Does Coat Color Predict Feline Behavior?

Lovely Cat

Our companion animal’s coat colors, once only the concern of breeders, have now become the focus of research for other characteristics, including behavior. You may have heard reports that white coat color has been linked to deafness in both dogs and cats. Others have suggested a connection between coat color and aggressive behavior in some dog breeds. Now there’s some evidence of an association between feline behavior and coat color. But is there really anything substantial to this claim?

First, how do cats get their color? Coat-color pattern genes fall into four categories that control spotting, pigment intensity, orange and agouti color switching, and even patterns. Located on the X chromosome, several sex-linked genes are responsible for controlling fur color, such as orange and black. Female cats whose XX sex chromosomes have a genetic predisposition to orange and black fur display a patchwork coat, yielding what are commonly known as tortoiseshell coloring (affectionately referred to as “torties”). Other varieties of this include torbies (tortoiseshell tabbies) and calico mosaics. Male cats can have these coat colors, but only if they are an XXY, which makes male calicos and tortoiseshells extremely rare.

Researchers have also studied whether behavior can be inherited in the cat as well. A series of studies conducted from 1980s to the 1990s showed that cats inherit some levels of sociability from their fathers. They noted that certain aspects of a kitten’s personality remain relatively constant throughout the first few years of life, suggesting a genetic predisposition to personality (Lowe and Bradshaw, 2001). Type of cat breed influences differences in interactions with humans, for example, Siamese cats are more demanding and vocal toward their pet parents when compared with other breeds (Turner and Bateson, 2000).

There are lots of reports about what cat lovers think about the behavior of their cats and how that relates to coat color. Orange cats are thought to be friendly (Delgado et al, 2012), some perceive black cats to be wild and unpredictable (Huntingford, 2009), and still others claim that tortoiseshells have a combination of stubborness, independence and unpredictability (Delgado, Munera, Reevy, 2012). Way back in 1895, veterinarians were quoted as saying torties were ‘not overly affectionate, sometimes even sinister, and most ill-tempered in disposition’ (Huidekoper, 1895). How rude!

Playful Cat

Certainly, there are anecdotal reports of tortoiseshells and calicos being rather...shall we say...feisty, inspiring personality descriptors like ‘tortitude’ and ‘calico crazies’. However, due to the lack of actual research in this area, veterinary behaviorist Elizabeth Stelow and her team of researchers set out to determine whether coat-color can be truly linked to behavior in cats. The four-month survey disguised the fact that coat color was the primary subject, to avoid bias on the part of the responders. Over 1,400 pet parents filled out the survey, and the results just might surprise you!

Pet parents of kitties reported tortoiseshells, calicos, “torbies”, as well as black-and-white and gray-and-white cats, acted more frequently aggressive toward humans in three settings: during everyday interactions, during handling and during veterinary visits. The researchers were surprised that gray-and-white and black-and-white cats were reported as more aggressive in these settings.

But keep in mind … the behaviorists did not independently observe any cats themselves, so the study was completely reliant on the self-reporting of the cats’ guardians. Furthermore, the respondents were people who might have had preconceived notions about their cat’s behavior. This factor could skew the results for the tortie or calico cats, but what about grey-and-white or black-and-white cats?

Lounging Kitty

The study concluded that coat colors may be associated with aggressive behaviors in the cat but that the differences are actually relatively minor. These findings support some common assumptions about personalities associated with different cat color patterns, and can help people better understand their feline companions. Researchers also concluded that the subtlety of the results of this study suggests the need for additional research on the topic of the relationship between coat color and behavior. Anyone considering adopting a pet should pay attention to the behavior of each individual cat they meet, rather than making decisions about cats based on the coat color. I suppose one could honestly say, never judge a book by its color!

How about you? What do you think about the relationship between behavior and coat color in cats? Do you have any experience with calicos or tortoiseshells? Please share in the comment section below - we’d love to hear your stories!

Thank you for all you do to make the world a better place for companion animals.

Dr Jane Bicks  Dr. Jane Bicks

References

Elizabeth A. Stelow, Melissa J. Bain & Philip H. Kass (2015): The Relationship Between Coat Color and Aggressive Behaviors in the Domestic Cat, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2015.1081820

Amat, M., de la Torre, J. L. R., Fatjó, J., Mariotti, V. M., Van Wijk, S., & Manteca, X. (2009). Potential risk factors associated with feline behaviour problems. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 121, 134–139.

