Skip to content

Advertisement

Open Access
Open Peer Review

This article has Open Peer Review reports available.

How does Open Peer Review work?

An empirical examination of the conceptualization of companion animals

BMC PsychologyBMC series – open, inclusive and trusted20186:15

https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-018-0228-1

Received: 17 October 2017

Accepted: 26 March 2018

Published: 4 May 2018

Abstract

Background

The extensive keeping of companion animals and the substantial monetary amount we spend on these animals indicate that they are highly valued. Although the benefits humans derive from keeping cats and dogs have been extensively studied, how we conceptualize these animals has received limited attention. How people conceptualize cats and dogs is important as it influences human behavior and the well-being of humans as well as animals. The objective of this paper was to examine the conceptual meaning of dogs and cats and the relative importance of meanings assigned to these species.

Methods

Based on a Swedish on-line survey (n = 2028) the free-elicitation method was used to measure the salience of conceptualizations for dogs and cats as this method measures the accessibility of the focal object in people’s memory. An R-index approach was used to analyze the importance and dominance of attributes on the premise that the order in which attributes were listed by respondents reflects their relative importance. The sum of the choice probability was used to evaluate the stochastic rank order of attributes and Somers’ D was used to examine difference in rankings between groups of respondents.

Results

For dogs, human well-being in terms of emotional and social support, and emotional attachment (friendship, love, companionship, joy and loyalty) were found to be most important while elements related to the animals themselves (e.g. personality of the animal) were found to be less important. For cats, personality of the animal was along with love found to be most important. The results were largely consistent across different types of households.

Conclusions

The results provide information on the relative importance of salient attributes and thus indicate which attributes that are important to consider, for example, when analyzing human-animal interaction, animal welfare, human health and subjective-well-being, or the economic value of cats and dogs.

Keywords

Attribute importanceSalienceConceptualizationCatDogCompanion animal

Background

Cats and dogs are extensively kept as companion and working animals around the world. In Sweden and in Europe approximately one fourth [1, 2] and in the U.S. about one third of the households kept a cat or a dog [3] in 2012. In Europe, approximately € 35 billion was in 2016 spent on food products for companion animals and pet-related products and services [1]. Corresponding figure for the U.S. was approximately $ 67 billion [4].

The benefits humans derive from keeping cats and dogs have been extensively studied. For example, cats and dogs have been found to promote psychological health and well-being by providing companionship, emotional and social support, a sense of safety and security, entertainment, happiness, and relaxation (see e.g., [57]). Dogs have also been found to promote exercise and outdoor activities, affect the physical health of humans, and are used in different types of therapeutic settings (see e.g., [8, 5]). However, the scientific support for several of these benefits is disputed [911].

With different familiarity, and on the range from a specific animal to animals in general, people make associations between the identity of a focal object (e.g. a specific animal) and other conceptual associations held in mind. For example, a certain dog breed might be thought of as ‘caring’ or ‘cute’; another dog breed can be associated with being ‘aggressive’. These types of associations might be obtained as social constructs or successively learnt from internal experiences. At some point, the identity of the object and the associated conceptualizations become aligned in the mind of us as individuals. When considered in relation to a certain focal object the conceptualization establishes bearers of assigned meaning which, in turn, can be decomposed into three dimensions: functional; emotional; and abstract [12, 13]. In this way, this meaning may influence human behavior and well-being in relation to the focal object, and may therefore have the potential to ultimately affect how animals are treated, selected and cared for. Furthermore, not all bearers of assigned meaning are of equal importance.

Previous studies have examined the reasons people keep companion animals [14, 15], the different roles companion animals play in peoples’ lives [16, 17], the dimensions underlying the dog-human relationship [18], the types of economic values they provide [19], the consumption opportunities that they provide [20], and consumption values [21]. Previous studies have mainly focused on animal owners, most of them are qualitative in nature, but to our knowledge there are no previous studies on the conceptualization of cats and dogs.

The objective of this paper was to examine the conceptual meaning of dogs and cats, to explore how such meaning can be decomposed into abstract, emotional, and functional dimensions, and to examine the order of importance given to the identified elements of conceptual meaning.

Methods

The free-elicitation method was used to measure the salience of conceptualizations for dogs and cats because it measures the accessibility of the focal object in people’s memory [22, 23]. In this respect, the concept of salience refers to the ease to which certain aspects (henceforth: attributes) of the focal object come to mind when thinking about the object. The free-elicitation method uses open-ended questions to let individuals indicate which features of an object are considered important [24]. Although importance can be influenced by different factors (e.g. distinctiveness) it is in this method assumed that the order of elicitation reflects importance, i.e. the top-of-mind features are the most important [25]. Salient attributes are more important than non-salient attributes [24, 26], i.e. attributes that come to mind are more important than those that do not and all non-salient attributes are equally (un)important.

Questionnaire

An on-line questionnaire was designed to capture the attributes people associate with cats and dogs, respectively, as well as the relative importance of these attributes, and characteristics of respondents (see Additional file 1 for details on the questionnaire). Respondents answered questions either related to cats or to dogs and were, in an open-ended question, asked to list what came to mind when thinking of the species, describing each aspect in one or a few words. This question was phrased as openly as possible, to capture salience and minimize the problem of framing effects. Specifically, the question for dogs was: “Which aspects come to mind when you think of dogs? Describe separately each aspect in one word (or a few words)”. Respondents were initially provided two lines but for each response the respondent filled in, an additional line was provided. At most ten different responses could be listed. This structure was adopted to encourage respondents to only list the most salient aspects.

