2013-01-10 / Columnists

Pets pets pets

Don’t be too fast to judge a cat by its color, a new study warns. The media and folklore help to perpetuate stereotypes about personality traits linked to the color of a cat’s coat that can have a negative effect on adoption rates at shelters according to research from the University of California, Berkley. People’s erroneous perceptions go beyond superstitions of black cats being spooky or bad luck.

Interested in the connection of how color influences adoptions, a doctoral student in psychology at Berkley and her co-authors surveyed 189 people who had owned cats as pets, and discovered that they were more likely to assign positive “purrsonality” traits to orange cats, and less likely to do so with white and tortoiseshell cats. The participants considered orange cats friendly; whereas white cats were thought of as aloof, shy, lazy and calm, while tortoiseshell cats were believed to be intolerant. “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,” said Mikel Delgado, lead author of the study. “We hope that this study will be a starting point for further research in what qualities affect adoption and retention of pet cats, and whether there is a genetic or physical basis (such as coat color) for personality differences in cats,” she added.

“Are orange cats really more friendly?” “Are orange cats really more friendly?” This study titled “Human Perceptions of Cat Color as an Indicator of Domestic Cat Personality” by Delgado, Munera and Reevy was published in the December 2012 issue of Anthrozoos, the journal of the International Society of Anthrozoology.

To establish a link between how cat color influences adoption rates, Delgado and her coauthors used Craigslist to recruit a national sample of cat owners and cat lovers in large U.S. metropolitan areas. Participants were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 7, the personalities of black, white, bi-colored, tri-colored (tortoiseshell or calico) and orange cats based on their tendencies to be active, aloof, bold, calm, friendly, intolerant, shy, stubborn, tolerant and trainable. While most people questioned in the study said personality informs their decision about which cat to adopt, the characteristics they ascribed to cats based on their coat color indicated that color consciously or unconsciously played a key role in their final choice of which kitty to take home. More so with cats than dogs, potential adopters walk into shelters with a pre-conceived notion of what color cat they would like to adopt. Many are trying to replicate a beloved, deceased cat but they are not considering that cats of the same color are not cookie-cutter clones. Each cat has a distinct temperament, so it is crucial to spend a lot of time with prospective feline friends. The ASPCA has a patented Meet Your Match program called Felinality that ignores coat color, and instead identifies nine different behavioral profiles for cats, ranging from independent to gregarious designed to help adopters find the perfect cat to fit their lifestyle and nurturing needs. Back to the study- overall, orange cats and bi-colored cats were characterized as friendly, while black cats, white cats and tri-colored cats were regarded as more antisocial. White cats were considered to be more shy, lazy and calm, while tortoiseshell cats were more likely to be depicted as more intolerant yet more trainable. Black cats were typified as having less extreme character traits, which might contribute to their mysterious reputation.

According to 2011 HSUS statistics, there are 86.4 million owned cats in the U.S., and at least one million end up in shelters each year. Many are abandoned because their personalities conflict with their owners’ expectations. In a 2002 study from the University of California, Davis found that one in four cats wind up in shelters because they did not get along with their owners or other pets. A common complaint was that they’re “too active.” That study also found that dark cats are more likely to be euthanized, and that tortoiseshell cats are frequently typecast as having too much attitude or “tortitude.”

Part of the problem with black and tortie cats is visibility. They don’t show up as well in a cage even when eye level with visitors. A litter of dark kittens blends together in a heap. Marketing gimmicks like waiving fees or “Black Cat Friday” lure people toward inconspicuous cats. Shelters are also rethinking black cat adoption moratoriums near Halloween. Certain sites sing the praises of black cats. “Ten reasons to adopt a black cat” include creative enticements such as “they’re little panthers; black cats match every décor; holding a black cat is very slimming; the neighborhood Goth kids will think you are cool.”

I hate to be a spoiler but there may be a genetic component to color and some general behavior observations. I remember being at the cat show at Madison Square Garden about 10 years ago and watching a researcher comb hair for DNA and a behavioral study. Certain genetic defects are paired with physical traits. For example, white cats can have blue eyes, poor vision, skin conditions and be deaf which all could contribute to the notion of being “anti-social.”

Solid chocolate brown is only found in a small, selected gene pool as in Havana Brown cats, which tend to use their paws to examine objects and to communicate with their owners. They are also not known to be social with other species like dogs. Is this a manifestation of the color? Chances are you will never see a solid brown cat in a shelter.

Certain feline colors and patterns are sex linked. Tricolored cats, calico and tortoiseshell are usually female so their traits will be reflective of their gender which tends to be more docile. Ginger, orange or red cats - the Morris type - are usually male with females existing as a ratio of one out of every five orange cats. Male orange cats can be quite assertive and vocal. Female ginger cats are often calmer. Survey says: orange cats are more friendly. Well that depends on what you construe as “friendly.”

For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (631-643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: As of last weekend there was an assortment of lovable black, tuxedo and tabby cats at the shelter. No orange at the present time. As for dogs, “Mack” #12-156 represents the Pit patrol. He gets along with other dogs at the shelter where he has been waiting for his special someone since March. “Sugar” #12-308 is one of the scared Sharpei mixes from a bad situation. Less than a year old, Sugar has made remarkable progress at the shelter and now smiles and walks on a leash. Big accomplishments.

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