Amat, M., Manteca, X., Mariotti, V. M., de la Torre, J. L. R., & Fatjó, J. (2009). Aggressive behavior in the English cocker spaniel. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 4, 111–117.

Bateson, W. (1894). Materials for the study of variation, treated with especial regard to discontinuity in the origin of species. London, England: MacMillan.

Becker, M. (2012). Is there a connection between markings and personality in cats? Retrieved from vetstreet.com/dr-marty-becker/is-there-a-connection-between-markings-and-personality-in-cats.

Dantas-Divers, L. M. S. (2011). Questions about coat color and aggression in cats (author response). Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 239, 1288–1289.

Delgado, M. M., Munera, J. D., & Reevy, G. M. (2012). Human perceptions of coat color as an indicator of domestic cat personality. Anthrozoös, 25, 427–440.

Huidekoper, R. S. (1895). The cat: A guide to the classification and varieties of cats and a short treatise upon their care, diseases, and treatment. New York, NY: D. Appleton.

Huntingford, J. (2009). The color of a cat can determine their personality. Retrieved from petwellbeing.com/ blog/the-color-of-a-cat-can-determine-their-personality.

Kim, Y. K., Lee, S. S., Oh, S. I., Kim, J. S., Suh, E. H., Houpt, K. A. ... Yeon, S. C. (2010). Behavioural reactivity of the Korean native Jindo dog varies with coat colour. Behavioural Processes, 84, 568–572.

Kogan, L. R., Schoenfeld-Tacher, R., & Hellyer, P. W. (2013). Cats in animal shelters: Exploring the common perception that black cats take longer to adopt. Open Veterinary Science Journal, 7, 18–22.

Lowe, S. E., & Bradshaw, J. W. S. (2001). Ontogeny of individuality in the domestic cat in the home environment. Animal Behaviour, 61, 231–237.

McCune, S. (1995). The impact of paternity and early socialisation on the development of cats’ behaviour to people and novel objects. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 45, 109–124.

Meier, M., & Turner, D. C. (1985). Reactions of house cats during encounters with a strange person: Evidence for two personality types. Journal of the Delta Society, 2, 45–53.

Podberscek, A. L., & Serpell, J. A. (1996). The English cocker spaniel: Preliminary findings on aggressive behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 47, 75–89.

Reisner, I. R., Houpt, K. A., Erb, H. N., & Quimby, F. W. (1994). Friendliness to humans and defensive aggression in cats: The influence of handling and paternity. Physiology & Behavior, 55, 1119–1124.

Webb, A. A., & Cullen, C. L. (2010). Coat color and coat color pattern-related neurologic and neuro-ophthalmic diseases. Canadian Veterinary Journal, 51, 653–657.

Comments (26) -

  • Pamela

    2/1/2016 11:20:17 AM |

    I love this topic- we've discussed it many times in our family. Our first cat was a calico- and she was a MESS! BUT, this may have related more to her upbringing  ( mainly my poor parenting skills) than her coloring. She was abandoned at 2 weeks, and therefore had to be bottle fed and pottied. According to our vet, I spoiled her and didn't give her the corrections her momma would've In a typical cat clan. The old Biblical proverb of " spare the rod,spoil the child" apparently holds true for our furry companions! This cat was so mischievous- she was a master at ambushes, and showed her displeasure by biting and scratching. Never the less, we loved this sassy little lady!

    On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is our yellow, male tabby... A fun, lovable, lap kitty. He craves attention from our dogs and family alike. Others that have yellow cats have expressed similar character traits in their cats.

    I do think there is something to the color/personality comparisons. Thanks for the great article!

  • Julia

    2/1/2016 12:34:11 PM |

    I find orange and white male tend to be very affectionate. Torties and calicos seem to be unpredictable sometimes "crazy" acting. My black, black/white and gray/white cats are more skittish, jumps at sounds, easily unnerved.

  • Jeanne Rasmussen

    2/1/2016 12:48:24 PM |

    I foster kittens and I don't believe true behavior appears until the cat becomes closer to an adult.  I adopted one of my fosters.  She is a tortie.  As I was returning the litter of kittens to the shelter for adoption my tortie (Smudgy) was rolling in the crate, sticking her paws out of the grate and crying softly.  The other kittens hid in back of the crate.  Smudgy's personality sold me on adopting her.  She is now 2 years old.  She adores my husband and me.  She is frequently wherever we are in the house.  She has absolutely no aggressive tendencies and if she starts to nibble our fingers we say no.  She quits nibbling and licks instead. She is fairly independent but is a lap cat when she wants to be.  She is always in my office with me if I'm not somewhere else.  This room was where she was fostered and I've kept it as "her room."  The one thing I wish she did was be friendly with strangers.  She hides as soon as people come over to visit.  If I were to pick color over personality I would probably not have such a sweet cat. She is not a beautiful cat but she is a lover.