The dog questionnaire (cat questionnaire) included subsequent questions concerning whether the respondent kept a dog (cat), and if not if they had been thinking of doing so; which breeds they kept or had been thinking of keeping; reasons for keeping or not keeping a dog (cat); and if they had previously had a dog (cat) in the household. The last section of the questionnaire concerned socio-demographic information including age and gender of the respondent, size of the household, and whether the household included children.

Data collection

Data consisted of a convenience sample of the Swedish population. Data was collected via an online questionnaire between the 10th of July and the 29th of September 2014. A link to the questionnaire was distributed via Facebook. No specific group of society was targeted. Although some self-selection bias was expected, in terms of a higher response rate among those positive towards dogs and cats, the data was expected to reflect many of the attributes that Swedes associate with cats and dogs. Respondents answered anonymously. The final sample, excluding respondents younger than 20 years old, consisted of 1267 respondents answering the dog questionnaire and 760 respondents answering the cat questionnaire. Descriptive statistics of the samples are presented in Table 1.
Table 1

Descriptive characteristics of the samples, percentages

 

Dog questionnaire

 

Cat questionnaire

(n = 1267)

 

(n = 760)

Number of animals in household

 0

…dogs

20

…cats

23

  ≥ 1

…dog

80

…cat

77

 1

…dogs

41

…cats

32

 2

…dogs

23

…cats

23

  ≥ 3

…dogs

13

…cats

18

 N/A

 

3

 

4

Both cat and dog in household

 

31

 

13

Do not keep but has

 …previously kept a

…a doga

71

… a cata

83

 …have thought of keeping

…a doga

70

… a cata

66

Age, years

 

 20–29

 

17

 

14

 30–39

 

12

 

10

 40–49

 

16

 

18

 50–65

 

37

 

38

  > 65

 

11

 

12

 N/A

 

7

 

8

Gender

 Female

 

86

 

86

 Male

 

7

 

6

 N/A

 

7

 

8

Persons in household

 1

 

17

 

21

 2

 

41

 

39

 3–4

 

27

 

26

  > 4

 

8

 

6

 N/A

 

7

 

8

Children in household

 Yes

 

31

 

30

 No

 

62

 

62

 N/A

 

7

 

8

Percentage in proportion of total sample except otherwise noted, aare proportion of respondents not keeping a dog (or cat) who answered whether or not previously kept and whether or not have been thinking of keeping, respectively

A large proportion, roughly four out of five, of the respondents of the dog (cat) questionnaire kept a dog (cat). Of those that did not, a majority had previously kept or had been thinking of keeping a dog (cat). Official statistics on the socio-demographic characteristics of the Swedish population that keep cats and dogs do not exist. Hence, the characteristics of the sample were compared to the distribution of the Swedish population as a whole [27]. The age groups 30–39 and older than 65 were underrepresented while the age group 50–65 was overrepresented. Women were overrepresented as were smaller household sizes (especially two person households). The proportion of households with children reflected the proportion in Sweden [28].

Categorization, classification and ranking of responses

The key question of the questionnaire was the open-ended question concerning what came to mind when thinking of dogs or cats. Responses were transformed and categorized for data analysis. First, terms with similar semantic meaning (e.g. “friendly”, “kind”, and “warm-hearted”) were grouped together. Then groups of words interpreted as having the same association and connotation (conceptual meaning) were categorized under a common heading (e.g., “stubborn”, “strong willed”, “proud”, and “integrity” were grouped under personality/mentality of the animal). When a response could be interpreted as belonging to two categories it was included in both categories. When terms with similar association and connotation (conceptual meaning) were listed separately by a large proportion of respondents, these terms were categorized separately. Finally, each category was classified as functional, emotional, or abstract according to the value dimension [14].

The attributes were ranked in the order in which they were listed. Given the large number and heterogeneity of the responses, it was inevitable that some respondents mentioned more than one attribute within a specific category. In these cases, the response with the highest rank was used in the statistical analysis. Respondents could list up to 10 attributes. Hence, attributes not mentioned by a respondent were ranked as 11 in order to account for that attributes that do not come to mind are equally unimportant and less important than attributes that do come to mind.

Data analysis

An R-index [28] approach was used to analyze the importance and dominance of attributes on the premise that the order in which attributes were listed by respondents reflects their relative importance. The R–index expresses the pairwise probability that a given attribute is preferred over another.

Aggregating the rank of each attribute over all respondents results in a response matrix as shown in Table 2, with S m being the sum of counts of all ranks of each attribute m = 1, 2, …, M (see e.g., [29]).
Table 2

Response matrix used for computing the R-index

 

Counts ranked as

 
 

1st

2nd

10th

11th (not mentioned)

Sum

Attribute 1 (A1)

a1

b1

j1

k1

S1

Attribute 2 (A2)

a2

b2

j2

k2

S2

Attribute 30 (A30)

a30

b30

j30

k30

S30

Let the pairwise probability that attribute m is perceived as more important than attribute n be given by R mn , with m, n = 1, 2, …, M. The probability that attribute 1 is preferred over attribute 2 is given by \( \frac{A}{S_1{S}_2} \) with A = a1(b2 + c2 + … + k2) + b1(c2 + … + k2) + … + j1k2 while the probability of attribute 2 being preferred over attribute 1 is given by \( \frac{C}{S_1{S}_2} \) with C = a2(b1 + c1 + … + k1) + b2(c1 + … + k1) + … + j2k1. Furthermore, the probability that attribute 1 is equally preferred to attribute 2 is given by \( \frac{B}{S_1{S}_2} \) with B = (a1a2 + b1b2 + … + k1k2). The pooled probability that attribute 1 is more important than attribute 2 is then given by \( {R}_{12}=\frac{A+0.5B}{2} \) [29, 30].

