Behavior profiles of cat breeds - role of breed and gender; tips in raising kittens (Proceedings)

Compared with looking for a new puppy, looking for a new kitten is usually quite a different matter.

Compared with looking for a new puppy, looking for a new kitten is usually quite a different matter. There is generally less orientation on breed identification and probably more thought given to hair coat, color and appropriate places from which to adopt a kitten. While perhaps not talked about as much as with adopting a puppy, clients looking to adopt a kitten are almost always interested in a number of behavioral patterns. The behaviors that may be desirable or undesirable include: being affectionate towards the owners, being socially outgoing, being aggressive towards human family members and other cats, litter box usage and urine marking in the house.

Although one may not think of breed identification as an important variable, it is useful to know that there are breed differences in behavior at least to get a perspective on the kinds of behaviors that may be influenced by breed-related genetics. There is also an interest in the degree to which male cats differ from female cats in these behavioral patterns. With this information at hand, one can knowledgeably target some advice to clients that are about to adopt a new kitten or to those who have just adopted a kitten. You might also let your clients know that you are open to questions about the breeds for certain specific situations and open with regard to questions about selecting a male or female. These are the topics to be discussed in this lecture along with tips on raising cats to avoid problem behaviors.

Breed-specific Behavior Profiles

The domestic cat, Felis catus, was domesticated from the wild felid, Felis silvestris, 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, in the Mediterranean region, when ancient humans started growing domesticated wild grains and grasses. Cats were beneficial in controlling crop-destroying mice and rats. Leslie Lyons and her colleagues at UC Davis, in a landmark study using polymorphic microsatellite markers, have shown that the world's cats come from four distinct geographic areas subsequent to the original domestication. These areas are: Asia, Mediterranean basin, Western Europe and East Asia. Breeds identified as American were grouped with the Western Europe breeds, probably because European settlers brought cats to North America. Within each region the investigators have worked out a phylogenetic tree of cat breeds from those regions.

The information presented here, dealing with breed-specific behavior of cats, is from a just-completed, data-based study with colleagues, Lynette Hart and others, involving systematically gathered data, from 80 feline practitioners interviewed over the telephone. They were asked to rank 7 breeds, randomly chosen from the master list of 17 breeds on 12 behavioral traits (such as affection seeking behavior and aggression towards family members). The list to be ranked always included the generic, non-purebred Domestic Shorthair (DSH)) and the Domestic Longhair (DLH), along with 5 purebreds from this group: Abyssinian; Bengal; Burmese; Cornish Rex; Exotic; Maine Coon; Manx; Norwegian Forest Cat; Oriental; Persian; Ragdoll; Russian Blue; Siamese; Sphynx; and Tonkinese. There were very significant differences on each of the 12 traits (p<0.001). This lecture will present some of the more interesting results; the entire body of findings will be available in a forth-coming book.

An interesting contrast between dogs and cats is that virtually all of the breeds of dogs had a beginning in a working role. We have guard dogs, herding dogs, and companions in the field for hunting, retrieving, pointing and racing. We can often trace behavioral differences among dog breeds back to those that would have been enhanced in the selection for various working roles. Not so with cats. Cats were virtually never selected to perform a useful function for humans. Keeping vermin down around the farm and granary was a behavior that came naturally to the wild ancestral cat. It is obvious, however, from looking at the morphology of different breeds, that cats have been subjected to intense artificial selection. In addition to morphology, there has evidently been selection for behavioral endpoints. Thus, some of the behavioral distinguishing characteristics of purebred cats were not a "by-product" of a working role, as seen in dogs, but a function of intentional selection.

Affection Towards the Owner

Is a behavioral trait that many cat owners consider important. Here is a trait where the generic DSH ranks very high; only the Ragdoll is higher. The Ragdoll is significantly higher than all other breeds except the Burmese and Maine Coon, which are also high ranking. At the low end on affection is the Bengal which is significantly less affectionate than the DSH and DLH and all other breeds, except the Manx, Abyssinian, Exotic and Russian Blue which are also near the low end on affection.

Aggression Towards Human Family Members

Is a trait where the Bengal and Ragdoll rank just the opposite of what we see with affection. The Bengal is higher on aggression than both the DSL and DLH, and is higher than all the other breeds except the Abyssinian and Siamese, that are also at the high end. At the low end is the Ragdoll, which is lower than the DSH and DLH, as well as all other breeds except the Sphynx, Burmese and Maine Coon which are also low ranking.

Activity Level

Is a trait that is quite noticeable in the cat's home. The highly active cat uses your home as a three-dimensional forest whereas the inactive cat just lies around all day. The DSH and DLH rank at the middle level. The Bengal and Abyssinian rank higher than all the other breeds except the somewhat active Siamese, Oriental and Cornish Rex. Ranking as the least active is the Persian which, with the exception of the relatively inactive Ragdoll, is lower than all other breeds.

