6,000 cat study shows breed plays a role in behavior

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

inherited cat behavior

Story at-a-glance -

  • In a first-of-its-kind study of over 5,700 cats, researchers in Finland have demonstrated that behavioral traits in cat breeds can be inherited
  • Of the five behavioral areas analyzed, activity levels between breeds showed the greatest variability
  • Another explanation for behavioral differences is selective breeding
  • Several cat breeds had a high probability for wool sucking (a compulsive behavior), and two breeds in particular are prone to excessive grooming

According to new research from the University of Helsinki, cat behavior differs by breed, and nearly half those differences are inherited. The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports,1 and is the first to look at cats, whereas dozens of international studies have been conducted on behavioral traits and heritability in dogs. The research team analyzed information on thousands of cats and found behavior differences between breeds in five areas:

  1. Activity level
  2. Sociability with humans
  3. Shyness
  4. Aggressiveness
  5. Stereotypical behavior

The biggest differences the scientists discovered were in activity; the smallest were in stereotypical behavior. This may be due to the fact that from about 2 weeks of age, activity in felines is a reasonably permanent trait, whereas stereotypical behavior is influenced by many environmental factors throughout a cat's life.

According to the researchers, the fact that behavior traits are inherited explains the often quite noticeable differences in the way various cat breeds behave.

Researchers analyzed behavior data for just under 6,000 cats

For the study, researchers used data gathered from cat owners who completed an online behavior and personality questionnaire; their population of 5,726 cats included 40 breeds, some of which were grouped to form 19 breeds and breed groups. (There are 71 breeds in total according to the International Cat Association.)

The research team looked at the heritability of behavior traits in the Maine Coon, Ragdoll and Turkish Van. These three breeds were chosen due to the high number of questionnaire responses on them, as well as sufficient information on the parents of the cats. In addition, the breeds are genetically diverse. The Maine Coon is related to Nordic cat breeds, the Ragdoll is related to Western European and American cat breeds and the Turkish Van and Angora appear to have separated from other breeds.

Other influences on feline behavioral traits

The researchers learned that the heritability estimate of behavior traits in the cats in the study varied from 0.40 to 0.50 on average, which means a little under half of the variation in behavior traits is explained by hereditary variation. Heritability estimates are fairly similar between cat breeds regardless of genetic differences between the breeds.

The study authors make the point that there are a number of alternative explanations for behavioral differences, including selective breeding for, for example, activity level. Perhaps some cats were selectively bred to be active, while others were bred to be more docile. In addition, behavior traits can "hitch a ride" with other deliberately selected genes, such as the gene for coat or eye color.

"On the other hand," explains study co-author Milla Salonen in a University of Helsinki news release, "cat breeds have been bred from local landrace populations, which they continue to genetically resemble. Consequently, the behavior of breeds descended from cats in the same region may resemble each other due to their common history."2

A few insights from the study:

British Shorthairs had the lowest tendency to seek human contact, whereas Korat and Devon Rex cats were the most likely to seek contact from people.

Turkish Van and Angora cats were the most aggressive towards both people and other cats.

Russian Blues had the highest probability for shyness towards strangers, contrasting earlier studies, as well as novel objects.

The most active breeds were Cornish Rex, Korat and Bengal, with British Shorthair, Ragdoll and Birman being the least active.

House cats, Norwegian Forest Cats, Turkish Van and Angora cats, and Maine Coons had the highest probability for wool sucking.

Burmese and Oriental cats had the highest probability for excessive grooming.

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4 fascinating cat breeds

New or unusual cat breeds can be the result of selective breeding by humans, or they can occur spontaneously as the result of a natural genetic mutation. Here are four breeds in one or the other category with fascinating physical features that make them stand out from the crowd.

1. Manx — The Manx cat is an ancient breed native to the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. It is thought that the Manx's lack of a tail is caused by a gene mutation that originated with the island's native cat population. The gene is dominant, which is how it spread to other cats on the island.

The original Isle of Man cats were shorthairs. The longhair gene was thought to have been introduced by ancestors of Norwegian Forest Cats that traveled to the island aboard Viking ships. The Manx is known for its robust health, high intelligence and lively personality.

2. Sphynx — The Sphynx, also known as the Canadian Hairless, began to flourish as a breed in London in the late 1960s. Contrary to what most people believe, these kitties aren't actually hairless, but are covered in very short, soft fur the texture of peach fuzz. The Sphynx can also grow eyebrows and whiskers.

Sphynx require regular bathing to control the buildup of natural oils on the skin that can get a bit stinky. And despite the lack of a coat, the Sphynx isn't considered a hypoallergenic breed because they still produce protein in the oil of their skin and also saliva that can trigger an allergic response in sensitive individuals. Despite their somewhat fragile appearance, the Sphynx is known to be a robust breed with few serious health or genetic problems.

3. Scottish Fold — The Scottish Fold has a natural dominant gene mutation that creates a fold in the cartilage in both ears, causing them to bend forward and down, giving these kitties a kind of owl-like appearance. Interestingly, all Folds are born with straight, unfolded ears, and within about three weeks, kittens with the gene mutation will begin to show the fold. Kittens without the fold mutation are called Straights.

Scottish Folds are good-natured and calm. They tend to get very attached to their humans and are known to be very affectionate. They are also playful, intelligent and adaptable to home situations that include children and other pets.

4. American Curl — The distinctive feature of the American Curl is the unique backward bend of the ears. Kittens of this breed are born with regular ears that start curling back at about three weeks, but not every kitten develops this unique feature.

The American Curl is the result of a natural mutation, which as you may have discovered by now, isn't all that unusual in the world of felines! The first reported Curl appeared in the early 1980s. This breed is medium-sized, with either a short or long coat of any color or pattern. Curls are known to be happy, playful kitties that are family-oriented and great with children. They also get along well with other cats and cat-friendly dogs.