Many of us believe that a look of the cat, especially a color of its coat, is closely linked to cat’s behavior, personality, and friendliness.
Take these for example: “My cat, an orange tabby, is very fond of me, so all orange tabbies are like this,” “Tabbies are very active,” “Black and white (Tuxedo) cats are very smart”. These observations may look innocent and positive since they are coming from people’s personal experiences. But is there actually a good reason to perpetuate any kind of stereotypes, even if they appear positive? The way we perceive cat behavior is influenced by media, popular culture and advertising, where cats are frequently depicted with anthropomorphic qualities (1,2).
Research has confirmed that people judge the colors of cats differently. Coat colors are associated either with positive or negative behavior traits. If a cat has a white coat it is described as calm, shy and detached. On the contrary, orange tabbies enjoy a reputation for being friendly, approachable and active. Tricolored or tortoiseshell cats, which are exclusively female, are thought to be unfriendly and bad-tempered (1). These stereotypes may vary in different countries and cultures, but a belief that a coat color can predict a cat’s behavior and personality stays the same.
Racism hurts cats
Discrimination of cats based on their looks is thought to be harmless or just “a matter of taste”, however, it does negatively impact the lives of cats. The act of judging cats by their coat color and other superficial physical traits, we can classify as a type of racism. While racism towards cats is not as devastating and damaging as one inflicted on human beings, nevertheless it is far from being harmless.
One of the best examples of racism against cats comes from Turkey, where cats with the solid white coat are regarded as different from other colored cats. Solid white cats called Van cats (Van kedisi) are said to be “pure” breeds which should be protected from mixing with “inferior” colored cats. As a result, people are encouraged to breed more white cats. There is even an official white cat breeding program established in Van Yüzüncü Yıl University, supported by the Turkish government. However, the acceptance of “pure white cat breed” idea does not mean that the idea itself is not racist – it certainly is.
White Anatolian cats at Van Yüzüncü Yıl University. Photo credit: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Many are unaware of the fact that white cats are often born deaf. The gene that makes cat’s coat completely white is linked to the loss of hearing (3). By breeding more white cats, we create more cats with a disability – cats which are left to suffer in silence.
Sometimes a coat color of the cat determines whether the cat lives or dies. In the Western world, cats are not allowed to roam the streets freely. Lots of unowned cats are brought to shelters, then they are put up for adoption. If after some period of time nobody wants to adopt a cat, this cat is simply killed. Each year millions of cats are killed in shelters. Among them, if we exclude old and ill cats, a large number of cats have colors that people consider “unattractive”, such as black. Studies show that black cats face the greatest discrimination when comes to adoption(4,5,6).
A black Anatolian kitten from Haghpat monastery, Armenia. Photo credit: Tigra K
These two cases prove that judging cats by their coat color can have serious consequences for cats.
Science: no relationship between the color of the cat and its behavior
We have learned that people have biases regarding the color of a cat’s fur and its behavior traits (1). Where these biases came from is not entirely clear, but we know that they help to fuel the racism towards cats.
But what does science say about all of this? To begin with, there is very limited evidence that the behavior of the cat is in any way influenced by the cat’s physical appearance. A few studies found no correlation between the coat color and cat’s behavior. We will talk briefly about these studies later; but before that, you should know that the quality of scientific research on this matter varies greatly – some research is that bad that it contributes nothing to our knowledge, or worse, it generates misinformation. It is true, science can be misused to promote false beliefs. We have plenty of examples from history when science was once a tool to legitimize racism, oppress people and justify all kind of atrocities(7).
One study (Stelow et al., 2015) is a truly bad science. It claims that tortoiseshell cats are more aggressive compared to other cats (8). This study was widely reported in mainstream media.
The study authors recruited volunteers to take online surveys asking various questions but they did not reveal what was being tested.
Participants reported the subjective experiences with their cats and tried to recall how cats behave in particular situations. The problem is, the answers could not be checked and verified, making them untrustworthy. We know that our memories are not very accurate, and the details are easily forgotten. Sometimes we remember things what did not happen at all!(9).
Various factors (variables) were not controlled: we do not know the home environment cats lived in, their relationship with an owner, whether they were neutered or not, were they socialized as kittens and many other factors that could easily affect the outcome of the study. Another thing is that online surveys are rarely taken seriously by scientists themselves: Survey-based studies often all under the “Scientific Bullshit” category (10).
