Cat with July 4th colorsDoes the color of your cat’s coat mean anything? Is there a link between coat color and temperament in cats?

Black cats are often associated with the occult; orange cats tend to be regarded as friendly.  Calico and tortoiseshell cats – those cats with tri-colored coats – are considered strong-willed and difficult to work with.  There is even a term – “tortitude” – to describe these cats!

In a study published in 2016, researchers at UC Davis decided to look into whether there is a link between coat color and temperament – in particular, do cats with particular colors of coats tend to be more aggressive? Cat owners were recruited online to fill out a survey about their cats. The team received 1,274 responses that they analyzed with statistics. 

Owners scored their cats for

  • aggression toward humans
  • aggression when being punished, petted, or brushed
  • aggression when in the veterinary clinic

Aggression toward humans scored the frequency with which a cat reacted with aggressive or affiliative behavior to people. A 6 point scale was used ranging from 0 = never through monthly, weekly, up to 5 = daily.  Behaviors included hiss, bite, slap/scratch, bite/scratch and stalk (play), groom/lick, curl up next to, approach and greet with head/body rubs.  The possible range of scores was 0-20.

Aggression from handling scored the likelihood that the cat would react to being punished, petted or brushed by hissing, biting, slapping or scratching.  Scores ranged from 0 = unlikely to 3 = very likely. The maximum score possible was 27.  Aggression during the veterinary visit was also scored from 0 = likely to 3 = very likely but with a maximum score of 9.

Overall, the aggression scores are rather low in all three categories.  For example, in the “human aggression” category, high scores were 2-3 out of 20.  Female cats had higher scores overall but the research team felt the difference to be small enough that they could combine the sexes in the overall study.

Coat color and temperament – findings


Tortitude


The calico and tortoiseshell cats were found to have some of the higher scores (2.47) for aggression toward humans (Gray and white cats scored 2.26 – so not much different than the tri-color cats). 

  • These scores are not very high scores out of a possible 20. 
  • Calico/tortoiseshell cats are predominantly female (the tri-color pattern is linked to the X chromosome making the combination of 3 colors very rare in male cats).  Female cats were found to be a little more aggressive than male cats in this study and this sample would have had more females.
  • Perhaps, the stereotype of the “strong-willed” tri-colored female cat affected how respondents scored their cats.

other findings


  • Gray and white cats, both female and male, were more aggressive toward humans and when being handled. 
  • Black and white male cats scored higher than other groups of male cats in human-directed aggression.
  • Surprisingly, there were no significant differences in aggression among cats at the veterinary clinic.

Although the results of this study seem to support the stereotypes of cat color and aggressive behavior, e. g. “tortitude”, it is best to take these results with a grain of salt. 

  • Overall, the scores for aggression to humans and when being handled were quite low.
  • The questionnaires were completed by the owners and there will be some differences in the way people interpret and score things.
  • Stereotypes may have affected how respondents view their cats and scored them.
  • The questionnaires did not involve a random sample of cats and cat owners but cat owners who voluntarily signed up to fill out the forms. These could be potentially more interested and “saavy” owners.
  • There will be differences in how people approach and handle their cats.

At the Battersea Dogs and Cats home, cats were more friendly with humans after the human volunteers watched a video demonstrating how to  interact with cats. ( see “Practical Guidelines for Interacting with Cats” )

The link between coat color and aggressive behavior does not seem particularly strong.  Such information could be useful to cat owners, shelters, and veterinary clinics to allow them to anticipate what behaviors they may encounter. But as the saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.  A cat’s coat color is only part of the story – it is important to assess each cat as an individual.  Approach him or her respectfully following the CAT guidelines.

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Fighting catsIt is not uncommon for cats in a multi-cat household to engage in some redirected aggression. For example, cats waiting to be fed may engage in “boxing matches”. A cat watching birds at a window may swat at another cat who comes “too close” to her “bird-watching” spot. The cats are frustrated because the food or the birds are not available and they release their frustration through a physical motion. These incidents usually extinguish themselves and there are not lasting consequences.

 

when redirected aggression in your cat becomes a problem


One cat encounters an outdoor cat at the window, and becomes highly aroused, hair standing on end, hissing, growling, howling. He turns on his housemate who is passing by. If the aggressor associates the negative emotional state of a cat fight with his housemate, we may have a bully-victim relationship in the making. The aggressor cat (bully) may become aroused each time he sees the housemate and go after him. The housemate is now the victim and may become fearful of the bully. The bully may guard resources (litter boxes, food) from the victim, making the victim’s life miserable.

When the victim is not another cat


A cat may redirect his frustration and fear on whomever is closest and that could be you or the family dog.  Let’s say you drop a ceramic dish, which explodes with a crash and terrifies your cat.  You go to pick her up and she hisses and strikes out at you.  She may be leery of you after that, slinking away when she spots you, associating you with that horrible noise and things flying through the air.

redirected aggression in your cat – first aid


If the incident involved two cats:

  1. Place or “herd” the aggressive cat and the victim cat into separate rooms, with litter box, water and the lights off.  
  2. Once the cats are calm, see if there are any injuries and seek veterinary attention if needed.
  3.  If neither cat is injured, see if you can reintroduce them once they seem calm. See if they will eat or play on either side of a closed door. Work up to gradually opening the door – it is not a bad idea to have a barrier such as a baby gate in the doorway.
  4. This may take anywhere from a few minutes/hours to days/months.

