Cat personality explained: understanding the Feline Five


As part of the Cat Tracker project we have been studying the personalities of pet cats. Our research findings have been published in PLOS ONE (click here) and a summary is provided in this post. We have launched an online version of the Cat Personality Test (click here).

Animal personality

Animal personality has been studied for a long time, particularly in relation to captive animals, like zoo animals. It is important to understand the personality of captive animals in order to create an appropriate environment for them. For example, shy animals will benefit from places to hide! Also, an understanding of an animal’s personality might help zoo keepers monitor the animal to ensure that it is happy in its environment. If a keeper notices changes in an animal’s personality, it could be as a result of something in the animal’s environment, like a fellow animal with a non-compatible personality. These things can be managed in zoos where environments can be controlled, and cat owners can also manage their pet’s environment to ensure their pet is happy and healthy.

Researchers in the UK and USA (Marieke Gartner, David Powell and Alexander Weiss) have developed a personality questionnaire for cats and used it with captive wildcats and with domestic cats in shelters. The questionnaire includes 52 personality characteristics and was based on personality research on numerous other animals. As part of the Cat Tracker project, we have utilised the questionnaire on a large number of pet cats in South Australia and New Zealand. The large number of cats has allowed us to analyse pet cat personality like never before!

The Feline Five

Our analyses of 2,802 cat personality tests indicate a set of five personality factors that capture the majority of these cats’ personality characteristics. Each factor reflects numerous related personality characteristics. We have called these factors the Feline Five, listed here with some examples of the characteristics they reflect:

Bagheera was tracked as part of the Cat Tracker project (click here to see cat tracks)

Bagheera was tracked as part of the Cat Tracker project (click here to see cat tracks)

  1. Skittishness
    HIGH SCORES = anxious, fearful of people and cats
    LOW SCORES = calm, trusting
  2. Outgoingness
    HIGH SCORES = curious, active
    LOW SCORES = aimless, quitting
  3. Dominance
    HIGH SCORES = bullying, aggressive to other cats
    LOW SCORES = submissive, friendly to other cats
  4. Spontaneity
    HIGH SCORES = impulsive, erratic
    LOW SCORES = predictable, constrained
  5. Friendliness
    HIGH SCORES = affectionate, friendly to people
    LOW SCORES = solitary, irritable

Understanding the personalities of individual cats

Based on cat owner’s responses to the Cat Personality Test, each cat can be been scored on each Feline Five factor. For each factor, most cats score somewhere in the middle (called ‘typical’), and some cats score higher or lower. You would expect a cat that scores highly on a particular factor to demonstrate related characteristics very frequently. For example, a cat that scores highly on ‘friendliness’ would likely be affectionate to its owners and others.

Below is an example of one cat’s Feline Five results. On the graph, the area shaded in grey is the ‘typical’ zone. Points above the typical zone are high, and points below the typical zone are low. Bagheera is clearly a friendly cat, which is important because he regularly attends an Adelaide school with his owner, a teacher, and is popular with the students (you can read more about Bagheera in this Adelaide Now article).

Cat Personality Test results for Bagheera, including skittishness (low), outgoingness (high), dominance (typical), spontaneity (typical) and friendliness (high).

Similarities to human personality?

One interesting finding in our research is how similar cat personalities are to human personalities. In human personality research, the Big Five personality factors are: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. In the table below we have listed the Big Five alongside the Feline Five, so you can see which factors are similar, and which factors are not.

Feline Five
(pet cat personality factors)
Big Five
(human personality factors)
Skittishness Neuroticism Some similarity
Outgoingness Extraversion Some similarity
Dominance No “Big Five” equivalent No similarity
Spontaneity No “Big Five” equivalent No similarity
Friendliness Agreeableness Some similarity
No “Feline Five” equivalent Openness No similarity
No “Feline Five” equivalent Conscientiousness No similarity

 Changing personalities?


Mickey was tracked as part of the Cat Tracker project (click here to see cat tracks)

While animal personalities are typically considered to be stable and not easily changed, there is evidence that personalities may change over a lifetime, depending on experiences and situations (e.g. stressful events). In our analyses of pet cats we found correlations between the age of the cats we studied and the personality scores of cats on the Feline Five factors. These correlations suggest that as cats get older they tend to become slightly more skittish and dominant than younger cats. They also tend to become slightly less outgoing, spontaneous and friendly than younger cats. It is also important to recognise that personalities can change when animals are young. Therefore, we did not include cats under one-year old in our analysis and urge caution in how cat owners view the results of young cats. In our cat personality reports we have noted that the personality of a cat under one-year of age may still be developing.

An interesting finding…

Considering that cat personalities may change, we thought it would be interesting to have a look at the personalities of indoor cats and compare them to outdoor cats. We were wondering if keeping a cat indoors might change its personality. We found that the personalities of indoor and outdoor cats are very similar. In fact, the only statistically significant difference we found was that the indoor cats we assessed tended to be slightly more friendly than cats that spent time outside. We think this is good news for people who keep their cats indoors, as the results suggest that there is no negative impact on the personality of a cat when it is kept indoors! However, more research is required in this area to ensure that any other possible explanations of our findings are discounted. For example, it is possible that friendly cats are more likely to be kept indoors. However, if keeping cats indoors did have a negative impact on their personality, then we would expect to see different results (e.g. perhaps skittishness or spontaneity would be higher in indoor cats, or outgoingness would be lower).

Further information for cat owners

We have launched an online cat personality test that anyone can use to find out more about the personality of their cat (click here).

Do the Cat Personality Test

Cat personality reports include some suggestions about how cat management might be guided by an understanding of a cat’s personality. Click here to see and example report: Bagheera’s Cat Personality Test.

You can also find out more about Cat Tracker (click here for more information about the project).

To stay in touch and learn about all of the Discovery Circle’s projects, please register for our eNewsletter.

Mickey was tracked as part of the Cat Tracker project (click here to see cat tracks)

Mickey was tracked as part of the Cat Tracker project (click here to see cat tracks)

Our research team on this project:

Further Reading:

  •  Read our research article, published in PLOS ONE in August, 2017,
  • If you would like to read more about the previous cat personality research, please see:
    Gartner MC, Powell DM & Weiss A (2014) Personality Structure in the Domestic Cat (Felis silvestris catus), Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia), Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia), and African Lion (Panthera leo): A Comparative Study. Journal of Comparative Psychology, volume 128, no. 4, pp. 414-426. This article is available online (click here).
  • If you would like to read more about the Big Five human personality factors, please see:
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