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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