The pairwise probability R mn reflects the relative importance of an attribute and Table 3 shows the (m*m) matrix of the R-index values for all pairwise comparisons of attributes, with R mm  = 100. Based on the R-index values, two-tailed pairwise tests of whether attribute m was preferred over attribute n or whether attribute n was preferred over attribute m, were performed using the critical values derived by Bi and O’Mahony [31]. The null hypothesis that the R-index equals the chance value of 50% is rejected if the R-index is significantly greater than the chance value (H0: R mn  = 50). An attribute m is considered strictly dominant if it is preferred over all other attributes, i.e. R mn – 50 > critical value for all other nm attributes. An attribute m is considered weakly dominant if it dominates at least one other attribute (i.e. R mn – 50 > critical value for at least one attribute nm), while not being dominated by any other attribute (i.e. – R nm – 50 < critical value is not the case for any nm attributes).
Table 3

R-index matrix with choice probabilities

Attribute Am

A1

A2

AM-1

AM

Sum of choice probability (SCP)

A1

100

R12

R1(M-1)

R1M

SCP1 = 100 + R12 + R13 + … + R1M

A2

R21

100

R2(M-1)

R2M

SCP2 = R21 + 100 + R23+ … + R2M

AM-1

R(M-1)1

R(M-1)2

100

R(M-1)M

SCPM = RM1 + … + 100+ R(M-1)M

AM

RM1

RM2

RM(M-1)

100

SCPM = RM1+ … + RM(M-1) + 100

The sum of the choice probability (SCP) that attribute m was more important than attribute n was obtained by summing the pooled pairwise probabilities by row as shown in Table 3. The SCPs can be used to evaluate the stochastic rank order of attributes [30]. They also enable pairwise comparisons of the relative importance of two attributes that goes beyond the rankings.

Rankings were obtained for different groups of respondents. Differences between subgroups were examined for specific attributes based on Somers’ D [32]. Taking potential ties in ranking into account Somers’ D was used to measure the association between a group variable and the ranking of an attribute Am. It provides information on the difference between the probability that a randomly selected person from subgroup X rank attribute Am higher than a randomly selected person from subgroup Y and the probability that a person in subgroup X rank Am lower than a person in subgroup Y. Hypotheses of no differences between subgroups were, for each of the top attributes, tested based on Somers’ D (1% level of significance) and 99% confidence intervals were presented for cases with statistically significant differences.

Results

Categorization and classification of responses

Of the respondents of the dog questionnaires, 50% listed one or two attributes, 37% three or four attributes while 14% listed five or more attributes. Corresponding figures for the cat questionnaire were 59%, 34%, and 7%. Following the procedure described in section 2.3, the responses for dogs were sorted into 25 attribute categories. The same categories were included for cats with the exceptions of physical activity, outdoor activity and leisure activities as responses in these categories were lacking. The conceptual dimensions (functional, emotional or abstract) and the percentage of responses in each of the attribute categories are presented in Table 4.
Table 4

Attribute categories with value dimension and percentage of respondents mentioning each attribute

 

Attribute category

Value dimensiona

% of respondents in

dog questionnaire

cat questionnaire

1

Companionship

F

31%

18%

2

Family

F

7%

2%

3

Friend

F

35%

4%

4

Social interaction

F

7%

1%

5

Relaxation

F

2%

6%

6

Human health

F

4%

4%

7

Physical activity

F

14%

0%

8

Outdoor activities

F

7%

0%

9

Leisure activities

F

11%

0%

10

Services provided as working animals etc.

F

6%

3%

11

Responsibility

F

11%

5%

12

Demanding

F

6%

3%

13

Nuisances

F

5%

8%

14

Safe/unsafe

E, F

9%

2%

15

Central in life

E, F

5%

2%

16

Love

E

35%

51%

17

Joy

E

31%

11%

18

Enjoyable

E

7%

14%

19

Loyalty

A, E

24%

3%

20

Honesty

A, E

3%

2%

21

Appearance

A, E

3%

18%

22

Personality (including mentality)

A, E

3%

56%

23

Intelligence

A

4%

10%

24

Breeds & other traits

A

5%

9%

25

Animal welfare

A

2%

4%

aF refers to the functional, E refers to the emotional and A refers to the abstract value dimension

A majority of the attributes were classified as having a functional value dimension although attributes with emotional and abstract value dimensions were also found. The latter primarily concerned animal traits without a clear functional or emotional value dimension. It should be noted that the value dimensions are not distinctly separate. Some attributes had more than one potential value dimension. For example, watch dogs were classified as functional (guard the house) as well as emotional (providing a feeling of being safe).

The relative importance of dog attributes

The sum choice probabilities and the rankings of dog attributes are presented in Table 5. Based on the obtained sum choice probabilities Fig. 1 depicts the importance of each attribute relative to the chance value, i.e. a situation where each attribute has a 50–50 chance of being preferred over each of the other attributes.
Table 5

Rank, choice probabilities and dominance based on R-index for all respondents

Rank

Dogs (n = 1267)

Dominance

Cats (n = 760)

Dominance

Attributes

SCP

AD

DA

 

Attributes

SCP

AD

DA

 

1

Friendship

1608

21

0

a

Personality (incl. mentality)

1667

21

0

b

2

Love

1599

21

0

a

Love

1600

20

1

 

3

Companionship

1557

21

0

a

Companionship

1231

17

2

 

4

Joy

1557

21

0

a

Appearance

1224

17

2

 

