Mews: Is Coat Colour linked to aggression in cats?

 

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What’s in the news?

Scientific study investigating whether coat colour is linked to aggression in cats

You may well have read in the media in past couple of weeks that cats of certain coat colours are more likely to be aggressive. Such stories were based on the recent research study into the possible relationship between coat colour and aggressive behaviours in the domestic cat, conducted by scientists at the University of California, Davis and published online in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science in October.

These scientists wished to investigate whether there was any truth behind the often stated ideology that cats with sex-linked coat colours such as tortoiseshell and calico are more aggressive – “naughty torties” or “tortitude” are not unheard of terms among cat owners. However, scientific evidence behind such ideas is lacking.

cat coat colour

What is a sex-linked coat colour?

“Sex-linked” coat colours are specific colour patterns that are linked to genes on the X chromosome. Since females are XX and males XY, only male cats with an extra X chromosome (XXY) can exhibit such patterns, making them extremely rare in males – hence why tortoiseshell cats are commonly female.

Tortoiseshell coats – red and black are combined in two solid colours

Calico coats – red and black interspersed with white (thus tricolor)

Torbie coats – a tortoiseshell colouring in a tabby coat (striped or spotted coat)

The results of the study suggested that increased aggression toward humans may exist among sex-linked females and, surprisingly to the authors, gray-and-white cats, and possibly black-and-white cats, compared with cats of other colours. However, let’s not forget the word “suggest” – when reading the paper from a scientific viewpoint, there are several critiques (many of which the authors themselves identify) that lead to the conclusion that more research is needed before any kind of confirmation of such results. Sadly for cats, media reports appear to be running away with this suggested result, even suggesting which type of coat coloured cats will make better pets. Such sweeping statements have great potential to damage feline welfare. The last thing we need are cats being overlooked simply because of the colour of their coat. So let’s move away from journalistic style and instead objectively assess the science – after all, we owe it to our cats.

Who participated in the study?

The study surveyed 1274 guardians of cats, asking them for demographic information about their cats as well as various questions about their cats’ behaviours. Hidden within those questions was the question ‘What colour of coat does your cat have?’ Thus, responders, at the time of completion did not know the primary aim of the study was to investigate coat colour and aggression, thereby preventing their knowledge of the study influencing their responses – good scientific practice. A downside, however, was that the participants nominated themselves for the study and therefore results are likely to only represent the opinions of guardians who have a real interest and passion for their cats and not the general cat-owning population per se. Another downside is that guardian opinions do not necessarily reflect the actual behaviours a cat displays. We all know it can be hard to be objective when describing our feline companions. For example, we all think we own the most beautiful cat in the world! If we already have a preconceived idea that our tortoiseshell is a bit temperamental, then we will be more likely to recall any aggressive behaviour she shows – our attitudes and opinions influence our perception and memory recall of events.

What did the study do?

So how did this study get to the stage where it found a link between certain coat colours and aggression. Participants were asked to give a score to their cats’ aggressive behaviour in three scenarios; aggression towards humans (when not being handled), aggression towards people when being handled and aggression during a veterinary visit. Cats were then divided into groups based on their coat colours (sex linked colours versus others) and the aggression scores compared.

What were the results?

  • When only considering coat colours:
    • sex-linked orange female (tortoiseshells, calicos, and “torbies”), black-and-white, and gray-and-white cats were more frequently aggressive toward humans in the three measured settings: during everyday interactions, during handling, and during veterinary visits.
  • When considering coat colour and sex:
    • black-and-white males were more frequently aggressive towards humans than males of other colors combined
    • there was little difference in aggression between coat colours for the two sexes separated in the contexts of handling and veterinarian visits.

cat coat colour 2

Before jumping to any conclusions, it is really important to look at the numbers. Average scores for aggression in all three contexts were actually very low. For example, a participant could rate human aggression on a scale from 0-20 based on its frequency and across all cats, the average score for this aggression was 1.8.  Even when considering only the group of tortoiseshell, torbie and calico cats, the score only rose to 2.47. Thus, not only was frequency of aggression very low, the size of the difference in frequency of aggression between groups was also small.

What can we take from this?

  • Cats are generally NOT aggressive (or at least those of owners who fill in internet surveys!)
  • Authors actually suggest that the differences in aggression relating to coat colour could potentially alternatively be explained by guardian differences in interpretation of the scoring criteria.
  • When aggression is seen, cats of certain colours may (in their guardians’ eyes) appear slightly more aggressive – the importance being on the word ‘slightly’ – the difference in scores between the two coat colour groups studied were are really small. Just because a difference is significant does not mean it is large – it simply means it is more likely to have occurred due to the factor being studied, than by chance.

So the moral of the story is, just as we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, don’t judge a cat by its coat.

