauren: I think it’s really important to think about why you want a cat and also what kind of environment you have that you will provide the cat with. Those two things will really guide you in terms of knowing what cat is right for you. It’s okay to be picky and selective when it comes to getting a cat. I think too many people rush in and go to a shelter and see the most poor, bedraggled looking soul, or the one that paws at the door and looks at them, and then they’re sold. I mean this is one way to choose, where the animal chooses you, but I think we need to be a bit more pragmatic and a bit more cautious about selecting the cat whose needs we think we can meet and also a cat that meets our needs.

Of course a lot of us want a cat that is going to be interactive, friendly, social, comfortable living with us, so I think it’s important to think quite carefully. If you are someone that wants a really friendly cat, it’s important to really spend time with their cat. If you can learn about the cat’s parents and how bold and how comfortable they were, how friendly they were with people, make sure there’s a cat that’s been very well socialized positively with people before it was weaned (between 2 to 7 or 8 weeks of age), make sure it’s a cat that seems comfortable with you and all your family. Get as much information about that cat as you can. If you have a busy lifestyle, if there’s a lot going on, if there’s lots of coming and going, is that something that they could cope with. Usually younger cats will adapt better to a new environment, so that’s also something to think about if you think that your  house is a bit chaotic and you really want a cat that is going to cope well with that. Some people on the other hand may be very happy with a cat that is quietly resting next to them on the sofa and isn’t very vocal, doesn’t really want a lot of fuss or attention. Again that’s important to recognize because the last thing you want to do is go and adopt a hyper-social very interactive, very vocal animal; that again wouldn’t be a good match.

"There’s a lot of people who basically have been adopted by their cat."

I think thinking about if you want a pedigree cat or not is really important as well. Hybrid cats, ones that are quite close to the wild counterpart, they may tend to be more territorial, maybe less tolerant of other cats, maybe need a lot more space, and will be very agitated if they can’t go outdoors and if they have a very small environment they have to share with other cats. So again that’s something to consider.

What we know from research is that the social environment, in terms of how many humans were in the house, how busy it is, how many people are coming and going, is a really important component in terms of the stress experienced by cats. I think it’s something we tend to overlook. We just think does this cat like other cats, is this cat okay with other dogs, is this cat one that’s going to cost a lot in terms of medical bills. I think what we don’t really think is, are we providing the right social environments that this cat can cope with? Are they a cat that maybe needs a more consistent, very predictable, very quiet environment, and if so perhaps they’re not the right cat for us. These are the the sorts of conversations it’s really important to have before actually going and choosing a cat.

Zazie: That’s really helpful advice. You’ve mentioned that you are a feline behaviour and welfare advisor for Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. If someone wants to get an adult cat from a shelter, what advice do you have for them that’s specific to a shelter cat?

Lauren: One of the benefits from adopting an adult cat from a shelter, particularly the good shelters that are managing cats well, is that you’ll often get quite a lot of information about that cat from its previous environment. So you’ll get a good sense of the cat’s experience and how well the cat coped in that previous environment. Again if you’re adopting adult cats, what you see is kind of what you get, in the sense that personality is a lot less flexible the older we get, and that’s the same with us as well. The risk with a kitten is that actually there’s a lot of uncertainty, and that is the same wherever the kitten comes from, but people maybe expect a bit too much if they get a kitten from a breeder for example, that they’re guaranteed a certain type of cat. And that really couldn’t be further from the truth. One of the good things about getting an adult shelter cat is that you’ll have hopefully some good advice, you’ll have history about the cat, you’ll get a sense of who that cat is, what that cat likes, and that will be how that cat is. There will be less surprises as you take the cat home and get used to them.

As we know there are a lot of cats around, a lot of cats in shelters. It’s not a great optimal place for them to be and a lot of them are there because their owners just can’t care for them. It’s not like they’re behaviour problem cats that need a lot of work. A lot of them are lovely pets and are just unfortunate to have ended up there. In terms of advice again I’d say similar to what I said before, get as much history and information about that cat as possible. Bear in mind that what you see in a shelter may not reflect all of that cat’s personality perfectly, depending on how long the cat has been in the shelter may influence how they seem. Evidence suggests that cats will probably start to acclimatize or habituate to their environment within about 2-4 days, and after a 2 week period probably what you see is how they’re going to be. A lot of cats may become a bit subdued and withdrawn in the homing environment, so they might not sell themselves very well. Then it’s really important to go on previous information.

"I really like to take these social cognition studies and translate them into very practical, easy-to-execute tests for cat owners."

If you have a good history about that cat and how it was in a previous home and it seems that it’s really friendly and comfortable, then it’s likely the behaviour you’re seeing now is just a reflection of the fact that they’re a little bit stressed where they are. So that’s important to bear in mind. I think re-homing a cat from a shelter is great in that you will hopefully get some good support and good advice, you’re going to get a cat that is neutered and vaccinated and has had a good health check, and potentially have that contact with the centre if anything goes wrong, or if you have any questions. If things just aren’t working out you can also potentially return the cat if you feel that it’s in the best interests of the cat. So it’s a nice supportive way to acquire a pet, which you maybe don’t get on the same level with breeders or friends or if you just take on a kitten from a random person. And there’s more responsibility for giving good advice when you get from a shelter. But again shop around, because shelters do vary. Some are much more informed and have more resources than others do.

Zazie: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Lauren: Just that I really hope this book is useful and helpful. I think it doesn’t necessarily look like it’s a book that’s really focused on improving the welfare of cats and owner’s relationships with their cats, but that’s really what it aims to do. So I just hope that enough people read it and like it and that it actually helps to make a little bit of a difference. One thing that has really hit home for me writing popular articles, writing this book, also being a researcher, is that you can spend two or three years on a research project creating a paper that maybe 2,000 people will read and it goes nowhere, and then you can spend five weeks writing a book and it gets read by loads of people and really makes a difference. So it’s really hammered home for me the importance of doing as much outreach as possible and not just doing the research but actually communicating it and making it accessible, making it practical. I think that’s, for me, really important and something that I’ll always try to do as a scientist.

The Cat Personality Test: How well do you really know your cat? is available at all good bookstores (including my Amazon store).

Thank you to Dr. Lauren Finka for the interview. You can follow her on Twitter.

Dr Lauren Finka is a post-doctoral research fellow at Nottingham Trent University where she specialises in feline behaviour and welfare. Her research focuses on developing non-invasive ways to assess cat wellbeing and well as understanding the impacts of humans on cats, in order to improve our relationships with them. Lauren has a PhD in feline welfare and behaviour and has over 10 years of experience working with cat-rehoming organisations. She is a passionate advocate for the practical application of scientific, evidence-based information, in order to promote ‘best practice’ when caring for cats. Lauren works with Battersea Dogs and Cats Home as a specialist advisor and training provider. Over the years she has also worked with leading cat welfare charity International Cat Care and currently acts as a marker for students studying for their advanced certificate in feline behaviour. She also writes a monthly ‘Science of Cats’ column for Your Cat Magazine and has just published her first book for cat owners, focusing on understanding cats’ personalities in order to better meet their needs and improve wellbeing.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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This interview has been very lightly edited for length.

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