Do domestic cats have their own personalities?

People who know domestic cats feel strongly that each has their own individual personality but it is nice to refer to some science rather than anecdotal evidence. Dr. Bradshaw in his book Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed refers to a study of cats who lived in a group all their lives. These cats interacted in different ways with each other. He says that this hints at both a genetic as well as cultural influence on their behaviour.

Ginger cat personality
It is said that ginger cats have their own distinct personality traits.
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One study concerned two small indoor colonies of seven females each. The researchers discovered that individual cats consistently varied in their degree of calmness and interaction with others. Their behaviour also varied in the extent to which they chose to be close to other cats or whether they wished to stay away from them.

He says that these differences are distinct from how sociable the cats were or how active and inquisitive they were. He believes that each cat works out their own way of interacting with others and this was not a reflection on how confident or bold they were.

Clearly a cat with a bold personality is going to be more likely to interact with other cats compared to a retiring timid cat which would be predisposed to hiding. This must assist the developmental process through experience. He states that “in repeated encounters with the same individuals, each had developed a new and eventually stable personality trait, sociability to cats, which was unrelated to how bold they were.”

He’s not sure how these character traits emerge and therefore guesses at the reasons. One possibility is that the first encounter with another cat fixes that particular cat’s attitude or strategy in dealing with other cats. Under these circumstances the cat’s personality may be affected depending upon whether the cat is smaller and weaker or stronger and larger than the cats that he or she meets in early life.

A catio improves a cat's personality
A catio improves a cat’s personality. Image: MikeB

But if a cat’s character is developed over a lot of encounters with other cats, he suggests that the differences in personality may be genetically based. The ability of a cat to live in a friendly way with other cats “should be genetically variable”. Although the wildcat ancestor had the ability to form temporary relationships between mother and offspring, domestic cats have evolved to be capable of forming long-term bonds with other adult cats.

Bradshaw also believes that the domestic cat is on a journey to further developing their sociability traits; traits that are variable with some cats being more sociable than others. As for humans, early life experiences would certainly cause some of these differences in conjunction with inherited traits in their genetics.

Certainly, confidence plays a role, as mentioned, because it allows a domestic cat to approach others more frequently which, it is suggested, helps to mold the character.

With respect to hunting skills, Bradshaw doesn’t expect there to be much genetic variation because these skills are inherited; handed down from their wild cat ancestor. Although, in my experience, you will see differences in a cat’s desire to hunt. This may be due to a variation in exposure to real prey animals by domestic cats early on in their life. My current former feral cat companion is a very committed hunter whereas a female cat that I lived with for many years ago was not.

Kovac’s a funny little guy with a big personality. He’s good with kids and other animals. He likes to suckle and knead blankets—and other animals! Like his siblings, he loves to cuddle at night. Image in public domain.

Domestic cats hunt in different ways indicating personality differences. Some constantly move to hunt while others prefer to sit and wait. Both methods of hunting are part of the repertoire of domestic cats. The type of prey that cats hunt also varies between individuals. Some are unable to catch birds which should please ornithologists! Others catch more birds than rodents which would go against the typical profile of domestic cat hunting activity.

Bradshaw regards the differences as “aspects of personality”. The differences are based upon personal experiences and a gradual refinement of hunting skills he believes. When cats learn to hunt, they learn what method is effective and repeat it. There appears to be no evidence that cats inherit a preference for hunting birds over rodents or vice versa.

Confidence among kittens in terms of hunting skills varies considerably particularly during the third month when they have developed decent predatory behaviour such as stalking, punching, biting and raking with hind claws.

Kittens vary in how they develop these skills, their tactics and their behaviour in the hunting process. And about three months the kittens who are developmentally slow catch up. These differences will appear to be genetically based because scientists have found no developmental reasons for them. Genetics effect kittens’ development in general.

A kitten’s development is dependent upon a complicated “interplay between genetics and a cat’s experiences during the first year or so of its life”.

The clear conclusion is that, according to science, cats have variable personalities for the reason stated.

P.S. Although the page is about domestic cats, it would be useful to touch upon the wild cats. My instinct tells me that the wild cats have less possibilities to develop their character and therefore I would expect less differences in character between individual wild cats. I say this because the domestic cat is essentially a wild cat living in a human world with a huge range of variables whereas the wild cat lives in a more limited world with less variables and therefore less impact upon character development. Also, the domestic cat is developing as a domestic cat i.e. evolving, whereas the wildcat has pretty much fully evolved.

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