The work of International Cat Care

  • Visits to the veterinary clinic can be frightening for some cats who may well show their distress via aggression. Luckily for our cats, we at International Cat Care have dedicated huge resources and expertise to developing the worldwide programme known as ‘Cat Friendly Practice (in the USA) and ‘Cat Friendly Clinic’ (in the rest of the world) which ensures vets know how to make their clinics as stress-free as possible to cats – there are now over 1000 Cat Friendly Clinics across the world. For more information see http://icatcare.org/catfriendlyclinic
  • When choosing a new kitten or cat, there are so many more important things to consider than coat colour when considering if a cat will make a good pet. For advice see http://icatcare.org/advice/cat-care/choosing-adult-cat and http://icatcare.org/advice/cat-care/choosing-kitten

International Cat Care will continue to provide you with interpretations and summaries of the latest cat science studies – objectively critiqued and intelligently communicated to you by dedicated cat-loving feline scientists, professionals and veterinarians.

cat coat colour 3

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Reference for the study:

Elizabeth A. Stelow, Melissa J. Bain & Philip H. Kass (2015): The Relationship Between Coat Color and Aggressive Behaviors in the Domestic Cat, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2015.1081820

About International Cat Care:
International Cat Care
International Cat Care works to create a world in which ‘all cats, owned and unowned, are treated with care, compassion and understanding’ International Cat Care is a charity with the vision of a world where all cats, owned and unowned, are treated with care, compassion, and understanding. We work closely with the veterinary profession through our veterinary division, the International Society of Feline Medicine. All our work is reliant on donations and legacies.

Founded in 1958, we are a respected authority on feline health and best practice, working with owners, vets and other professionals around the world.
Registered Charity – 1117342
www.icatcare.org
info@icatcare.org

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I am the feline behaviour specialist at feline charity ‘International Cat Care’. We are about engaging, educating and empowering people throughout the world to improve the health and welfare of cats by sharing advice, training and passion.

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26 thoughts on “Mews: Is Coat Colour linked to aggression in cats?

  1. I got an Egyptian Mau and a British Shorthair cat – they are very, very gentle and loving cat. But our Egyptian Mau as I noticed it, quite very choosy when it comes to our friends and always seem to study new stranger. Unlike our British Shorthair kitty, she hides away and can be a little aggressive to strangers if they start to pick her up. She hates that!
    😛

  2. I have a blackandwhite male and a tortoiseshell female – and while the blackandwhite male sometimes shows non-compliant behaviour, to judge that “little” furball of angst as aggressive would not come even close to him. He usually hides away and only when disturbed he defends himself. He is rarely the one initiating aggression when in contact with female cats. He always gives me a fair warning (know your cat’s body language!) before he strikes. I knew a ginger male who was WAY more aggressive!
    My female is such a sweet darling, she does not even know the meaning of the word aggression – not towards humans, that is. She is such a cuddly little girl and will always try to avoid you, if she does not want to be disturbed. Her only “aggressive” act is at the vet – chemical warfare – when she covers all and everybody with her feces. She is panicking then and besides herself then. After the treatment she more than willingly flees into the transport box and not once does she do something like “revenge” … So the study is definitely b******s when it comes to my two.

  3. I had a black and white persian … he was the most gentle cat ever. My orange male ragdoll on the other hand bites and hits people every day, even me, and I’m his human. My son’s orange tabby is the same way. Our calicos, on the other hand, are both timid and shy. They’ve never hurt anyone. Sigh. Just proves there are exceptions to everything. 🙂

  4. It would have been interesting to see a study on the owners of different colored cats..i wonder of say those who prefer a certain color have similar behaviours or attitudes..i say this as we had lovely gentle rottweiler ..yet the bad press for them is understandable when you see they are often..not always..but often owned by people who want an ‘aggressive’dog…so maybe owner personality is really the key 😉

  5. I have two male cats, a black and white one and a grey and white one. Having had cats of every different size colour and breed surrounding me all of my life I can confirm that my grey and white little man is the gentlest, most laid back cat I have ever had the pleasure of having in my life, at the vets he tries to hide under the table but that is about all, he has never showed an iota of aggression. When we pick him up or cuddle him he just accepts it and relaxes in your arms until you are ready to put him down. My black and white man is slightly different, he doesn’t like being picked up but doesn’t show aggression he just wriggles to get free and at the vets he makes friends with all the staff and sits patiently on the weighing scales until he is ready to go back into his box. Never once have these two lashed out, I think I’ve only heard them growl at each other when it comes to fresh chicken treats and even then its rather rare and even with toys they don’t show much aggression.. they pounce and catch but once they have caught the toy it gets a mean washing!
    I call this scientific experiment floored but then again I’m no expert.
    I think the only aggressive cat I’ve known was a ginger tom and he’d had a hard life before my family rescued him!

  6. We have had a lot of cats down through the years. I think the most placid ones were white with blue eyes. Black, Siamese and Spotted Bengals were the most playful and aggressive. Nothing scientific, just , my own observation. 🙂

  7. Great article. We should weed out such prejudices. I feel agression is linked more to the upbringing of a cat, it’s environment and to it’s temperament. Some cats are naturally trustworthy, other’s just aren’t. Colour seems just a myth to me.