5

Loyalty

1465

20

4

 

Enjoyable

1185

14

2

 

6

Physical activities

1333

17

5

 

Joy

1147

11

4

 

7

Leisure activities

1298

12

5

 

Intelligence

1135

8

4

 

8

Responsibility

1295

12

5

 

Breeds & other traits

1124

5

4

 

9

Safe/unsafe

1271

6

6

 

Nuisances

1121

5

5

 

10

Family

1254

2

6

 

Relaxation

1094

0

5

 

11

Outdoor activities

1252

2

6

 

Responsibility

1087

0

5

 

12

Enjoyable

1248

1

6

 

Friendship

1078

0

6

 

13

Social interaction

1245

1

6

 

Health

1076

0

6

 

14

Demanding

1233

0

8

 

Animal welfare

1073

0

6

 

15

Services provided

1228

0

8

 

Services provided

1068

0

7

 

16

Breeds & other traits

1227

0

8

 

Demanding

1066

0

7

 

17

Central in life

1222

0

8

 

Loyalty

1064

0

7

 

18

Nuisances

1222

0

8

 

Safe/unsafe

1056

0

9

 

19

Health

1213

0

8

 

Honesty

1055

0

9

 

20

Intelligence

1208

0

9

 

Central in life

1050

0

9

 

21

Honesty

1201

0

9

 

Family

1050

0

9

 

22

Appearance

1199

0

9

 

Social interaction

1047

0

9

 

23

Personality (incl. mentality)

1193

0

9

      

24

Relaxation

1190

0

11

      

25

Animal welfare

1181

0

13

      

Rank rank according to the choice probability, SCP sum choice probability, AD number of other attributes dominating, DA number of other attributes dominated by, adenotes weak dominance, and bdenotes strict dominance

Figure 1
Fig. 1

Importance of dog attributes relative to chance values. The chance value refers to the situation where each of the attributes has a 50–50 chance of being preferred over each of the other attributes. For (positive) values outside the grey circle the attribute has a probability greater than 50% to be considered important and for (negative) values inside the circle a probability less than 50%

As shown in Table 5, the five attributes ranked highest according to the sum choice probabilities were friendship, love, companionship, joy and loyalty. These dominated at least 20 other attributes and the first four attributes showed weak dominance. About half of the attributes did not dominate any other attribute. Animal welfare and several animal traits were among the less important attributes. The top ranked attribute friendship was 36% more likely than the least important attribute (animal welfare) to be considered important while the attributes love (35%), companionship (32%), friendship (32%), and loyalty (24%) were more than 20% more likely to be considered important. Attributes related to the abstract value dimension (e.g. animal welfare and characteristics of the animal) were generally ranked low while the highest ranked attributes primarily had functional and/or emotional value dimensions.

Subgroups of respondents were formed to examine if the attributes which individuals found important were influenced by the characteristics of the household, the characteristics of the respondent, whether the respondent had a dog or not, and if they did not, whether they had been thinking of keeping a dog or not. The sum choice probabilities, the rankings and the dominance of the attributes in each of the subgroups are presented in Table 6.
Table 6

Dogs: Rank, choice probabilities and dominance based on R-index for different subgroups

 

Keeping a dog

Gender

Household size

Children in household

 

Yes (n = 1016)

No but have thought of (n = 153)

No & have not thought of (n = 65)

Female (n = 1086)

Male (n = 90)

Single (n = 221)

Not single (n = 955)

Yes (n = 393)

No (n = 783)