  • Carol

    2/2/2016 1:07:13 AM |

    My late gray and white male was the 'bestest' boy ever. Calm, patient, loving, even thru painful heath problems and end of life issues. His was a dark gray, not the pale gray color - maybe that makes a difference! I think with all the multitudes of cats and colors, their coats if they did indicate personality, are so blended now it makes no difference. My tortie female can be zany but also very loving; my all black female is laid back and observant and waits for attention. The buff male is quiet and the mackerel tabby has the best belly markings - those 'buttons' - and is another good boy.

  • sprobyn

    2/2/2016 1:32:51 AM |

    Interesting article on cat colors.  I personally don't feel color has anything to do with inherent aggressiveness.  I've had many cats over the years, calicos, strays of many colors, Maine coon cats, etc. My opinion is that if they are started out right, not teased, always handled gently,not allowed to even begin to bite, etc, they will be a gentle cat.  We owned a boarding kennel for 15 years and rarely had any issues with our kitty boarders.  We were even asked by the sheriff to keep a stray for a week that had bitten a child (in isolation of course)to observe for rabies.  The child had been in a highchair and eating and the cat jumped at her face and broke the skin. The cat was wild and acting crazy when they brought her to us.  It took one to distract her so the other could put food and water in the cage.  When that poor baby saw the food, she buried her head in it and didn't come up for 5 minutes!  She attacked the baby because it had food all over its face and she was starving!  We kept her and observed her and she was fine - once fed, she became the most placid kitty one would ever want.  The sheriff wanted to euthenize her but we said we would keep her.  She became the indoor "kennel" cat as we already had 3 at the house.  She was a mostly orange/black with white calico.  She  lived to be almost 22 and was passed to the new kennel owners when she was about 17 after we had to sell the kennel for personal medical reasons.  In all my 75 years, there was only one abused Calico that we took in that never warmed up and would always try to scratch but she came to us as an older (8 yrs) long abused kitty and that fear was ingrained.  She did eventually let us pet her but never hold her.   Thanks for letting me comment.

  • Kellie

    2/2/2016 3:00:01 AM |

    Very surprised by the outcome of the black and white cats.  I expected the finding of those cats to be more laid back and less aggressive.  I've had a calico cat before.  She was really sweet, but definitely very sassy.  After that, I owned two black and white male cats.  Both of those cats were very sweet as well and not aggressive at all.  They were social, smart, and well behaved.  I now have a black cat who has a few little, barely detectable white hairs on his belly. He was a stray that had been neutered.  He quickly warmed up to us and is now a spoiled indoor outdoor cat.  He is also very sweet, gentle and patient with our 7 month old who is obsessed with him.  He doesn't flinch when she grabs him, and yes, we try to keep her from grabbing at him!  Sweet little guy!

  • Joan Michelson

    2/2/2016 3:17:47 AM |

    My "torbie" adopted me 12 years ago, when she was about six months old. She suddenly appeared one day, and kept coming back to my home. When I discovered that she belonged to a neighbor, the neighbor explained that she was not getting along with the new dog and that "I could keep her". I was stunned, and decided that bringing this young companion into my home was meant to be. She and I have a comfortable routine, and over the years I have determined to understand her behavior which I believe to be both nurture and nature and not necessarily the color of her coat. She only wants to be touched and held on her terms and surprises me when she decides to cuddle. I have adopted the idea of "leave her wanting", when I show her affection. She's an independent soul, and I am happy to be in her life.

    Thank you for your interesting article, which prompted me to respond.

    Joan

  • Bryan

    2/2/2016 3:34:48 AM |

    The mostly antidotal evidence seems to fit the experiences we have had with cats. The two black and white cats that have been in our family were very aggressive at times, while the big orange tabby tom cat we had "Chuck" was incredibly friendly to people.

