A study found that mice which were made to fear a certain smell could pass that particular fear to their offspring in their DNA and their offspring could do likewise¹.
This is about animals and humans being hardwired to fear something without ever having experienced that fear or its cause before. It is all written into the DNA of the animal.
I think this research goes beyond the idea of character. We know that character is passed from parent to offspring and I suppose a part of character is what we like and dislike, love and loathe.
However, to fear a very specific smell and that exact reaction to that exact smell is hardwired into the DNA is remarkable.
In the case of the mice, over three days, they were trained to fear the smell of a chemical called “acetophenone”, which is a fragrance in soaps etc., When these mice mated ten days later their offspring were “startled” at the smell of acetophenone even though they had no experience whatsoever of the smell before.
It was found that the offspring had more than the usual number of a certain type of receptor that was able to detect acetophenone.
So how does this study inform us about our cat companions? Well, it may explain lots of things that might have puzzled us in the past.
My late Binnie had a fear of noisy boots walking on hard floors. I guess that is not unusual but it was a very specific fear. I wonder of her mother had the same fear?
It would seem feasible that if a cat was abused by a certain person and that person had a certain scent that was not unique but reasonably common, she could pass that fear onto her offspring such that they feared certain people with a certain scent but had no other reason to do so. It would be seen as an unexplained fear or reaction to a person.
This natural ability to pass precise, specific reactions to offspring in DNA has been said to explain why dogs are easy to train. If a dog has been trained she can pass that conditioning on to her offspring in her genes. Successive offspring from the original trained dog require less and less training.
That would imply that if a cat was trained – and I know there are objections to that – her offspring would be pre-trained to a certain extent. If everyone trained their cat, within years the cat in general would be a trainable companion similar to the dog ;)! No, we don’t want that, do we?
Ref: (1) a reserch study co-authored by Kerry Ressler to be published in Nature Neuroscience.