Do cats have personality?

Text: Pablo Hernández, veterinary ethologist

The concept of personality is intrinsically linked to the human species. In fact, the root of the term indicates this to us. In the psychological field, it is understood as the set of traits and qualities that configure the way of being and behaving of a person and that differentiate it from others. It is also defined as the set of individual differences consistent in the behavior patterns of the subject.

When studying the animal world, researchers have observed that individuals belonging to many species, mainly mammals –although not only–, also show peculiarities in their behavior that differentiate them from other members of their species. Although studies on the personality of animals are not abundant, primates – due to their proximity to the human species – or canids – due to their use as work animals – have received more attention. In the case of cats, it was not until a few years ago that this aspect of their behavior has begun to arouse interest.

Before talking about the personality of cats – or their temperamental traits, as veterinary ethologists like to call them -, we must understand that these characteristics make up only a part of their behavior. The behavior of an animal is determined by internal or intrinsic factors, among which we find others such as the state of health or hormonal factors, and by external factors, in the case of the environment, both physical and social.

Through some studies carried out in the past decades in laboratory conditions, a first characterization of the different types of feline personality was reached. Broadly speaking, there was three groups, in relation to its interaction with human beings. According to the researchers, they could be sociable, confident and extroverted; shy, withdrawn and elusive, or active and aggressive.

Such personality differences in cats were associated with the influence of several factors, such as the interaction lived with the mother, the personality of the father, and early experiences with people.

However, recently, a study carried out in 2017 at the University of South Australia with almost three thousand felines who lived with their owners has focused on their personality traits to propose five different dimensions or temperaments. His research was based on a common procedure in human psychology, known as the Big Five (Big Five) model. Therefore, they baptized their method as The Feline Five.

The authors, led by the ethologist Carla Litchfield, analyzed a total of fifty-two variables, including traits such as security, individuality, excitability, fear, irritability or curiosity, which together define the way of being of the mascot. The qualities studied were grouped into five clusters or groups of traits, to, from there, classify the animals.

Furthermore, a very recent study carried out in Finland, from the Department of Veterinary Bioscience of the University of Helsinki, has shown that some temperament traits are more common in some cat breeds and less so in others, and are highly heritable from parent to child. For example, the level of activity – higher in races such as Korat or Bengalis – or the tendency to seek contact with people are transmitted to offspring with a high rate of heritability. The same is true of shyness or distrust of new objects or unfamiliar individuals.

The study of personality in cats is very interesting for two reasons. The first is that it can help the owner understand their pet better. The second, that knowing the temperament of the animal we can establish adaptation programs of the physical and social environment to improve its well-being in an individualized way, according to its specific behavioral needs.

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