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.
Original Flickr photo
4. Behavior genetics - Yukari Takeuchi, DVM, PhD, Katherine A Houpt, VMD, PhD
From Calico ca behavior to Home page
To me the inclination to attribute specific personality traits to different-looking breeds of cats is akin to believing in Astrology. It’s the exact opposite to the scientific process, considering the idea is they start with the premise and conclusion then set about supporting it, otherwise known as confirmation bias. With science you’re supposed to be wide open to all possibilities and do your best to DISprove a hypothesis. You’re correct Michael from the start, that the personality traits are owned by all cats and the difference here is the action of the observer pairing off certain ones to physical appearance. It also reminds me of phrenology, the idea that “reading” bumps on a person’s head tells you what’s going on inside. In all fairness while I have perceived what appear to be some personality correlations matching other people’s observations, there are other things that could explain it too, like the act of leading the cats to act in certain ways. It’s interesting any way I look at it.
“To me the inclination to attribute specific personality traits to different-looking breeds of cats is akin to believing in Astrology.”
Agreed — except that through selective breeding some breeders select for behavior as well as appearance and so over time the breed can take on a specific personality. However, talking of cat breeds as having specific personality traits is more about marketing than reality.
my cats a bitch
If it is true that your cat is a bitch you’ll have to ask if one of the reasons is you or someone else living with her.
All I can say is that I had never heard anything about calico cats being aggressive until we took our first shelter cat to the vet. We were both covered with scratches and scabs, and our vet noticed. He also noticed that our cat was very aggressive. The good news is that she has gained a great amount of trust in us – we can now pet her backside without being shredded…. but she is still incredibly unpredictable. I simply do not know when she may attack, and how the attack may be. She likes to snuggle close to my face; which I admit makes me nervous. It seems as if she can turn off and on like a light switch.
It sounds tricky. Thanks for sharing that. Of course her unpredictable and sensitive behavior may be linked to other things such as (a) a lack of socialisation – she is still a bit wild and badly domesticated and (b) she suffered a trauma before you adopted her leaving her mentally scared.
To be honest the connection between behavior and coat type is anecdotal and far from certain.
I have a calico and she is my first calico after years of having other breeds of cats, and yes I’m that old. She is absolutely different! Fascinatingly so! She actually jumps up and thrusts herself off the side of the walls during a wild house run, in which she also runs up her cat tree, through her tunnel, across the couch, chair an love seat and in and out of each room of the house screeching like a banshee then all of a sudden end up at a stop on her cat stand, look at me, and give, the softest little meow ever, like “what’d think?”. I have never had a cat act like that before. May be take a quick running fit and then stop. Or look up at me and meow. But all that together. And bounce off the wall ?? It was in believable !!
Thank you Cdelaney. She sounds like a complete charmer. I wonder though if that behaviour is linked to her coat type or simply generally inherited + life experience. Anyway her behaviour sounds very interesting to say the least.
Hi my name is Crystal, I have a Calico cat, her name is Carmen. I got her from anti-cruelty society. She is pretty and adorable. She is very sweet and loveable, everyone likes her. It seems like every time I’m sad about something, she comes and sits on my lap, to comfort me. I got her in February 2011, my mom passed in May of Cancer. I’m an only child with no kids either, my cat has been with me through everything, she’s funny, sometimes if she doesn’t get her way she turns her back and but toward you as if to say kiss this. She also does strange things, like makes crazy noise when she drinks water, don’t know what that’s about. She is my child I spoil her to death. She looks directly in my eyes sometimes, you can see the love in her eyes, what a kitty! MY baby!
Beautiful comment. So very tender and loving. Thanks for sharing. If you have a photo you might like to upload it to a comment. Calico cats have a special appearance and some soy a special character.
I love calicos, Crystal.
So, you’ve noticed the attitude.
They are so loving and sweet but, make no mistake about it, they are queens.
They and tortis are my favorite girls.
i used to have a calico’s as Michael told me thats what she was Tammy. She was was definitly a boss. She was lovely she was always there for me. Sadly she passed away in 2012
My calico gave birth to seven babies. All but one was calico and female. Lewy was a tabby . Everyone of the girls have different shades of orange white and black.
Sounds lovely. Six calico kittens. What a picture! What a photograph! See if you can get one to me using the form.
My calico cat, Melinda, died in 2007 of old age and kidney disease. She was nearly 21 years of age. As a kitten, she loved to be held and I could actually hold her like a baby in my arms and rock her to sleep. She loved Q-tips and when she was little, she’d turn over the wastebaskets and fish out the Q-tips and play with them. One day, I came home to find that she was sitting on the edge of the toilet seat and dabbling a Q-tip in the water between her paws. It was so funny. She could jump very high and climbed up curtains as a kitten–a real ball of fire. She was always very loving and affectionate and slept in the crook of my arm all night. Later on, when she was older, she lived with my parents in State College PA since I, as a new college professor, had to take a job about 3 hours away from home and could not have a pet in my apartment up in Bradford PA, where housing options are limited since it’s a small, poor town (in Appalachia). She adored my father and was with him at all times and he loved her so much. We were both devastated when she died and adopted a male and female (brother and sister) some time later, since the way to really honor your cat is to get another one when a sufficient amount of time has passed. I love my two new ones, who are 5 1/2 now, but I will always miss my Melinda.
ilove my cat i have had dogs and cats all of my life 57yrs but my calico is my life she owns me i don’t know where mentally i would be without her
Nice to hear from you. I can see that you are a very good cat caretaker and have a close relationship with your cat. Calico cats look fabulous.
i have a beautifull calico cat–she is a house cat–ive never had a cat like her-her nature is beautifull.shes never showen her claws to anyone–just affection.i would reccomend a calico cat to anyone thinking of getting a pet.ive had 5 years of joy.we just named her–calico–as well.
i have had wiggy 3yrs she is a snow cat i live where there is 4ft of snow and she gose out an digs her hole to go to the bathroom good cat lol
Smart cat. Sensible cat too.
i have had several cats over the years but Miss Elizabeth was the first calico i had belonged to and boy was it different! I chose her because she looked like Elizabeth Taylor(eye liner) when she first came home she was standoffish but after a few weeks she “adopted” me and i found out what having a cat REALLY meant. Trying to pet her on my timeline was useless because she would just go get up on top of the fridge and dare me to bother her. However when i go to bed she would hop on the bed hop on my chest and LICK me half to death-I swear- then she would knead me all over my arms. She didn’t often let anyone else pet her but she was never aggresive she’d just hop up out of reach. We also have two dogs and while she wasn’t friendly with them she wasn’t aggresive with them, it was more like they were peasents and below her notice. We live in the country so she had a cat door and she cme and went as she pleased. Someone shot and killed her a couple of weeks ago. I miss her desperatly and still hear her meowing outside sometimes. I don’t plan on getting another cat but if i do it won’t be until i have a safe place for them to go outside if they want to. When i first saw her i mistakenly thought she was ugly but relized pretty quick that she was beautiful and smart. My husband is going to have me a painting done of her which i will chearish.
Beautiful story until the end. It shocked me. How common is cat shooting where you live? I guess you live in America.
Thanks for input on calico cat behavior. You can’t beat first hand knowledge and experience.
So terribly sorry to hear of your cat being shot to death like that. I hope you can find out who did it and bring charges. Having a painting done of her is such a wonderful way to immortalize her and keep her close at heart. My sincerest sympathies for your loss.