Use of the Litter Box

Is a trait of interest to all cat owners, but here is a trait in which breeds are not very differentiated. The popular DSH, which leads the ranking, is higher than the DLH. Ranking the lowest in ease of litter box use is the Persian which is significantly lower ranking than all other breeds except the Bengal and Manx which are fairly low ranking in this regard.

Urine Marking (Spraying) in the House

Is a trait in which it is natural to ask about breed differences. The breeds are fairly clustered together on this trait as well. However, it is useful to know that the DSH is tops in tendency to engage in urine spraying and is significantly higher than about half of the purebreds. The Bengal ranks just below the DSH and is also higher in urine marking than about half of the breeds. For what it is worth, the Sphynx, Cornish Rex, Ragdoll, and Burmese are at the low end but are not significantly lower than most of the other breeds, except the Bengal and DSH.

Tendency to Vocalize

Is a trait for which cat people already know who will lead the list; the Siamese. This breed ranks significantly above all others except the Oriental and Tonkinese that are also rather vociferous. The DSH and DLH are right in the middle of the ranking on vocalization. The quietest breeds are those that are also the least active, the Persian, Maine Coon and Ragdoll.

The information above may help one in advising clients on what to expect when they express an interest in a purebred cat, or even in looking at a shelter cat that has the tell-tale markings or conformation of a purebred. If nothing else, you get an idea where the DSH and DLH cats fit in with breed characteristics in the range of cat breeds. An important point to be made is that there is variation within any breed on the different behavioral tendencies even though overall breed differences clearly exist. The generic DSH and DLH are, by definition, mixed breeds and undoubtedly have more variability amongst them than the purebreds. That said, it is interesting that the DSH and DLH are significantly higher or lower on each of the various behavioral traits than one or more of the purebreds.

Finally, there are, of course, many more cat breeds than covered by our study. We were limited by the choice of cat breeds with which our feline authorities would be sufficiently familiar to make comparisons across breeds. Making generalizations to breeds closely related to those covered here is logical. But to cover the full spectrum of cat breeds is a long ways off if one is going to rely on a statistically-based approach with relatively unbiased authorities such a feline practitioners.

Role of Gender in Behavior

While the role of breed membership may or may not be useful in dealing with questions that come up in adopting a kitten, the role of gender can be useful in virtually all instances. In our telephone interviews, the feline authorities were asked to rank spayed females versus neutered males on each of the traits upon which the breeds were ranked. The gender comparisons were independent of breed designation.

Going into this part of the study, we expected to get a picture roughly along the lines of previous findings on dogs; we could not have been more wrong. Male cats

far outranked females in being more outgoing, affectionate and playful. Females far outranked males in being more aggressive and fearful. These gender-based differences are just the opposite what we found previously with spayed and neutered dogs. Be aware that male cats also far outrank females in the likelihood of urine marking, and urine marking is about the most frequent feline problem behavior for which veterinarians are consulted.

For most cat owners the choice of gender can be a bit complex. Introducing a relatively non-aggressive and outgoing male cat to a multi-cat home has its appealing points, but this could be asking for urine trouble because inter-cat interactions is the main causative factor in urine marking. Introducing the more affectionate, non-aggressive, outgoing and playful male, rather than female, into a home where he is the only cat, is less likely to evoke the comment, "you're in trouble." Still, there are no guarantees. If urine marking does occur, keep in mind there are definite therapeutic approaches in Hart, Hart and Bain, Canine and Feline Behavior Therapy, 2nd edition, 2006, Blackwell Press.

Advice in Raising Cats

Some of the behavior traits discussed above comprise much of what is basically the sum-and-substance of feline behavior therapy, and can be influenced by giving attention to the rearing of kittens. Here is an area where one could use the breed and gender information to target areas to be emphasized in rearing cats. Faced with a Bengal kitten, rewarding affection and discouraging any signs of aggression is in order. For a Ragdoll kitty, affection and low aggression should come naturally, so focus on perfecting litter box use; the breed is not bad in this regard, but some extra emphasis can't hurt. With a Persian kitten, be especially conscientious about the litter box. Got an Abyssinian kitten, provide a three-dimensional exercise area (the whole house), clear off the knickknacks and give attention to discouraging any sign of aggression. Tell the client who has a couple other cats, and is enthralled with the looks of the Sphynx, but is worried about urine spraying, that at least this breed is the least likely to spray, and you're glad she is not hooked on a Bengal. So, you get the idea. Do not forget, if your advice is sought beforehand, gender selection enters into the equation as well.

Neutering of males is a standard aspect of raising kittens, so some comments are in order. Fighting with other males, urine marking in the house and roaming are readily affected by castration. What is surprising to some practitioners, is that prepubertal castration is no more effective in preventing urine marking and aggressive behavior, than postpubertal castration is in eliminating these behaviors in older cats. Across the board, there is no indication that those male cats that are older, and more experienced in the performing the problem behavior, are any less likely to be affected by castration than the younger, less experienced males. The probability of serious urine spraying occurring in males castrated prior to adulthood is about 10%, which is the same probability of castration eliminating behavior after it has started in adult males.