Is Cat Coat Color Linked to Temperament?

by Sarah Hartwell
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At the cat shelter where I work we refer to "naughty torties" and "laid back blacks". One of our vets also used the "naughty tortie" epithet and told us it is "well known that tortie cats are temperamental". However, the addition of white has a "calming effect" and tortie-and-whites are "not quite as temperamental as brindled torties. The naughty tortie tag is not applied to dilute torties (blue-creams), possibly because they are less common in the moggy population. Ginger cats are said to be spirited and fiery (and sometimes mean-spirited or sly) - very apt considering their fiery color and there is the epithet "ginger tom" to describe the supposedly typical alley cat. Blotched tabbies are "real homebodies" while their striped cousins are "more independent".

Common stereotypes are the "archetypal ginger tom" - the flea-bitten, irascible alley cat. Ginger females are "flighty". Confusingly, ginger cats are also quoted as being laid back, but they supposedly have very hot tempers when annoyed - just like human red-heads, especially those of fiery Celtic origin. Oddly enough, ginger coloration in cats is relatively common in Scotland.

A fiery or assertive temperament might be an advantage in some environments - for both cats and humans! Meanwhile, blotched tabbies of either gender are considered "comfortable, home-loving" cats; languid and good pets. Many cards depict tabby cats curled up by a fire as a symbol of domestic warmth and comfort. Black and white cats are said to be wanderers while white cats are shy or nervy. There is a list of characteristics associated with particular colors at the foot of this article.

How much of this is myth and how much is a cat's color and pattern linked to personality? Both are, after all, inherited and genetically controlled, so it is not impossible for coat color to be linked to temperament. We selectively breed cats for their looks, but seldom for personality. Coat color, fur type and certain personality traits may be linked genetically. In some rodents, the white color is associated with greater docility and increased tolerance of handling which may be why white mice and white rats are common laboratory animals.

Looking for Stereotypes

Part of the problem is that owners expect cats to conform to stereotypes. If you tell people that black cats are sweeter natured and ginger cats a mean tempered, those people are likely to focus on the stereotype behaviors and disregard contradictory behaviors as being "out of character". Human beings dislike chaos and unpredictability and look for order and patterns in everything - that is how we have become the most successful species on the planet - and sometimes we find (or invent) patterns where there are actually no pattern at all.

Having learnt that tortie cats are temperamental or hot-tempered, a shelter helper is likely to approach a tortoiseshell cat much more cautiously. The cat detects this nervousness and is more likely to act up with a nervous helper than with a confident helper. On the other hand, having learnt that blotched tabbies are homebodies and that black cats are mellow, the incautious helper risks nasty injuries when encountering a feral cat which just happens to be a blotched tabby or solid black. There is great danger in looking for stereotypes where none exist.

Black and blotched tabby colors are possibly linked to a less assertive temperament, more placid character and better tolerance of crowding than striped tabby or agouti (ticked). If true, this factor would have contributed to a more sociable cat both with humans and with other cats in a colony situation. The predominance of black/black-and-white in urban environments might therefore be linked to this greater sociability. A stressed cat breeds less successfully and passes its genes on fewer times.

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