Just like their mothers: in cat breeds, behaviour is inherited


Research shows different types of cat have predictable ways of behaving. Nick Carne reports.


A Turkish Van cat: loves the water, humans not so much.

Ozkan Bilgin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Different breeds of cat behave in different ways, and nearly half of those differences are inherited, new research from Finland suggests.

A team from the University of Helsinki studied information about 5726 cats and found differences in behaviour between breeds across five different areas: activity level, sociability with humans, shyness, aggressiveness and stereotypical behaviour.

The biggest differences were observed in activity; the smallest in stereotypical behaviour.

"Since the age of about two weeks, activity is a reasonably permanent trait, whereas stereotypical behaviour is affected by many environmental factors early on in the cat's life as well as later,” says principal investigator Hannes Lohi.

“This may explain the differences observed.”

Heritability estimates, the researchers suggest, are fairly similar between cat breeds regardless of genetic differences between the breeds.

They say that while many international studies have been conducted on dog behaviour and heritability, theirs is the first to look at cats.

To do so, they examined the first tranche of answers to an online feline behaviour and personality questionnaire they posted in March 2019 – with the aim of eventually gathering information on at least 20,000 cats.

Their sample of 5726 included 40 breeds (there are 71 in total, according to the International Cat Association), some of which had to be grouped, forming 19 breeds and breed groups.

The findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, make fascinating reading for cat lovers, but it does help to have a working knowledge of cat breeds.

A snapshot.

British Shorthairs had the highest probability for decreased contact with people whereas Korats had the lowest probability. Turkish Vans were the most likely to display aggression towards people.

Russian Blue cats had the highest probability for shyness towards strangers whereas Burmese cats had the lowest probability.

Cornish Rex, Korat, and Bengal cats were the most active breeds, whereas British Shorthairs were the least active. Russian Blues were the most likely to show shyness towards novel objects.

And the average moggie?

“House cats were, compared to the average purebred cat, moderately active, quite aggressive towards both people and other cats, and shy towards novel objects and strangers,” the researchers write.

“Furthermore, they had a high probability of wool sucking, but owners were not likely to state that the cat has a behaviour problem.”

Lohi and colleagues say there are a number of alternative explanations for behavioural differences.

It is possible that behaviour has been subject to selection in the breeding of cats, but behaviour traits can also “hitchhike” with some other selected gene, such as the gene for fur or eye colour.

"On the other hand, cat breeds have been bred from local landrace populations, which they continue to genetically resemble,” says doctoral student Milla Salonen.

“Consequently, the behaviour of breeds descended from cats in the same region may resemble each other due to their common history."

Their analysis, the researchers say, shows that all behaviour traits studied are moderately or highly heritable, and personality factors – such as extraversion, fearfulness, and aggression – are composed of both phenotypically and genetically correlated traits.

“Therefore, breeding programs using personality as a main selection criterion could lead to less unwanted behaviour, and thus improve cat welfare,” they conclude.

  1. https://www.tica.org/breeds/browse-all-breeds
  2. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-44324-x
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