Judging a Cat (Wrongly) by the Color of its Coat | Science | Smithsonian
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Judging a Cat (Wrongly) by the Color of its Coat

Black cats aren't evil, and torties aren't always aloof. But people often think coat color and behavior are linked

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Defying its reputation as aloof, this tortoiseshell cat was labelled “the friendliest cat we met” by Flickr user benjgibbs

As much as we might not like to admit it, humans make snap judgments based on appearances all the time. And that’s true even when it comes to cats. White Persians are snooty. Black cats are evil or unlucky. Some shelters even suspend adoptions of black cats and white cats around Halloween in fear of what misguided people might do with the kitties.

In a new study published in Anthrozoos, researchers from California State University and the New College of Florida set out to discover our hidden kitty biases with an Internet-based survey of nearly 200 people. They asked the participants to associate 10 personality terms (active, aloof, bold, calm, friendly, intolerant, shy, stubborn, tolerant and trainable) with five cat colors–orange, tri-colored (tortoiseshells and calico cats), white, black and bi-colored (white and anything else).

Some trends appeared in the data. Orange kitties were perceived as friendly and rated low in the aloof and shy categories. (They were also considered more trainable than were white cats, although the idea that anyone considers a cat trainable is kind of funny. Or am I betraying my own bias here?) Tri-colored cats rated high in aloofness and intolerance, and white cats were also considered aloof, as well as shy and calm. And bi-colored cats–which could have been any color, really, in the participants’ minds–were thought to be friendly. The data for black cats, however, was a bit muddier and no clear trends emerged.

Despite people’s perceptions that there are links between coat color and how a cat will behave, there is little hard evidence that such a connection is real. “But there are serious repercussions for cats if people believe that some cat colors are friendlier than others,” Mikel Delgado, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement.

That’s because when people are choosing a cat, they may make assumptions based on coat color about how that cat will behave in the home. But when they take the kitty home and he isn’t as friendly or cuddly or sedentary as they had hoped, the cat may be returned to the shelter. At least a million cats end up in shelters each year; many of them are euthanized.

And these biases have repercussions for cats of certain colors. A 2002 study in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, for example, found that black cats and brown cats were the least likely to be adopted. Dark cats were also more likely to euthanized. And despite there being little genetic evidence that the genes that guide the coloring and patterning on a cat’s coat also influence it’s behavior, the study found that people frequently believed that tortoiseshells had too much attitude (or “tortitude”), which may explain why they don’t get adopted quickly or get returned to the shelter.

But it’s difficult to cut through people’s biases. So shelters will have to work extra hard to educate prospective kitty adopters about cats and cat behavior. “You can’t judge a cat by its color,” Berkeley East Bay Humane Society cat coordinator Cathy Marden said in a statement. “If someone comes in to adopt, we encourage them to spend time with all the cats, because it’s the personality of that cat–not the color–that will let you know if the animal’s the right fit for you.”

And if a black cat crosses your path this week, don’t get frightened. He’s no more likely to be evil than the cat you have at home.

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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