Rank

Attr

SCP

Attr

SCP

Attr

SCP

Attr

SCP

Attr

SCP

Attr

SCP

Attr

SCP

Attr

SCP

Attr

SCP

1

3a

1618

17a

1596

3a

1548

3a

1619

19a

1575

1a

1658

16a

1610

16a

1651

3a

1608

2

16a

1613

3a

1593

16a

1520

16a

1613

1a

1574

3a

1638

3a

1607

3a

1622

16a

1581

3

1a

1560

1a

1571

1a

1474

17a

1574

3a

1549

16a

1577

17a

1567

1a

1569

17a

1568

4

17

1560

16a

1562

19a

1469

1a

1566

16a

1496

17a

1537

1a

1545

17a

1548

1a

1565

5

19

1460

19a

1519

13a

1424

19

1457

17a

1412

19

1422

19

1476

19

1513

19

1443

6

7

1336

14

1334

17

1367

7

1341

14

1342

7

1361

7

1328

9

1327

7

1340

7

9

1313

7

1305

14

1356

11

1300

9

1308

9

1321

11

1307

7

1324

11

1301

8

11

1298

12

1288

7

1331

9

1296

10

1297

4

1288

9

1292

14

1308

9

1283

9

2

1259

11

1275

4

1312

14

1263

11

1283

8

1265

14

1277

11

1295

18

1255

10

8

1258

18

1269

11

1311

8

1255

4

1272

2

1262

2

1252

8

1254

2

1253

11

14

1252

23

1266

24

1293

2

1251

2

1270

18

1258

8

1249

2

1253

8

1252

12

4

1247

2

1258

20

1274

18

1245

24

1269

11

1257

18

1238

4

1240

14

1250

13

18

1245

13

1245

23

1236

4

1242

13

1267

10

1241

4

1237

13

1236

4

1247

14

15

1230

10

1241

22

1234

12

1233

23

1260

6

1236

12

1234

12

1227

12

1236

15

10

1226

9

1240

9

1233

15

1222

7

1257

14

1235

24

1228

10

1217

24

1233

16

12

1224

24

1233

21

1233

24

1222

12

1227

12

1216

15

1228

18

1216

10

1232

17

24

1224

21

1227

12

1232

10

1221

8

1216

24

1216

13

1227

15

1212

6

1226

18

6

1223

8

1224

25

1218

13

1218

5

1215

20

1200

10

1224

24

1211

15

1226

19

13

1206

4

1192

10

1217

6

1213

6

1215

23

1198

23

1209

20

1195

13

1214

20

20

1199

20

1191

15

1217

20

1201

15

1213

13

1197

6

1205

23

1189

23

1211

21

23

1196

22

1186

18

1217

23

1199

18

1203

15

1192

20

1200

6

1188

21

1206

22

5

1193

15

1177

5

1216

21

1194

25

1203

21

1191

21

1196

5

1182

20

1202

23

21

1192

25

1175

2

1196

22

1190

21

1201

22

1189

5

1193

25

1177

22

1197

24

22

1191

6

1170

8

1195

5

1186

20

1189

25

1179

22

1190

22

1174

5

1192

25

25

1180

5

1161

6

1178

25

1178

22

1189

5

1168

25

1181

21

1173

25

1182

Rank denotes rank according to the SCP, Attr denotes the attribute as numbered in Table 4, SCP denotes sum choice probability, adenotes weak dominance

The same top five attributes were found regardless of whether respondents were keeping a dog or not and irrespective of household size, gender, and whether the household included children or not. However, the results suggest some differences between the subgroups in the relative importance of specific attributes. In the following we focus on attributes with a probability greater than the chance value.

Fewer dominant attributes could be observed for people having a dog (friendship, love, companionship) than for people not having but that had been thinking of keeping a dog (joy, friendship, companionship, love, loyalty) or that had not been thinking of keeping a dog (friendship, love, companionship, loyalty, nuisances). The results indicated that the most important attributes for people keeping a dog were important also for people that neither had kept nor had been thinking of keeping a dog, although to a lesser extent (with the exception of loyalty). Furthermore, a larger relative importance of the attribute nuisances could be observed in the latter group and the attribute safe/unsafe was more emphasized among people not having a dog than for people having dogs. Statistical tests based on Somers’ D suggest that, given a randomly selected person who has a dog and a randomly selected person who does not have and has not been thinking of getting a dog, the former is 16%, 99% CI [3%, 28%], more likely to rank joy higher than vice versa while the latter is 16%, 99% CI [3%, 28%], more likely to rank nuisances higher than vice versa.

The results also indicate that the attributes loyalty and safe/unsafe were more important for males than females while the opposite is the case for the attributes love, joy, friendship and, physical activities. Statistical tests suggest that, given a randomly selected woman and a randomly selected man, a woman is 14%, 99% CI [3%, 25%], more likely to rank joy higher than vice versa. Furthermore, the importance of the attribute companionship was more pronounced for single person households while the attributes love and loyalty were more pronounced for households with children.

The relative importance of cat attributes

The sum choice probabilities, rankings and dominance of cat attributes are presented in Table 5 and the importance of each attribute relative to the chance value, i.e. a situation where each attribute has a 50–50 chance of being preferred over each of the other attributes, is presented in Fig. 2.
Figure 2
Fig. 2

Importance of cat attributes relative to chance values. The chance value refers to the situation where each of the attributes has a 50–50 chance of being preferred over each of the other attributes. For (positive) values outside the grey circle the attribute has a probability greater than 50% to be considered important and for (negative) values inside the circle a probability less than 50%

The two top ranked attributes were personality (including mentality) of the animal and love. These attributes were considerably more important than any of the other attributes. Personality was 59% more and love was 53% more likely to be considered important than the least important attribute (social interaction), and both top attributes were at least 30% more likely to be considered important than the attribute ranked third (companionship). The attribute personality strictly dominated all other attributes and the attribute love dominated all other attributes except the top ranked. A majority of the attributes did not dominate any other attribute. The two most important attributes had both abstract and emotional value dimensions but not a clear functional dimension. Examples of less important attributes were social interaction, family, friendship, animal welfare, and loyalty.

The sum choice probabilities, rankings and dominance of attributes in different subgroups are presented in Table 7. Personality of the animal and love were the highest ranked attributes regardless of whether respondents were keeping a dog or not and irrespective of household size, gender, and whether the household included children or not. Dominance was in all of the subgroups detected for one or both of these attributes. Attributes that were less important in all subgroups included family, friendship, social interaction, and loyalty. As for dogs, the results do however suggest some differences in the relative importance of specific attributes between the subgroups.
Table 7

Cats: Rank, choice probabilities and dominance based on R-index for different subgroups

 

Keeping a cat

Gender

Household size

Children in household

 

Yes (n = 585)

No but have thought of (n = 99)

No & have not thought of (n = 51)

Female (n = 653)

Male (n = 46)

Single (n = 163)

Not single (n = 537)

Yes (n = 227)

No (n = 474)

