8 Factors That Contribute to a Cat’s Personality

A new study explains why some cats are friendly whereas others are mean or shy.

Posted Nov 29, 2020

Like humans, cats vary greatly in their personalities.
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Cats have the reputation of being jerks, but any cat owner knows that this stereotype is unfounded. As with humans, cats vary greatly in their personalities, and these variations can impact their well-being. Unsurprisingly, cats that are more aggressive toward humans are more likely to be surrendered. In the UK, 38% of owners give up their cats due to behavioral issues, which is aggression 44% of the time. Cats that are more fearful or anxious may be prone to stress-related behavioral issues, like eliminating outside of a litter box, which can also lead to their relinquishment.

The personality of cats can also impact their physical health. Fearful cats may have lower immune function, which could lead to certain illnesses such as upper respiratory infections. Meanwhile, bolder cats are more likely to acquire FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus, the feline version of HIV) from fighting with other cats. Friendly cats have an increased risk of acquiring feline leukemia which is typically transmitted through affiliative behaviors such as grooming.

Given the many consequences of a cat’s personality on its well-being, Travnik et al. (2020) sought to understand the various factors that contribute to a cat’s temperament. They conducted an extensive review of studies from the past 30 years, noting that this was the first literature review to comprehensively examine the personality of domestic cats. The researchers focused on the personality traits of shyness-boldness (i.e., reactions to risky or novel situations), sociability (i.e., friendliness), and aggressiveness, identifying eight factors that contribute to these traits:

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Researchers believe that early socialization from 2-12 weeks of age is crucial for raising a friendly cat, but scientific evidence is still limited
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1. Early life socialization. The early life socialization of a kitten from between 2-12 weeks of age is often said to be crucial for raising a friendly and bold cat. Indeed, research supports its importance up until approximately age 2. Unfortunately, no studies have directly investigated the stability of these effects into older adulthood.

2. Phenotypes. Although it may seem strange, research suggests that an association between a cat’s phenotype (i.e., physical characteristics) and personality is plausible. The “domestication syndrome” has in fact been observed in several species, such that physical changes occur as animals become tamer. The most famous example of this syndrome is perhaps of silver foxes bred for friendliness towards humans. Over the course of only 15-20 generations, these foxes began exhibiting changes in phenotypes such as loss of pigment in areas of their coat, resulting in particular patterns; floppy ears; curly tails; shorter tails; shorter legs; and underbites or overbites. This phenomenon may be explained by the linkage of various genes such that phenotypes are inherited alongside the selected behavioral traits.

Among cats, body size, coat color, and coat length might be associated with personality. Orange male cats may be larger and more socially dominant. Based on owner reports, orange cats are friendlier towards humans whereas tortoiseshell cats (“torties”), calico cats, and “torbie” cats are more aggressive towards humans. Long-haired cats are less active, which may be the result of breeding docile cats that allow humans to brush them. An owner’s stereotype of a cat is an alternate explanation for these findings.

3. Breed differences. While phenotypic traits like coat color are interesting, breed may be a better predictor of variations in personality. In one study, breed actually accounted for most of the behavioral differences that were associated coat color. Overall, the heritability of temperament among cats ranges from .40-53 indicating that genes do play a role in a cat’s personality.

Breed is generally a better predictor of personality than coat color. For example, British Shorthairs tend to be lazier.
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One breed with a unique temperament is the British Shorthair, which has been found to be less aggressive, less active, less likely to show various behavioral problems, and less sociable — perhaps making the perfect pet for introverted humans.

4. The Oxytocin Receptor Gene (OXTR). The oxytocin receptor gene which predicts attachment in humans and dogs may also predict the sociability of cats. One particular polymorphism has been associated with the “roughness” of a cat, defined as being “irritable, dominant, forceful, and moody" (p. 2).

5. Paternal inheritance. Interestingly, a series of studies indicates that kittens may inherit their sociability and boldness from their fathers. One study found that even without early socialization, kittens born to friendlier fathers were friendly towards humans. Given that these same kittens were also braver in the face of novel objects, the kittens may have inherited a general boldness rather than specifically a love for humans.

6. Neurological activity. Cats show two distinct types of aggressiveness as a result of activity in two different areas of the hypothalamus. Defensive aggression includes “threatening vocalizations and postures, and strikes upon provocation” (p. 5) and predatory aggression includes “Silent predatory attacks; killing prey without prior vocalization” (p. 5). However, the neural mechanisms underlying traits other than aggression are lesser known.

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Bolder kittens may cope with stress aggressively, whereas shyer kittens may cope with stress defensively.
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7. Coping styles. Among kittens, two types of coping styles have been identified in response to stress, which can in turn impact temperament. In the face of stress, proactive copers are aggressive and may attempt to escape or explore the situation. These kittens tend to be bold and active. Meanwhile, reactive copers cope with stress defensively, such as by hiding, and tend to be shy and passive.

8. Stress as measured by eye temperature. Perhaps most surprisingly, a higher ocular (eye) temperature in a cat predicts sensitivity to stress, which can in turn predict fearful or aggressive behaviors. Greater eye temperatures are found in older cats, indicating that as many would expect, older cats are more sensitive to stress. Perhaps unexpectedly, greater eye temperatures are also found in cats living alone, suggesting that cats may actually benefit from living with other cats.

In conclusion, Travnik et al. (2020) identified many factors that may contribute to a cat’s temperament, including early socialization, phenotype (through linked genes and/or an owner’s expectations), breed, the oxytocin receptor gene, paternal inheritance, neurological activity, coping styles, and stress reactivity as reflected by ocular (eye) temperature. Clearly, as with humans, a cat’s personality is complex and involves both nurture and nature. The immediate situation may also bring out particular aspects of a cat's personality. For example, although bold cats are generally desirable to humans, a bold cat in a stressful situation (e.g., a new home) may try to escape, causing difficulties for their owner.

There are clear gaps in the field as pointed out by the researchers. The current research indicates that the first 2-12 weeks of a kitten’s life are essential to shaping its friendliness, however, due to the overwhelming lack of longitudinal studies, current studies only support this effect until young adulthood. In addition, the field needs to go beyond an owner's self-report when studying phenotypic (e.g., coat color) and breed differences in temperament given the stereotypes and bias that owners may possess. If there are indeed differences in temperament by phenotype and breed, how and why did these differences develop?

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Travnik, I. D. C., Machado, D. D. S., Gonçalves, L. D. S., Ceballos, M. C., & Sant’Anna, A. C. (2020). Temperament in domestic cats: A review of proximate mechanisms, methods of assessment, its effects on human—cat relationships, and one welfare. Animals, 10(9), 1-23.