  • Diane Jurek

    2/2/2016 4:07:18 AM |

    My Tortie Spice is a fun loving cat. When I was walking through the cat room at the rescue she put out her paw and waved at me.  When brought into the room she immediately ran up to me and snugled under my neck and chin.  This is still her favorite spot of affection and loves to cuddle on my shoulder under my neck.  She is a loving and playful cat now coming up on 14 years old, she still has all her spunk and playfullness.  She is very voical when she wants attention.
    My other cat Sugar is a long hair Peach colored cat.  She is more of a lap cat.  Likes to be petted and to lie next to you.  She has a quiet personality.
    We also just took in 3 stray kittens.  2 Black and White's and one Tabby tiger stripped kitten.  The tabby female Homie has no fears and cares, she is always investigating and seeing what she can get into.  The male black & white Stash is very vocial and attached to my daughter.  He gets upset when she leaves the room and always runs to find her.  The other black & white female Skittish is a little shy around new people and surroundings.  It takes her longer to warm up to people.  They all love to play and like attention.  None of them show signs of aggression at this time.  Love them all no matter what color.
    Diane


      

  • kim gardner

    2/2/2016 1:03:40 PM |

    Interesting but not sure I see that in my cats.  I have 3 torties or calico and they all have different personalities not one is alike.  Its fun to see what they came up with and I enjoyed the article

  • Megan Smith

    2/2/2016 1:04:18 PM |

    Thanks for this interesting article!  I have always liked, and owned Calico and/or grey & white cats.  I have thought that they had certain, "feisty" personality traits, but did not know that other people connected these colors and personalities.  

    Feline temperaments are probably individual, like canine temperaments, but it's fun to think about these things and read the results of research.


  • Jennifer

    2/2/2016 3:13:30 PM |

    Very good article!  For the most part some of this is right on, but just like with people, personality is made up of many different things that make up the kitty.  Males in general are known to be more affectionate than females, but not all males are!  Even the tortishells and calicos, who are the 'divas' it can be surprising how many also can be just as happy go lucky little princesses!  We've found some siamese kitties that were quiet and laid back too.  People do, however, use coat color as a means of identifying personality when choosing to adopt, as well as breeds.  I say, just go find one in person and that is the best way.

  • L.

    2/2/2016 7:59:38 PM |

    Our three indoor fixed sibling kitties are quite the opposite as described in this article!  Our female light "muted tortie" girl is a complete precious sweetheart! She is truly as sweet as can be with us humans, but she can hold her own defending herself with her siblings when the time comes. She's always looking for strokes and rubs, and frequently purrs when petted, and I know she just loves me completely, and has never attempted or ever bitten me. However, her black and white tuxedo brother and sister are very unpredictable; both are quite mouthy. They are all quite beautiful cats and the tuxedos have amazing symmetrical markings. The two tuxies love to bite, but not hard bites and I make a squeal, letting them know to stop, so they quit biting my hand or arm immediately after. The girl tuxedo likes to play bite with me while she's on her back, but she's very shy and does not enjoy being cuddled or petted much at all; she's aloof and much less sociable than the other two cats. The boy tuxedo is the largest cat and he behaves like he is a lion king with his sisters, and he runs hot and cold with behavior; he can be a love bug and purring one moment, then he'll turn on a dime and become a very fresh boy! They will all be two years old, approximately at the beginning of this May 2016. Very sadly, they were abandoned on the side of our home by their "street" Mamma when they were blue eyed newborns at the end of May 2014. I bonded and fell totally in love with all of them after bottle feeding each one! We also have two beloved senior male doggie siblings.            

  • Dar

    2/3/2016 2:55:13 PM |

    I have always loved gray cats. I find them to be very affectionate, sociable, playful get independent. And I have such great memories of my orange and white cats being very Affectionate and playful as well. I think there is something to the color connection with personality. The details will remain a mystery I'm sure but I still gravitate towards those colors.

  • Dave R

    2/4/2016 1:59:43 AM |

    I don't believe that a cat's color dictates any behavior predilections. Bunky, our calico, was an affectionate cat with a wonderful sense of her housemates' moods and needs. I came home from an out-patient leg operation, and in excruciating pain I lay down on a mattress we'd put on the living room floor, and Bunky came over and lay next to me to help take the pain away.  Fuzzbrain was a mature orange tabby that had been left behind when some college girls left for the semester, and I adopted her.  She was always a respectful cat, loved sitting in the outdoor sun out back, and was a great companion.  Felix is a black cat who is talkative (perhaps because he's somewhat hard of hearing), somewhat demanding [pet me now!], and extremely affectionate.  He came to me at 16 after his life-long owner couldn't keep him anymore. These are anecdotes. They prove nothing except that stereotypes don't hold up in trying to link cat color with personality and behavior.  