Rank

Attr

SCP

Attr

SCP

Attr

SCP

Attr

SCP

Attr

SCP

Attr

SCP

Attr

SCP

Attr

SCP

Attr

SCP

1

22b

1670

22a

1766

22a

1519

22b

1688

22a

1659

22a

1619

22b

1705

22b

1690

22b

1681

2

16

1597

16a

1717

16a

1446

16

1613

16a

1438

16a

1581

16

1608

16

1567

16

1619

3

21

1227

1

1210

1a

1299

1

1225

1

1236

21

1244

1

1227

21

1251

1

1233

4

1

1226

21

1200

13

1285

21

1225

24

1235

1

1229

21

1220

1

1220

21

1213

5

18

1189

18

1163

21

1259

18

1182

21

1235

18

1210

18

1170

13

1176

18

1186

6

17

1151

24

1150

23

1231

17

1143

23

1190

17

1150

17

1139

18

1163

17

1150

7

23

1126

23

1138

18

1149

23

1128

13

1182

24

1136

23

1134

23

1142

23

1127

8

24

1124

17

1125

17

1126

24

1120

18

1143

23

1126

24

1125

24

1141

24

1121

9

13

1105

13

1116

6

1108

13

1111

12

1138

11

1104

13

1120

5

1126

11

1090

10

5

1097

5

1095

2

1106

5

1097

17

1136

13

1099

5

1102

17

1123

2

1089

11

11

1090

6

1084

11

1104

11

1092

10

1115

25

1093

11

1084

11

1086

13

1086

12

2

1083

12

1072

10

1103

2

1078

3

1109

6

1092

2

1075

10

1076

5

1083

13

25

1078

11

1070

24

1084

25

1077

5

1094

2

1085

6

1070

6

1075

25

1082

14

6

1072

20

1062

5

1084

6

1076

6

1068

5

1079

10

1068

12

1074

6

1075

15

10

1067

10

1062

4

1064

10

1066

2

1065

12

1073

25

1067

20

1057

19

1069

16

12

1066

25

1052

14

1064

19

1065

4

1046

10

1072

12

1064

4

1056

10

1067

17

19

1066

14

1052

19

1064

12

1061

11

1044

19

1060

19

1064

25

1055

12

1063

18

3

1056

19

1041

3

1041

20

1056

20

1043

3

1059

20

1056

2

1052

14

1061

19

14

1056

4

1039

12

1041

14

1056

14

1042

14

1059

14

1054

19

1052

15

1054

20

20

1054

2

1038

15

1041

15

1049

19

1042

20

1053

4

1052

14

1042

20

1054

21

15

1053

15

1029

20

1041

4

1047

15

1021

15

1045

15

1048

3

1042

3

1054

22

4

1047

3

1019

25

1041

3

1045

25

1021

4

1032

3

1048

15

1033

4

1043

Rank denotes the rank according to the SCP, Attr denotes the attribute as numbered in Table 4, SCP denotes sum choice probability, adenotes weak dominance, and bdenotes strong dominance

Respondents that kept a cat or had been thinking of doing so emphasized the attributes personality of the animal and love more than persons who neither kept nor had been thinking of keeping a cat. Furthermore, the results indicate that nuisances, companionship, and intelligence were more important for persons who neither kept nor had been thinking of keeping a cat. Overall the relative importance of attributes was similar regardless of gender, whether or not in a single person household and whether or not there were children in the household. The results indicate that women emphasize the attribute love more than men, men emphasize the attribute breed more than women, single person households emphasize the attribute personality of the animal more than other households, and that nuisances are less important for households without children. However, no statistically significant (P < 0.01) difference between subgroups could, based on Somers’ D, be detected for the four top attributes.

Discussion

How we conceptualize and perceive cats and dogs influences human behavior and emotions, and thus the well-being of both animals and humans. In this study the conceptualization of dogs and cats was empirically examined. Respondents were asked what comes to mind when thinking of dogs (cats) and the responses were sorted into 25 attribute categories which were categorized as having functional, emotional, or abstract dimensions. The relative importance of these attributes were then examined.

The results highlight the bearers of meanings assigned to cats and dogs. Dogs and cats have long lived close to humans, reflected in the present study through many of the expressions used to describe them, for example companionship, love, and central in life. The results suggest that attributes with an emotional value dimension are important for both species (for cats top two and for dogs top four) while there is a larger emphasis on the functional value dimension related to dog attributes and a larger emphasis on the abstract value dimension related to cat attributes. The important attributes with a functional dimension relate to recreational activities important for human well-being as do many attributes with an emotional dimension.

Although the animals satisfy many different human needs, this study suggests that a limited number of attributes are more appreciated, rather than the multitude of potential benefits suggested in literature. Roughly half of the respondents mentioned one or two attributes and more than 85% listed no more than four attributes. Furthermore, the statistical analysis revealed a limited number of dominant attributes, specifically 4–5 for dogs and 1–2 for cats. That dogs fulfill a more diverse set of human needs may partly explain this difference. For example, while many respondents mentioned physical, leisure or outdoor activities in relation to dogs, none did in relation to cats. Another indication that dogs fulfill a more diverse set of human needs than do cats is a more gradual decline in the relative importance of dog attributes.

For dogs the most important attributes were companionship, friendship, love, joy, and loyalty. For cats the most important attributes were personality of the animal and love. Given the explorative approach adopted in this study it was not possible to conduct direct statistical comparisons between cats and dogs. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that the results indicate that love was by all types of respondents ranked among the most important attributes for both cats (top two) and dogs (top four). The strong emotional connection has implications for the well-being of animals and plays a role in psychological processes that affect veterinary medicine [33]. The connection may help explain the increased spending on veterinary services related to these species [34]. Another possible consequence of a strong emotional connection is humanization of animals. In combination with owners’ lack of knowledge of animal behavior and training humanization may lead to negative outcomes such as behavioral abnormalities. These may in turn result in physical, emotional and economic costs [35]. Animals exhibiting e.g. aggressive behavior, counteracting highly ranked attributes, are often relinquished. In England, behavioral abnormalities is the most common cause of death in dogs less than 3 years old attending primary veterinary practices [36], and it is the most common cause for relinquishment to shelters in the US [37].

