Friday, January 22, 2016

Can you judge a cat by its colour?

Does coat colour predict aggressive behaviour in cats?
They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but can you predict a cat’s behaviour or temperament from its coat colour?

This month the Journalof Applied Animal Welfare Science published a study examining the relationship between feline coat colour and aggressive behaviour. The paper reveals that plenty of us make assumptions about temperament and behaviour based on coat colour: vets and vet nurses have strong beliefs that certain coat colours are linked to certain behaviours or personality traits. Ever heard the expression “naughty tortie” or “tortitude”? Ever assumed that examining a ginger cat will be a cakewalk compared to examining a white cat? These are widely-held assumptions, and they might even impact our relationships with cats.

So researchers at UC Davis sought to determine whether there is any basis to these assumptions.

First some interesting background about coat colour. Coat colour pattern genes in cats can be divided into four categories:
  1. Spotting – the amount of white
  2. Dilution – the intensity of pigment
  3. Pigment-type switching – orange and agouti pelage
  4. Pattern – ticked, tabby or spotted

Orange and black are carried on the X chromosome. The tortoiseshell pattern is an orange-black pattern produced by random X inactivation. Male cans cat only display the tortoiseshell pattern if they are XXY, which is why they are as rare as hen’s teeth.

In this study, researchers surveyed owners to determine whether cats of any particular coat-colour pattern would be more likely to engage in: aggressive behaviours towards humans, aggression toward people during handling (they looked at punishing, petting or grooming), or aggression during veterinary visits (and I must confess to a strong interest in the results of the latter category).
They found that torties are indeed more likely to be aggressive towards humans. The surprise finding was this: so were black and white cats and grey and whites.

But before you go selecting your next cat on this basis or judging your next patient, there are some big qualifiers. As with many such studies there was a small sample size, and the respondents were self-selected cat guardians. It was an online survey, and no objective observations or neutral observer validation was possible. Things not measured – such as the home environment or the behaviour of handlers – can hugely impact behaviour. And some coat colours had few representatives.

So how do vets predict aggression in feline patients? Until we all learn to talk fluent feline, our best (though imperfect) indicators may be past behaviour 
(make good clinical records), asking the owner and reading body language.