Meet the cat: MAYA - a calico cat - photo by fofurasfelinas (Flickr)
Calico cat behavior has been described by a well known cat commentator as, “sassy, spunky, and very independent. On the other hand, calicoes are sweet, loving, and loyal cats….” But is this really true? And what does it mean anyway? She seems to be describing any cat. I did however find a connection between coat colour and aggression in dogs and that cats with white in their cat (“and white” cats) have less behavioral problems.
People do say that their Calico cat exhibits odd behaviour or a particular type of behaviour but what is it and is it true? Are people just describing their cat’s individual traits? Our expectations on cat behaviour can sometimes make it seem strange to us when in fact it is what can only be expected under the circumstances in which the cat finds itself. People with stereotypical expectations of cat behaviour including calico cat behaviour largely dictates how they judge the behaviour of a cat.
The real point, it seems to me, is to see if we can inject a bit of science and logic into the argument. I am not by the way saying that calico cats don not behave differently, just that it would be nice to see some real evidence that they do. Next I describe how I got along in my search for evidence beyond the mere anecdotal and unsubstantiated. Here goes….
I started at the top. Robinson’s Genetics for Cat Breeders & Veterinarians 4th ed makes absolutely no mention of how the genes that create the distinctive calico coat affect the character and behaviour of the cat. This book is the number one book on cat genetics, so if there was some credence to the story about calico cat behaviour you would have thought that it would be referred to in this book. But read on please…
The Encyclopaedia Of The Cat does not mention the calico cat in the index and there is certainly nothing in the behaviour of the calico cat being specific to the cat.
Wikipedia has an article1 about tortoiseshell cats and refers to calico cats. Calico cats are tortoiseshell and white cats. There is no reference in the article about calico cat behaviour. People sometimes criticise Wikipedia for accuracy. They are wrong. There are 140,000 Wikipedia authors and they regularly quote references so the source material can be checked. Not many websites do that.
Sticking with Wikipedia for a minute but switching to people, I thought I would see if there was a real connection between people with red hair and behaviour. This would at least tell me is their is the possibility of a link between the colour of hair (or fur!) and the character of an animal. There are known medical implications, it seems. People with red hair showed “differential sensitivity to pain compared to people with other hair colours”. OK, if that is research is sound it is still not about behaviour. There are “beliefs” that red heads have fiery temperaments3. This is notable. Red is the colour of fire. Is is possible that we have extended this “belief” (no scientific data to support this I would say) about red headed people to reddish coloured cats? This seems to be the case.
In short, having surfed the internet in the conventional way, I could not find any scientific link between the genes that create the tortoiseshell and white coat and the character of the cat. However, I have found an interesting discussion page on Flickr, the Yahoo photograph website. They have groups and this one relates to calico cats. It is a group discussion about calico personality2. I have read a number of the comments of the calico cat owners and see no pattern of behavior or what could be described as calico cat behavior. See the page here.
I also discovered a research article on Google Scholar (that cost me $31 to access!). In this article4 I found a connection between the colour of a dog and its behaviour, in this case aggressive behaviour. Here is a direct quote from the document which I must publish verbatim for the sake of accuracy:
“..There is a direct metabolic reason why coat color might be linked to aggression. DOPA is the precursor of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, and of the pigment melanin DOPA. Genes that code for the enzyme that synthesizes DOPA and its products are probably involved in some way with the aggressive behavior associated with coat color. The relation between coat color and temperament is a topic that researchers must consider seriously in the future…
…aggressive behavior may be hereditary and coinherited with genes controlling pigmentation”
As to calico cat behavior, it was stated in the document that when cat fanciers and veterinarians were questioned about this topic they responded by saying that calico cats were “quite aggressive”. This was investigated. The researchers compared the frequency with which black cats, orange cats and tricolor cats were presented to the Cornell University Hospital for Animals for medical problems and to the Animal Behavior Clinic for behavioral problems. They found no significant difference in the proportions of coat colors. There was one other observation namely that when cats had white in the coat (i.e. not all white) the cat was less likely to be presented for behavioral problems.
Back to dogs..”Dogs with a coat of a solid color rather than a particolored coat and dogs with red or golden coats rather than black coats tended to exhibit aggressive behavior……yellow Labrador Retrievers made up a larger proportion of dogs presented for aggressive behavior than those presented for medical problems”.
On this search I found no specific correlation between the calico coat and behavioral traits but I did find that behavior and coat color could be linked and that more research is needed.
4. Behavior genetics - Yukari Takeuchi, DVM, PhD, Katherine A Houpt, VMD, PhD