It is also noteworthy that the most important cat attribute (personality of the animal) was among the least important dog attributes. The latter suggests that the personality of dogs is not highly valued as an attribute per se, although it indirectly influence many other attributes valued by humans. Possibly, evolution, as well as reasons for domestication and breeding, contribute to the differences in how we perceive cats and dogs, and may also influence our expectations. Cats are solitary animals, while dogs live in social groups. Dogs have been selected for functions that to a large extent are performed in relation to humans (reflected in e.g. companionship, friendship and loyalty). Cats, on the other hand, perform their function as pest controllers independently, and are associated with attributes such as integrity.

The ranking of attributes showed a high degree of similarity between different types of individuals. Interestingly, the attributes important for people that kept a dog (cat) were also important for people not having a dog (cat), even people who had not been thinking of keeping a dog (cat). This suggests that there are potentially substantial positive externalities related to non-owners which are important to take into account when analyzing for example how humans perceive and value dogs and cats as it has implications on the well-being of humans as well as animals. Less surprising was that people who did not keep a dog (cat), especially those that had not been thinking of keeping a dog (cat), emphasized nuisances more.

Another reflection is that animal welfare as a specific attribute was ranked among the least important attributes for both dogs and for cats. This does however not mean that the well-being of cats and dogs are not perceived as important. The relative importance of attributes such as friendship and love signal strong emotional connections and as previously mention this has implications for the well-being of animals.

Regarding dogs, companionship was more important for single person households while love and loyalty were more important for households with than without children. Furthermore, men emphasized loyalty and safety more than women while love, joy, friendship and, physical activities were more important for women than for men. The differences between genders may partly be explained by respondents potentially thinking of different breeds or differences in expectations e.g. taking a more pragmatic, functional approach to dog ownership. For cats it can be noted that women emphasized the attribute love more than men while men emphasized the attribute breed more than women.

A majority of the attributes did not dominate any other attribute which can be expected given the large proportion of ties in the data set. This finding relates to the use of the open-ended format. The alternative of providing pre-specified lists are more prone to response biases in form of yea-saying (i.e. lack of discriminant validity) in allowing people to provide responses to all alternatives, irrespectively of whether they apply or not.

A potential limitation of the present study is that it is not based on a random sample. The data consist of a convenience sample collected through an online questionnaire distributed via Facebook which led to some discrepancies compared to the demographic distribution of the Swedish population. An overrepresentation of women amongst the respondents influenced the results, especially for the dog questionnaire. However, although a gender balanced sample would have altered the relative order of attributes, it most likely would not have changed the top ranked attributes. Furthermore, statistics from the US show that women to a larger extent are the primary caregivers for dogs. If this is true also for Sweden it could explain women being overrepresented in the current sample in which a majority of the respondents are caregivers. Another limitation was the low degree of resolution regarding breeds. It is likely that the results would have been different if the answers regarded specific breeds of dogs or cats, since breed differences are pronounced in both species. Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume that the reasons for and expectations of having or wanting to have a cat or a dog would influence the rankings.

Conclusion

A thorough understanding of how we conceptualize cats and dogs is important as it influences human behavior and well-being as well as how animals are treated, selected and cared for. Although further research is needed in order to fully understand the human conceptualization of cats and dogs, this study highlights the bearers of meanings assigned to cats and dogs, and the relative importance of these. The study thus provides information that can be used in future studies in a range of areas, for example, human health and subjective-wellbeing, human-animal interaction, animal welfare, and the economic value of companion animals.

Abbreviations

Attr: 

attribute

SCP: 

sum of choice probability

Declarations

Acknowledgements

Ragnar Söderbergs foundation is gratefully acknowledged for providing financial support for this study.

Funding

This study was supported by grants from the Ragnar Söderbergs foundation. The foundation had no role neither in the design of the study nor the collection of data, did not play any role in the analyses and interpretation of data, and was not involved in writing the manuscript.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets used in the current study is available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Authors’ contributions

BSH and MHG obtained funding for this study. RH, CJL, MHG, and BSH, conceived of and designed the study. RH and CJL collected the data for the study, and performed the statistical analysis. MHG and BSH provided input on the statistical analyses and presentation of results. RH wrote the manuscript and CJL, MHG and BSH provided input on drafts of the manuscript and made revisions. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Ethics approval and consent to participate

Ethical approval not applicable in compliance with national regulations [38]. The respondents were provided written information that the web-based survey was part of a research project. Consent to participate was provided by responding that they wanted to answer questions related to cats or dogs.

Consent for publication

Not applicable

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

Authors’ Affiliations

(1)
Department of Economics, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden
(2)
Department of Clinical Sciences, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden

