Nature vs Nurture: What Influences Your Cat’s Personality the Most?
A cat’s personality has a much larger significance than one might imagine. In the US, for example, one of the biggest factors for cats being given up for adoption or even returned to shelters is behavioral issues. Getting to the bottom of your cat’s personality and what makes them tick is thus far more important than most owners consider.
You’ve likely noticed that one of your cats is as loving as they come, while another prefers their own space—to put it mildly! There are tons of stereotypes surrounding the mysteries of cat personalities, from breeds to gender and even colors. But what factors really influence your cat’s personality?
Studies have shown that genetic factors almost certainly have a role to play in the temperament of your feline companion; however, just like humans, environment and upbringing also have a large part to play.
Excited Cats veterinarian, Dr Paola Cuevas, who has been lucky enough to have the opportunity to study animal behavior and spend many years living among different animal groups, agrees: “What shapes an individual cat’s personality is a combination of biological factors such as genetics, brain development, gender, age, health status, hormones, and the individual’s past life experience and learning.”
Studies have shown that personality can affect health, too; fearful or anxious cats may have lowered immune function, while overly friendly cats are susceptible to disease and illness from frequent interaction with other cats.
Determining Factors Influencing the Personality of Cats:
Socialization with other pets and humans during the early part of your cat’s life is a key factor in determining their personality. The first 12 weeks are crucial in raising a well-rounded cat, but socialization and upbringing can have a role in shaping your cat’s personality for up to 2 years.
Breed differences are also a somewhat accurate predictor of personality, but even cat breeds like Maine Coons and Siamese are subject to the varying factors in their upbringing.
Paternal inheritance is a surprisingly important factor too. One particular study showed that the offspring of a friendly father was friendlier, less shy, and bolder than kittens from an unfriendly father—socialized or not. Also, kittens learn a lot from the first few weeks of living with their mother. If the mother is fearful and skittish, the chances are high that some of the kittens will also exhibit this behavior.
Lastly, while it may sound strange, researchers have found some evidence that phenotypes(physical characteristics) also have a role to play in cat personality. For example, often orange male cats are more socially dominant and even aggressive with other cats but are generally friendly toward humans. Calicos and torties are often found to be skittish and suspicious around humans, while long-haired cats such as Persians are friendly, docile felines that love to be in their owner’s lap.
The Feline Five:
In a study published in 2017, researchers sought to discover traits in cats that could reliably predict their personality type. Almost 3,000 domestic cat owners were surveyed, and their responses suggested five factors that could reliably describe almost all cat personalities, known as the “feline five:”
• Neuroticism (fear, nervousness, anxiety)
• Extraversion (active, curious, smart)
• Dominance (bullying, aggressiveness)
• Impulsiveness (recklessness, erratic behavior)
• Agreeableness (affection, friendliness)
Why does this matter? Researchers believe that determining your cat’s primary motivation regarding their personality can help improve their lives, as owners can carefully manage and observe their preferences. For example, if your cat is naturally extraverted and bold, a sudden period of fear or nervousness quickly tells you there’s something in the environment bothering your cat. Or, in naturally agreeable cats, any signs of agitation may indicate an underlying illness or injury.
This is still subject to environment, however, and Dr Cuevas reiterates that “assuming a Ragdoll will always be "friendly or agreeable" is wrong—the environment and life experience will play a major role in their personality development, and an abused or neglected animal most likely will not have a ‘friendly’ personality.”
Another member of the ExcitedCats veterinary team, Dr. Chyrle Bonk, DVM, reiterates that “no matter what your cat’s personality type is, it’s important to recognize what’s normal so that you can more quickly recognize when things aren’t normal. Changes in behavior can tell us a lot of things about a cat’s physical and mental health so that we can provide better care for their wellbeing.”
Nature vs Nurture:
While there’s still plenty of research to be done, it seems that a cat’s personality is determined by a multitude of factors—in short, nature and nurture. There are certainly some inherited genetic traits that can determine a cat’s temperament, but their upbringing, environment, and level of socialization seem to be just as—if not more—important in influencing their personality.