  8. I don’t believe this at all! I feel it has a lot to do with environment. When all things else are equal (owners, homes, daily life, food, etc.) Then I may believe a study like this.
    And it is REALLY sad that this doesn’t mean a thing to the media and cats of certain colors may be looked over in the future. So sad!

  9. The fosters in the rescue group I work with had MUCH discussion over this study, with all kinds of opposite examples. To me, one of the main problems with the study is that there is so much more to cat behaviour than their coat colour could possibly explain. Unquantifiable things like birth circumstances, early history, age of spay/neuter, behaviour of the owner, behaviour of other cats in the household. I *have* had a crazy calico — she was feral! I’ve fostered a torbie with a full dose of tortitude — she been passed around and passed over too many times. Was it their colour or was it their bad experiences with the world? And yes, the worst part is the chance of creating yet another colour-linked bias as with black cats!

  10. It just confirms that, like humans, (to steal a concept from ML King) it’s not the color of your fur but the content of your character (i.e. how your brain is wired). 🙂

  11. Cat aggression? To us or to each other? The black and white cats I’ve known have been wusses (softies). Whereas the very few calico girls I’ve known have never backed off from a feline brawl.
    What does this say? Absolutely nothing. Cats, like us, are a mix of nature and nurture, and to attribute behaviour to fur colour sounds dodgy.
    I’m partial to Siamese, particularly the trad version with a squint. The only thing I’ve noticed there with cat to cat behaviour is that the squint seems to throw other cats because (unsurprisingly) they can’t get the eye signals.

    As for cats’ aggression towards us? Definitely lack of nurture.

  12. I wish I could read the full text of the study itself to know more about the methods used, but this journal is not available through my university access for some reason. The abstract indicates the researchers used a less powerful test of significance typically used when necessary assumptions for the more robust one-way ANOVA test are violated, and those assumptions are fairly basic things like having a large sample size, normal distribution, etc. Their sample size shouldn’t necessarily be an issue, which makes me wonder about the nature of the sample itself. From the summary here, it sounds like there are a number of potential sources of bias, and surveys are generally one of the least reliable sources of data. It would be preferable to have trained observers blinded to the purpose of the study spending significant time observing and rating cats using instruments with strong reliability, and even then, human bias is a factor. If there is a pervasive stereotype that cats of certain coats are more likely to be aggressive, humans will naturally have a tendency to scrutinize those cats more carefully. Confirmation bias (seeing what you want to see) is an issue both in formal research and in our own ‘informal’ methods of interpreting the world around us (essentially what all research is–interpretation). Moreover, this type of study is not experimental, but so many people conflate correlation with causation. Coat color/colour isn’t explaining cat behavior/behaviour, and these researchers wouldn’t have been published if they had suggested that coat colour causes aggression, based on the data and analyses they used. It drives me nuts when the media extract a couple of sentences from a research publication in order to get a ‘sensational’ story, fully knowing that the average consumer does not have the research background needed to question the methods and findings…and personal narratives that contradict such findings (aka qualitative methods) don’t have much pull in the behavioral sciences world. Unfortunately, our feline friends are the ones who suffer the most from research findings taken out of context. Kudos to International Cat Care for a cogent and cautious interpretation of this research in a digestible form!

  13. “Suggests” is an acknowledgment that the data are necessarily subjective, and possibly small sample size is an issue as well. Who’s handling the cats–the same person with each color? Cats sense a lot about a person, and if a person has any predisposition toward a cat at all, the cat will pick it up.

    Effie, a Torbie (I just learned the word here–I’ve been calling her a Dilute tortoise shell tabby)–bites fingers sometimes. It’s playful, but it hurts! So we don’t let her play with fingers very long. But she’s also very snuggly and sweet. Our grey cat was mellow and phlegmatic. Maybe there’s something to color-coded temperaments, and maybe there’s handler bias, too. It’s hard to collect objective data with something as mutable as a cat’s temper!

  14. I’ve had 3 ‘Naughty Torties’ and while they are quite feisty and very strong characters, I don’t think they’re any more or less aggressive than the other cats who have lived with me, 2 black, 3 white and 1 black / white. Indeed, the most aggressive was a fully white neutered Tom.

  15. I have a ginger male 6 months old and he is showing signs of aggression, nipping us at the ankle. I’m still teaching him that is hurts when he gives us love bites. He is slowly learning. 🙂

  16. Thanks fur the info, dude. I am a tortie – but I’m not aggressive – except toward the creepy neighbor next door. I hiss at him – but otherwise if something upsets me, I go hide.

  17. Kara was ginger and white and a gentle giant, well behaved at the vets, and cuddly and pick-up-able. MM was a tortie-white, spirited, feisty, hated the vets, he always had to wrap an arm in a thick towel just to get her out the basket otherwise she’d draw his blood, it was the same vet as treated Kara so it wasn’t his manner. Also MM wasn’t a cat who you could pick up a n d cuddle, unless you liked to see your blood! Loved them both.

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