  • Rebecca Forrest

    2/14/2016 8:55:47 AM |

    Interesting idea. I haven’t had enough cats to draw any conclusions myself (but then I doubt if any one person CAN have enough cats for that). Based on my statistically limited exposure to cats, I don’t see any connection, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

    What about a connection to coat length? Short hair, medium hair, long hair, or even hairless?

    And is there any comparable research to dog coat characteristics?

    And for that matter, how about human hair or eye color?

    Thought-provoking.

  • Carol Z

    2/17/2016 2:17:00 AM |

    I always thought colors on a cat dictated behavior.  I have a tortishell cat who will be 18 years old.  She was born at my house so I have watched her grow up.  She was always a biter and a little strange.  She didn't like all my family members but attached to me.  When she was about 2 years old she turned into being territorial and aggressive to her brothers and mom.  She started marking until she had to be isolated in the master bedroom for the rest of her life which fixed the problem.  I also have a black and white tuxedo cat who was born outside and left by her mom at 4 weeks old.  She has always been sweet and calm  and never used her claws or teeth to cause harm to any of us.  She is smart and could be clicker trained to do a few tricks.  Then when she turned 7 she wasn't as nice and very very fearful (how could that be?)  I still think Tuxedo cats are sweet, but I have only known 2 of them.  For sure tortishell cats are a little strange and I have volunteered at a shelter and took care of the cats and those tortishells were also a little strange and talking with others that have tortishells think the same.  But yeah of course I know there are differences in personalities no matter what color even in pure bred dogs it varies in the same breed.

  • Colleen

    2/17/2016 11:19:44 AM |

    I am a former breeder and show hall addict, now I do rescue only.  So, I have met many cats of many colors over the years.  I have heard all of the same views regarding a cat's color as it relates to its disposition, however, I have found the difference to be more directly related to males versus females.  In general (not a hard and fast rule by any means), I have found that males are calmer and sweeter than females.  I do have some calm and sweet females but most I have found to be skittish and nervous by comparison, regardless of color,my torti's no more so than any other color.  Just my experience.  I would be very interested in reading about any future scientific studies done on the subject.


    Colleen

  • Amelia Johnson

    3/10/2016 3:54:45 PM |

    This was a very well researched article.  Cat color-related behavior will remain a mystery...

  • Regina

    3/11/2016 10:17:12 AM |

    Very interesting article, Dr Jane!  Cats are such funny creatures. We have an orange tabby, a blue and a gray and white fluffy kitty. All boys and all droolers!  I've heard that drooling means they love their people. Is this true??  

  • Moira

    3/11/2016 10:20:08 AM |

    I thought the article was interesting.
    I have both a tortie and a tortie-co.  The tortie is very shy, and comes out only at special times to socialize and have affection.  While the torte-co, who suffered great trauma as a kitten-where her skull was punctured and jaw broken, is very gregarious and outgoing.
    I believe that certain breeds definitely have character traits, i am not sure I can agree the coat color plays a roll in puurrrrsonality.

  • Amanda

    3/12/2016 6:17:01 AM |

    I'm the odd woman out, I've never owned a cat! Just dogs. It would be interesting to see if this holds any weight in the dog community? Like many others have mentioned, I think behavior is influenced by many factors beyond natural born disposition. For my three dogs, their personalities definitely shift as they interact with one another versus all on their own. Interesting read!

  • Joshua Agin

    3/24/2016 11:50:14 AM |

    This is also true for dogs as well. All to often, I talk to puppy buyers as to why we SHOULD NOT breed for color. There is a ton of great information in this article. As, a dog person these blogs help me to better understand our feline counterparts! Thank you for all of the great information!

    -Joshua Agin

  • Patricia Mckissick

    3/24/2016 1:16:30 PM |

    As a breeder and a pet parent, I have read articles about this subject. I have also heard many opinions about the connection between coat color and personality. From what I have read and heard the coat color has not bearing on the personality. It is the experiences and heredity personality traits that make a cat behave in a friendly or unfriendly manner.

  • jennifer

    3/25/2016 7:48:54 AM |

    interesting topic. we have one white kitty and one black kitty. both are very affectionate and vocal - with us and with each other!

  • Susan MacArthur

    4/19/2016 1:20:56 AM |

    Love this article.  As a breeder of Persian cats, I always have a color chart of potential colors my breedings can produce as it helps me in identifying the color and/or sex of kittens as early as one day.

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