SUMMER 2013 Magazine

Cat Chat



Cat Colors and Stereotypes

By Nancy Marano

July 31, 2011 marked the arrival of two new members to our household. We wanted two young cats to liven up our home. Rocky died the previous year and Sammy, our 12-year-old cat had been grieving him ever since. I hoped having younger cats here would provide interest and distract him from his grief. I didn't find the right cats at the shelters despite a diligent search. But I knew if I was patient, the right cats would show up because cats have a way of doing that.

One morning a friend called and said in an excited voice, "I saw some cats today that you have to look at. They are so cute. They're at the vet's office. I'd take them if I could, but I can't. Go, right now and look at them." She was so enthusiastic about these cats I thought I should at least take a look. Besides, if I didn't look at them, I wouldn't be able to face her.

We trekked over to the vet's office on that same hot afternoon. The cats were sitting in a double cage in the lobby. The little tortoiseshell girl looked beautiful and silky with the sun glinting off the highlights in her fur. The little boy was solid black with lovely green/gold eyes. The vet tech took them out of the cage and put them in an exam room so we could get to know each other and see whether this would be a good match.

I was resistant because these weren't the cats I was looking for. I wanted an orange or possibly grey and white cat because I'd never had either of those colors and wanted to see what they would be like. But I watched these two closely as they played all over the exam room. They threw their toys around the room, they were up on the counter and they were very interested in and loving toward us. I told the vet tech I wanted to think about it. When I got home, I called the rescue group who put them at the vet's office. I wanted to learn a little more about their background.

I talked with the woman who fostered them. She said they were brother and sister and had been taken from a hoarder. They were born in October and PACA-AAR took them in April. They wanted to adopt them together since they'd never been apart. Now they were considering separating them to give each one a better chance of being adopted.The rescue had them for four months and no one seemed interested in them as a pair. Having watched them play together, I couldn't bear the thought of separating them. So after a little more thought, I said we'd take them.

The cats were named Sugar (the black one) and Spice (the tortoiseshell). I didn't think those names quite fit them so I re-named them Callie and Max. Now the only worry was whether they would get along with Sam. He was interested in them but not eager to get too close. As time wore on, Max got a bit more forward and made a move on Sam. That was accompanied with hissing and growling on Sam's part so Max backed off. They eventually reached an agreement that allowed everyone to get along. Max and Callie settled into our home for the long haul.

Interacting with these energetic, funny, loving cats everyday makes me wonder why I ever thought I might not take them. That would have been a big mistake for them and us. They have brought joy and laughter into our home and they've been able to stay together. Definitely a win-win situation.

My initial reaction was partly based on the fact that I had a tortoiseshell cat many years ago. She found me on the street outside my dormitory when I was in graduate school and lived with me for the rest of her life. Then I thought about the studies done on why people pick one cat or dog over another when they are adopting from a shelter. It is often a snap decision based on little more than a preference for one color or another. But, like impulse buys, snap decisions often are a mistake.

CAT COLOR

A cat's color is genetically determined. All cats start out black. Color is carried on the X chromosome. A dominant red (orange) color carried on the X chromosome suppresses the black coloring and the cat is orange. Males, who have only one X chromosome, are either black or orange not both. Since females have two X chromosomes, they can have black and orange together in their fur. If there are patches of orange and black color on white, the cat is called a calico. If there is no white and the black and orange mix together in a brindle pattern, the cat is called a tortoiseshell. If red patches are mixed in with tabby striped markings, the cat is called a torbie.

Tortoiseshells and calicos are almost always female. The chance of having a male tortoiseshell is 1 in 3000 and these tortoiseshell males are always sterile.

CAT COLOR AND PERSONALITY

A study was done recently at the University of California Berkeley to determine how people who had experience with cats viewed their personalities. Mikel Delgado, a doctoral student in psychology and several other researchers, surveyed 189 people to see whether they associated certain cat personality traits with coat color.

The research team used Craigslist to recruit a national sample of cat owners and cat lovers in large metropolitan areas. The participants were asked to rate the personalities of black, white, bi-colored, tri-colored and orange cats based on the cats' tendency to be active, aloof, bold, calm, friendly, intolerant, shy, stubborn, tolerant and trainable. The ratings were measured on a scale of 1 to 7.

It turned out people associated "friendliness" with orange cats and "intolerance" with tri-colored cats such as tortoiseshells and calicos. Black cats were perceived to have less extreme personality traits than cats with other color fur and white cats were seen as aloof.

The study is significant because this feline typecasting can have a negative effect on shelter adoptions. "To date there is little evidence that these perceived differences between differently colored cats actually exist, but there are serious repercussions for cats if people believe that some cat colors are friendlier than others," Delgado said.

Most of the people who participated in the survey said they chose a cat on the basis of its personality and not its color. However, Delgado wondered whether there was an unconscious correlation between people's perception of personality and coat color and whether it did play a part in their choice of a cat.

Delgado hopes her study will lead to further research on how the perceptions of cat traits affect their adoption.

With close to 100 million domesticated cats in the United States, one million or more wind up in shelters every year. Some of these are abandoned because of personality traits that their owners disliked. An earlier study done at the University of California - Davis in 2002 found that when dark colored cats - black, tortoiseshell or brown - are in the shelter, they are less likely to get adopted and much more likely to be the first euthanized. Many of these cats were relinquished to the shelter for being too active and tortoiseshells were labeled as having "tortitude." Tortitude is another way of saying they have a mind of their own, can be feisty and often talk a lot.

The concept of tortitude is enough of a factor in adoptions that Tree House Humane Society, a feline-only shelter in Chicago, devoted a whole article in their Fall/Winter, 2012 issue to "Tortitude! Unfair Stereotype or Genetic Characteristic?" They summed up the generalizations about tortitude as ."a cat who is strong-willed, feistier, a bit hot-tempered, louder and generally more demanding or difficult to deal with than other cats. They are also known for being very possessive of their human(s)." Adoption Counselor, Sydney Meier, believes that the tortie stereotype is second only to the one about black cats being overlooked at adoption time. She says, "Black cats tend to be overlooked through no fault of their own while torties are overlooked due to what people assume is an innate behavioral issue that can't be changed."

I've looked at all these studies and understand the reasoning on why black cats and tortoiseshell cats are less frequently adopted. Then I watch Max do all of his endearing, funny, compulsive routines such as touching the tag on the light cord every time he walks past it, rubbing his head on every door jamb he encounters and licking every plastic bag he can find. Callie snuggles up to me in bed, loudly and persistently demands her food when her internal clock tells her it's time and keeps track of everything in the house to make sure it runs smoothly. Max is our clown and Callie is our "take charge" little girl. It took them a long time to get adopted but I know it is because they were waiting for us to find them.

We too often judge animals and people by stereotypes. Every human has their own personality and each cat has its own unique color, personality, and background. Remember to take the time to make your judgment on the total cat not on some perception of color that might be very wrong.

If I'd listened to my first thoughts, I would have missed living with two remarkable, wonderful cats.

(For a comprehensive discussion of cat genetics see http://ib.berkeley.edu/courses/ib162/Week3a.htm or http://www.messybeast.com/colours.htm. The full article on feline coat color and personality can be found in: Anthrozo÷s, December, 2012. "Human Perceptions of Coat Color as an Indicator of Domestic Cat Personality." )


Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who is owned by two cats, Callie, a tortoiseshell, and Max, a black, panther wannabe. She is a member of the Cat Writers' Association and Dog Writers of America.

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