Feline personalities

All my cats have had different personalities. Some anxious and easily frightened, others unflappable. Some fond of interacting with people, others solitary and reserved. Some keen on hunting birds and rodents, others not interested. Some playful, others lazy. Different kittens in the same litter can display unique personality traits from birth.

Feline personality, like human personality, is determined partly by genetics and partly by environment. On the genetic side there are sex-specific traits, such as the male cat’s tendency to mark out a large territory and fight hard to defend it, though these and other differences are much reduced by desexing. Each pedigree breed is said to show characteristic features of personality, for example the Cat Fanciers’ Association describes the Russian Blue as “graceful, playful and quiet” and the Rag Doll as “docile, placid and affectionate”.  For domestic cats, there are possible links between personality and coat colour. Ginger cats have the reputation of being friendly and affectionate, black ones unlucky and mysterious, white ones aloof and enigmatic. There are many exceptions, and these associations may be based on myth and opinion rather than systematic research.

Felix was mainly black, with white on the paws, belly, chest, throat and face. He was therefore a good example of the “tuxedo” cat, sometimes called the “Jellicle” cat (Jellicle cats are black and white: T S Eliot). It is said that Newton, Shakespeare and Beethoven all kept cats of this type, and that they are highly intelligent, confident, sweet and affectionate, vocal, and rather lazy.

Felix’s personality did not fit this stereotype. He was an introverted cat, and not particularly intelligent, affectionate or vocal, but there was something very appealing about him. Unlike any other cats I have had, he was indifferent to most human beings but formed an exclusive bond with me. He pined when I went away on holiday, and could apparently be hard to handle on those occasions when I had to leave him in the veterinary hospital; one of the nurses told me “He’s a different cat when you’re here.”

I think the unusually strong attachment between us developed because he had come to me as a tiny kitten, after being separated from his mother far too soon. This shows that the feline personality is shaped by life experience as well as genetics. It can also change over time in response to circumstances. Few things are more rewarding than to see a cat (or any other animal) which has been neglected or abused, but then rescued and well cared for, being slowly transformed from a fearful or aggressive creature into one which is confident, loving and content.


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