If the victim was the family dog or human, first aid is similar with some modifications. Assess the victim for injuries. A dog will benefit from a quiet room while a human will, most likely, take comfort in discussing the incident with other people. A slow and gradual re-introduction with the cat is still a good idea.

How do I tell if my cat is calm?


Calm cat
This cat appears calm.
  • Is his body language calm – ears up, eyes open, muzzle relaxed, whiskers relaxed – not pinned against the muzzle?
  • Will she approach you in a friendly way – say, with tail up, relaxed  posture ?
  • Will he eat a snack?
  • Will she play with toys?

 

redirected aggression in your cat – the aftermath


  1. Try to identify the trigger.
  2. If you can identify a possible cause, for example, a neighborhood cat at the window, be proactive and move to prevent future occurrences.
  3. Coax the cat back to the place where the aggression happened. Allow her to thoroughly examine the area while providing a tasty snack and possibly some toys to make a positive association with the area.
  4. If the incident involved a person, desensitize the cat to the area where the incident happened before having that particular person return to the area. Once the cat is calm, have the “victim” come back but approach the area gradually. If the cat remains calm, he can come a little closer. The “final” approach should allow the cat to choose if she wants to interact.  Have some tasty treats on hand. Use of a harness and leash can be useful in this situation.
  5. If the incident involved two cats, let each cat return separately and make a positive association with the area. When both of them are calm in the area, you can try having them there together after reintroduction – be prepared in case hostilities break out again.

If the victim continues to trigger aggression in the “bully” cat, consult your veterinarian regarding medication and/or referral to a veterinary behaviorist.

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cats fighting due to frustrationYou are sitting by the window, engrossed in your latest murder mystery. You don’t notice that neighborhood tabby outside your window but your cat does and goes into full battle mode, hissing and striking at the window. You look up and jump, as your cat turns and strikes out at you. She looks like a miniature saber tooth tiger! Alarmed, you throw your glass of water at her as you beat a hasty retreat.

This is an example of what we call redirected aggression. Something happens that frustrates or frightens a cat, and the cat strikes out at whomever is closest. The cat cannot strike out at the cause of the arousal – it may be out of reach or too risky to confront. In this case, the tabby cat is out of reach but you are not!

People can find themselves in a similar situation. Say you get criticism from your supervisor. You can’t retaliate – it could effect your work evaluation. So, instead, you “take out” your frustration and anger on the assistant helping you, directing some snarky comments at her.

Avoiding Redirected Aggression in your cat


As Benjamin Franklin observed, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Be aware of situations that could trigger redirected aggression in your cat or any cat. Redirected aggression can damage the cat-owner bond if either the owner or cat is hurt. Redirected aggression can wreak havoc on the fragile harmony of a multi-cat household.

things that can Trigger Redirected Aggression in your cat


  • presence of another cat
  • high-pitched or loud noises
  • visitors in the house
  • a dog
  • an unusual odor
  • being outdoors unexpectedly

Your cat may feel he must defend his territory against strange cats, visitors to the house and dogs. He may scratch or bite when you intervene to move him to a safe place.

Strange odors, say smoke from a wildfire burning nearby, and loud noises can instill fear in your cat and he starts fighting with his housemate.

Being outdoors unexpectedly can be terrifying to the indoor-only cat and she may vent her fear on her would-be rescuer using her teeth and claws.

These are all situations where a cat may strike out and attack an “innocent” bystander because the cat is aroused or frightened.

Watch your cat’s body language for aggression: hair standing on end, growling, hissing? Staring at other cats, dogs, people? Is she blocking another cat from areas in the house? Stalking another cat?

Removing the Triggers for Redirected Aggression in Your Cat


Outdoor cats:

  • Discourage them coming into the yard using a motion activated sprinkler.
  • If you have a fence around your yard, cat proof it .
  • Install privacy film on windows where your cat may see outdoor cats.
  • Place scratching posts by doors and windows and allow your cat to mark his territory by scratching

Loud noises: If a loud noise scares your cat, let her hide and calm down before handling her. Once calm, try to entice her with a tasty snack or a wand toy. Wait for her to approach you.

Visitors: Advise visitors to leave the cat alone unless she comes over to greet them.

Dogs: Keep dogs separate from the cats using a baby gate or other barrier until you introduce them, one cat at a time.

Odors: You may need to separate cats and put them in quiet rooms until the odor dissipates or the cats acclimate to it. (In the case of wildfires, you may wish to have the carriers out and ready to go. Having the cats in smaller rooms will make it easier to kennel them up if you need to evacuate).

Being outdoors unexpectedly:

  • Your indoor cat escapes and you find her hiding under the steps. Avoid trying to pull her out.
  • Instead, arm yourself with patience and tasty food.
  • Get her cat carrier and cover it with a towel (making it appear dark and safe). It may take a little time but there is a good chance she will choose the safety of the carrier over the “great outdoors”.

If you have trained your cat to come when called, call her periodically – give her time to get over her fright and let her training kick in. And having her carrier with you can help you get her back indoors.

Redirected aggression in your cat is a consequence of an emotional state.  He may be ready to fight, frustrated or fearful and he vents these emotions on whomever is close because he cannot reach what’s triggering the emotion or he cannot flee the situation.

Join The Feline Purrspective next week for “Redirected Aggression in Your Cat – When It Becomes a Problem”.

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