Dr. Arnold Plotnick (MS, DVM, ACVIM)
Although most of us cat lovers will tell you that it’s a cat’s personality that matters most, many of us will admit that we find ourselves drawn to a cat’s particular coat color. At my cat hospital, my technician Hiromi is drawn to orange boys. I tend to go for the torties. My technician Gina favors black cats. A close friend of mine, Arden Moore (the famous writer and pet educator) feels that there is certain personality traits are tied to coat color in cats. Only a few studies have been done, however, that explore the potential link between coat color and cat personality, and these have shown mixed results. One study from 1995 suggested that orange male cats may have difficulties in “tolerating the proximity of other males”. A study (that was never published) on the reactions to novel situations showed that orange and cream colored kittens reacted more aggressively than other colors of kittens when held by an unknown human. A more recent study (in 2010) looked at cats of certain coat colors (black, orange, brown, and tortie) and compared them to cats of the same coat color but with white patches (i.e. black and white, orange and white, brown and white, and calico) in terms of how the cats reacted to novel situations and handling by a stranger. No significant differences were found between any of the coat color groups.
So, studies of actual personality differences based on coat color are decidedly mixed. But what about people’s perceptions of cats of a certain color? Whether studies show differences or not, people definitely do associate personality and color. It’s not just coincidence that black and brown cats are the less likely to be adopted from shelters compared to other colors. Studies have shown that the color of a cat plays a significant role as a basis for adopting a cat, however, the cat’s personality takes on the greater role when it comes to whether or not to keep the cat in the home once it’s been adopted.
Exactly how are certain colored cats perceived by people?
A recent study was conducted that helps shed a little light on the topic. A questionnaire was distributed to participants in a study. Using a 7-point scale (where 1 = strongly agree, 2 = agree, 3 = agree a little, 4 = neutral, 5 = disagree a little, 6 = disagree, and 7 = strongly disagree), participants assessed ten characteristics (active, aloof, bold, calm, friendly, intolerant, shy, stubborn, tolerant, and trainable) and the extent to which these characteristics could be applied to five colors of cats (Orange, tortie, white, black, and bi-colored). [Bi-colored was a weird category to me, because this could be black and white, or it could be orange and white. They chose this color scheme to see if the presence of white patches might impact attitude toward cat personalities.] The statements in the questionnaire was made very matter-of-factly, and participants had to indicate how much they agreed or disagreed with the statement. For example, “Orange cats are active” or “tortie cats are friendly” or “black cats are aloof”. 189 people participated and produced valid questionnaires.
The way the results were reported are a bit odd, so I’ll just report it the way the article says:
All other listed colors of cats were deemed more “active” than white cats.
Torties, black cats, and white cats were more “aloof” than orange cats.
All other listed colors of cats were termed more “bold” than white cats.
White cats were considered more “calm” than torties and bi-colored cats.
Orange, black and bi-colored were considered more “friendly” than torties; orange and bi-colored cats were seen as being friendlier than white cats.
Torties were rates as being more “intolerant” than orange, black and bi-colored cats.
White cats were ranked as being more “shy” than orange and bi-colored cats, and black cats were ranked as being more “shy” than orange cats.
Orange cats and black cats were said to be more “tolerant” than torties.
Orange cats were said to be more “trainable” than white cats.
To further describe the researchers’ findings, they concluded that a color group was different in terms of personality if they were statistically different from at least two other colors of cat. Using this scheme, they determined that …
Orange cats were perceived as being high in friendliness and low in aloofness and shyness
Torties were high in aloofness and intolerance, and low in friendliness and tolerance.
White cats were thought to be aloof, calm and shy, and not very active, bold or friendly.
Bi-colored cats (black and white, orange and white) were said to be friendly, and not aloof.
Interestingly, black cats were not rated differently from more than one color category on any of the traits.
The questionnaire asked the participants how important was color, and how important was personality, when it came to adopting a new cat. 26% said color was important or very important, 24% were neutral about it, and 50% said that color wasn’t important at all. Personality was considered important or very important to 94.7% of the respondents. 3.2% felt neutral, and 2.2% felt that personality was not important at all. (Who the heck is in this 2.2% group? I’d love to ask them, “So, personality does not matter at all? You’d be willing to adopt the crabbiest, nastiest, most aloof cat in the world as long as it looked nice?” People are strange, I tell ya.)
Anyway… what can we conclude from all of this? I guess we can say that people seem to perceive coat color as a factor that contributes to the personalities of differently colored cats. Orange cats were thought of as being friendly, not shy or aloof. I think this is interesting, given that some of our cultural feline icons, like Morris and Garfield, are not depicted this way. Morris is “The world’s most finicky cat”, and Garfield is portrayed as being lazy and cynical. Perhaps it’s not the personality traits that are given to Morris and Garfield that’s important, but more the fact that these orange cats are anthropomorphized (for example, Morris and Garfield are depicted as being able to talk) in advertising is what makes them appealing. Compared with other colors of cats, orange cats tend to be adopted more quickly from shelters, and we see the same at my own veterinary hospital. When we have an orange kitten in the window for adoption, it tends to be snatched up immediately, while other colored cats tend to linger for a while. Torties and calicos were ranked as being aloof, intolerant, and unfriendly. I have to say, though I’m skeptical about these kinds of studies, in my own veterinary practice, there is no doubt that calicos and torties do indeed fit this bill. I didn’t want to believe it, but it can’t just be coincidence. These cats give me more grief than any other color pattern. White cats were considered less friendly and more aloof, and I wonder if this is because of the Fancy Feast cat – a white Persian cat being fed from a crystal goblet – which depicts the cat as being “snobby”.
Although I find it a little irritating that coat color may be a predictive factor in the adoption and euthanasia rates of some cats in shelters, I was pleased to learn, from the article, that when cat owners are surveyed after the adoption, personality is the primary reason cited for their satisfaction with their cat. Again, appearance may play a role in the adoption selection, but personality plays the major role in the satisfaction after adoption. It looks like there might be a disconnect between the way people choose a new cat and how appropriate that cat might really be for them. This also emphasizes the need for shelters to really screen their cats for personality, and then make this behavioral assessment clearly apparent to potential adopters. When people are faced with a lack of accurate behavioral information about a specific cat, they will revert to making decisions based on their personal perceptions about cats, including the idea that color coat is an indicator of personality. Also, if shelters know that people think white cats are shy and aloof and torties and calicos are unfriendly, they can try to counteract these perceptions by featuring these cats in advertisements and fliers that emphasize their positive personality traits.Dark colored cats have been documented to remain in adoption centers longer, and are more likely to be euthanized than lighter colored cats or cat with a patterned coat. Black cats have also been associated with bad luck. Surprisingly, though, there were no significant differences between the ratings assigned to black cats compared to cats of other color groups. So, if black cats weren’t assigned any negative personality traits, their lower adoption rate must be due to their appearance. Either people consider black cats “plain” looking, or they still harbor that negative stereotype of them being bad luck.