Some cat breeds are closely associated with specific behaviors: Ragdolls, for example, are often viewed as relaxed, friendly and affectionate, while Russian Blues are considered more intelligent and reserved. But a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports is the first academic paper to investigate whether felines actually show breed differences in behavior and how, or even if, these traits are passed down from one generation to the next.
As Nick Carne writes for Cosmos, researchers from the University of Helsinki drew on data detailing around 5,726 cats’ behavior to identify patterns among breeds and gauge heritability. Overall, the team found that different breeds do in fact behave in different ways; of these behaviors—including activity level, shyness, aggression and sociability with humans—around half are inherited.
The starkest differences among breeds emerged in the category of activity. The smallest differences, meanwhile, centered on stereotypical behavior. Prolonged or repetitive behaviors, like pacing or paw chewing, with no discernible purpose are called stereotypies. In some cases, these abnormal behaviors are actually self-destructive.
“Since the age of about two weeks, activity is a reasonably permanent trait, whereas stereotypical behaviour is affected by many environmental factors early on in the cat’s life as well as later,” Hannes Lohi, study co-author and lead researcher of the University of Helsinki’s feline genetic research group, says in a statement. “This may explain the differences observed.”
To estimate behavioral traits’ heritability, lead author Milla Salonen, Lohi and their colleagues focused on three distinct breeds: Maine Coon, Ragdoll and Turkish Van. (The scientists’ full research pool included feline behavior questionnaire responses regarding almost 6,000 cats that accounted for 40 different breeds.)
As Lohi explains in the statement, the team had ample data on members of the three breeds, as well as the chosen cats’ parents. Additionally, Lohi says, the trio is “genetically diverse.” The Maine Coon is related to Nordic cat breeds and landrace cats—domesticated, locally adapted varieties—while the Ragdoll is related to Western European and American cat breeds. The Turkish Van and the similarly named Turkish Angora appear to have separated from other breeds at some point in the distant past.
According to the study, Ragdoll cats were more likely to show shyness toward strangers and unknown objects as well as aggression toward humans. Meanwhile, the Turkish Vans commonly showed aggression toward both humans and other cats.
The researchers’ findings suggest that just under half of breed behavioral differences can be attributed to hereditary factors. Alternatively, Carne notes for Cosmos, it’s possible that behaviors are influenced by selective breeding or traits “hitchhiking” with selected genes for characteristics such as fur and eye color.
The scientists plan on collecting data from a larger research pool of around 20,000 cats to bolster their conclusions. Using owner observations and statistical analysis, the team hopes to continue evaluating the role environment and genetics play in feline behavior.
As Carne writes, the study reveals a bevy of interesting breed behaviors: British Shorthairs, for example, exhibited the highest probability for decreased contact with humans, while Korats had the lowest. Russian Blue cats were strongly linked to shyness toward strangers, while Burmese cats were less likely to be shy. Cornish Rex, Korat, and Bengal cats were the most active breeds, while British Shorthairs were the least active.
“These analyses showed that all of the behaviour traits studied are moderately or highly heritable and personality factors (extraversion, fearfulness, and aggression) are composed of not only phenotypically, but also genetically correlated traits,” the authors conclude in the study. “Therefore, breeding programs using personality as a main selection criterion could lead to less unwanted behaviour, and thus improve cat welfare.”