References

  1. FEDIAF - The European pet food industry federation. Facts & Figures 2012. Brussels. 2013.Google Scholar
  2. Statistics Sweden. (2013). Hundar, katter och andra sällskapsdjur 2012. 33 pp. Örebro. Sweden. https://www.skk.se/globalassets/dokument/om-skk/scb-undersokning-hundar-katter-och-andra-sallskapsdjur-2012.pdf.
  3. AVMA. U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook. Schaumburg: American Veterinary Medical Association. 2012.Google Scholar
  4. APPA (American Pet Products Association). APPA national pet owners survey. www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp. Accessed 3 Apr 2018.
  5. Wells DL. Domestic dogs and human health: an overview. Brit J Health Psych. 2007;12:145–56.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  6. Wells DL. The effects of animals on human health and well-being. J Soc Issues. 2009;65:523–43.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  7. Duvall Antonacopoulos NM, Pychyl TA. An examination of the potential role of pet ownership, human social support and pet attachment in the psychological health of individuals living alone. Anthrozoös. 2010;23:37–54.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  8. Cutt H, Giles-Corti B, Knuiman M, Burke V. Dog ownership, health and physical activity: a critical review of the literature. Health Place. 2007;13:261–72.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. McNicholas J, Gilbey A, Rennie A, Ahmedzai S, Dono J, Ormeriod E. Pet ownership and human health: a brief review of evidence and issues. BMJ-Brit Med J. 2005;331:1252–4.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  10. Chur-Hansen A, Stern C, Winefield H. Gaps in the evidence about companion animals and human health: some suggestions for progress. Int J Evidence-Based Healthcare. 2010;8:140–6.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  11. Herzog H. The impact of pets on human health and psychological well-being: fact, fiction, or hypothesis? Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2011;20:236–9.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  12. Thomson DMH. Reaching out beyond liking to make new products that people want. In: MacFie HJH, Jaeger SR, editors. Consumer driven innovation in food and personal care products. Cambridge: Woodhead Publishing; 2010.Google Scholar
  13. Thomson DMH, Crocker C, Marketo CG. Linking sensory characteristics to emotions: an example using dark chocolate. Food Qual Prefer. 2010;21:1117–25.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  14. Staats S, Sears K, Pierfelice L. Teachers’ pets and why they have them: an investigation of the human animal bond. J Appl Soc Psychol. 2006;36:1881–91.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  15. Staats S, Wallace H, Anderson T. Reasons for companion animal guardianship (pet ownership) from two populations. Soc Anim. 2008;16:279–91.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  16. Veevers JE. The social meaning of pets: alternative roles for companion animals. In: Sussman MB, editor. Pets and the Family. New York, NY: Haworth press; 1985. p. 10–30.Google Scholar
  17. Hirschman E. Consumers and their animal companions. J Cons Res. 1994;20:616–32.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  18. Dotson MJ, Hyatt EM. Understanding dog–human companionship. J Bus Res. 2008;61:457–66.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  19. Hoffmann R, Lagerkvist CJ, Hagberg Gustavsson M, Ström Holst B. Economic Perspective on the Value of Cats and Dogs. Society & Animals. 2018; 25. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/15685306-12341494.
  20. Holbrook MB, Stephens DL, Day E, Holbrook SM, Strazar GA. Collective stereographic photo essay on key aspects of animal companionship: the truth about dogs and cats. J. Acad Mark Sci Rev. 2001;1:1–17.Google Scholar
  21. Chen A, Hung K-P, Peng N. A cluster analysis examination of pet owners’ consumption values and behavior – segmenting owners strategically. J Targeting, Measurement and Analysis for Marketing. 2012;20:117–32.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  22. Jaccard J, Brinberg D, Accerman LJ. Assessing attribute importance: a comparison of six methods. J Cons Res. 1986;12:463–8.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  23. Alba JJ, Hutchinson JW, Lynch JG Jr. Memory and Decision making. In: Robertson TS, Kassarjian HH, editors. Handbook of consumer behavior. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall; 1991. p. 1–49.Google Scholar
  24. Van Ittersum K, Pennings JME, Wansink B, Van Trijp HCM. The validity of attribute-importance measurement: a review. J Bus Res. 2007;60:1177–90.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  25. Kaplan KJ, Fishbein M. The source of beliefs, their salience and predictions of attitude. J Soc Psychol. 1969;78:63–74.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  26. Steenkamp J-BEM, HCM VT. Attribute elicitation in marketing research: a comparison of three approaches. Mark Lett. 1997;8(2):153–65.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  27. Statistics Sweden. (2015). Statistical database. http://www.statistikdatabasen.scb.se. Accessed 15 Aug, 2015.
  28. Brown J. Recognition assessed by rating and ranking. Brit J Psychol. 1974;65:13–22.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  29. Lee H-S, Van Hout D. Quantification of sensory and food quality: the R–index analysis. J Food Sci. 2009;74:R57–64.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Lagerkvist CJ. Consumer preferences for food labelling attributes: comparing direct ranking and best–worst scaling for measurement of attribute importance, preference intensity and attribute dominance. Food Qual Prefer. 2013;29:77–88.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  31. Bi J, O’Mahony M. Updated and extended table for testing the significance of the R–index. J Sens Stud. 2007;22:713–20.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  32. Newson R. Confidence intervals for rank statistics: Somers' D and extensions. Stata J. 2006;6(3):309–34.Google Scholar
  33. Siess S, Marziliano A, Sarma EA, Sikorski LE, Moyer A. Why psychology matters in veterinary medicine. Topics in An Compan An Med. 2015;30(2):43–7.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  34. Hoffmann R, Lokrantz M, Lagerkvist CJ, Hagberg Gustavsson M, Ström Holst B. Värdet av hundar och katter i Sverige. SLU Framtidens djur, natur och hälsa, Rapport. 2017;2017:1.Google Scholar
  35. McBride EA, Montgomery DJ. Animal welfare: a contemporary understanding demands a contemporary approach to behaviour and training. People and Animals: The International Journal of Research and Practice (PAIJ). 2018;1Google Scholar
  36. O'Neill DG, Church DB, McGreevy PD, Thomson PC, Brodbelt DC. Longevity and mortality of owned dogs in England. Vet J. 2013;198(3):638–43.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Scarlett JM, Salman MD, New JG Jr, Kass PH. Reasons for relinquishment of companion animals in U.S. animal shelters: selected health and personal issues. J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 1999;2(1):41–57.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. https://www.epn.se/en/start/ Accessed 15 Aug, 2015.

Copyright

© The Author(s). 2018

Advertisement