Tortoiseshell kitten. Photo credit: Sabri Keleş
Results of the study: researchers found that cats from surveys were in generally not aggressive, but they noted that there was a “statistically significant difference” of tortoiseshell cats being more aggressive. We have mentioned before that people are biased against tortoiseshell cats, and this is reflected in surveys. Or “statistically significant” findings could be merely by chance.Researchers also found, much to their surprise, that gray-and-white and black-and-white cats were somewhat aggressive. But why? Probably again by chance, or perhaps those participants had some unpleasant experiences in the past which they associated with these type of colored cats. Another possibility that some participants did not tell the truth (lied about coat color, maybe they did not have a cat at all).
So does it prove that tortoiseshell cats are more aggressive? No. There are numerous reasons why cats could be aggressive towards humans, but the coat color is the last thing we should worry about (11).
Finally, we have a substantial amount of “good” research that challenges the results of the study described above. These studies did not find any relationship between behavioral traits and the color of the cat’s coat. The appearance of the cat was not in any way related to the level of friendliness(12) and aggression (13). Different colors of fur could not be associated with any behavior differences in cat breeds too (14).
Remember: every cat is an individual
It is important to understand that cats have very distinct personalities and temperaments, just like humans and other animals do. Domestic cats have a very similar personality structure as observed throughout difference species of cats, including big cats (15). Some cats are extroverted and social, while others are paranoid and fearful of people, and some display eccentric and dominant traits. There are cats that are excellent hunters and terrible ones.
Environment and interactions with humans influence the cat behavior in many ways. To understand cat behavior better, we should discard any stereotypes linked to coat color. Nothing is that simple, because cats are individuals and each cat is different.
So don’t be racist. Do not judge a cat by its color.
Photo credit: Denis Senkov
Cover photo: Sobi (Anatolian cat from Lebanon)
Delgado, M. M., Munera, J. D., & Reevy, G. M. (2012). Human perceptions of coat color as an indicator of domestic cat personality. Anthrozoös, 25(4), 427-440.
Chartrand, T. L., Fitzsimons, G. M., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2008). Automatic effects of anthropomorphized objects on behavior. Social Cognition, 26(2), 198.
David, V. A., Menotti-Raymond, M., Wallace, A. C., Roelke, M., Kehler, J., Leighty, R., … & Connelly, C. J. (2014). Endogenous retrovirus insertion in the KIT oncogene determines white and white spotting in domestic cats. G3: Genes| Genomes| Genetics, 4(10), 1881-1891.
Brown, W. P., & Morgan, K. T. (2015). Age, breed designation, coat color, and coat pattern influenced the length of stay of cats at a no-kill shelter. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 18(2), 169-180.
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. The Open Veterinary Science Journal, 7(1).
Lepper, M., Kass, P. H., & Hart, L. A. (2002). Prediction of adoption versus euthanasia among dogs and cats in a California animal shelter. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 5(1), 29-42.
Moore, J. H. (2008). Encyclopedia of race and racism. Macmillan reference USA. (Scientific racism)
Stelow, E. A., Bain, M. J., & Kass, P. H. (2016). The relationship between coat color and aggressive behaviors in the domestic cat. Journal of applied animal welfare science, 19(1), 1-15.
Scoboria, A., Wade, K. A., Lindsay, D. S., Azad, T., Strange, D., Ost, J., & Hyman, I. E. (2017). A mega-analysis of memory reports from eight peer-reviewed false memory implantation studies. Memory, 25(2), 146-163.
Earp, B. D. (2016). The unbearable asymmetry of bullshit. Health Watch, 101.
Frank, D., & Dehasse, J. (2004). Differential diagnosis and management of human-directed aggression in cats. Clinical techniques in small animal practice, 19(4), 225-232.
Umbelino, M. T. L. P. (2014). Evaluation of the relation between tameness and coat color in cats (Master’s thesis, Universidade de Évora).
Dantas-Divers, L. M., Crowell-Davis, S. L., Alford, K., Genaro, G., D’Almeida, J. M., & Paixao, R. L. (2011). Agonistic behavior and environmental enrichment of cats communally housed in a shelter. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 239(6), 796-802.
Wilhelmy, J., Serpell, J., Brown, D., & Siracusa, C. (2016). Behavioral associations with breed, coat type, and eye color in single-breed cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 13, 80-87.
Gartner, M. C., Powell, D. M., & 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, 128(4), 414-426