What a dog or cat looks like is not really going to tell you what they act like

It doesn’t matter whether we are discussing cats or dogs. What they look like does not tell you a lot about how they going to behave. And the way they look is dependent on their breed when it comes to dogs and cats although there are far fewer purebred cats than there are purebred dogs as a percentage of overall numbers. How they are going to behave is based mainly on their wild ancestor’s character and individual personality.

Appearance is all

This article really is about dog and cat breeds and whether we can truly trust the behavioural characteristics as described by cat and dog breeders when they promote the breed. Although they tend to describe character in the vaguest of terms. There are basically three processes that dog and cat breeders are involved in: (1) creating an animal of a certain appearance as per the breed standard (2) creating a dog or cat of a certain character and (3) hopefully creating a healthy animal.

Picture of the perfect Ragdoll cat

Picture of the perfect Ragdoll cat. Photo: Pinterest via Reddit. The photo is signed ‘SpyZoo’. This has been removed to improve the shape of the photo. The Ragdoll is still a feline and a top predator in character. Their personality is stereotyped.

Item one is the primary objective and the last point is down the list. And in between there is character which, if we are honest, is overstated by the cat and dog breeders and the administrators of the dog and cat associations. I’ve always said this. The problem is that people who want to adopt a cat or dog make their choice based upon appearance first and character a distant second. The health of the breed is well down the list and is often not on purchasers’ radar.

So, the focus is on appearance and the breeders know this and it is why selective breeding has not really developed dogs or cats with a character which is closely linked to their breed. And this has been confirmed in a study about dogs.

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For example, people think that the golden retriever has a reputation for being friendly and biddable. But in this study only 35% of respondents agreed. And the border collie is thought of as clever and also biddable but many owners of this breed of dog said that they did not obey instructions. And the idea that big dogs are gentle giants is unsupported by evidence. As for cats, the Ragdoll is meant to be super-placid but you’ll find some aggressive Ragdolls ?. Although, unusually, breeders have focused on character for the Ragdoll.

These are character stereotypes which are attached to the dog and cat breeds which are of limited value. The breed is a surprisingly poor predictor of character. This is because there are many other factors which dictate character including life experience and each individual animal whether they be cat or dog is going to be different and have their own personal characteristics.

The Kennel Club said: “Behavioural traits are determined by a larger number of genes than physical characteristics, meaning a level of variation should be expected. This is why it is so important to see a puppy’s parents”. The same applies to seeing the parents of kittens that a person is thinking about adopting. The statement is supported by cat cloning resulting in clones look the same but have different personalities.

Breed and personality not closely connected – 9% influence

The researchers sent out questionnaires to the owners of about 18,500 dogs on different aspects of their pets’ characters. More than 2,000 of the dogs had their DNA sequenced. The conclusion is that breed and personality are not as closely connected as people believe. Marjie Alonso, a co-author of the research, said: “What a dog looks like is not really going to tell you what the dog acts like.”

They did find some general patterns such as:

  • Individual labrador retrievers or Siberian huskies are more likely to score high in friendliness with a human stranger;
  • Individual German shepherds, chihuahuas and dachshunds are less likely to be friendly towards strangers;
  • Individual basset hounds scored well for independence and;
  • Border collies, vizslas and Belgian malinois are more likely on average to be responsive to human commands.

Scientifically speak, the study found that the breed only accounted for about 9% of the variation in behaviour between individual dogs. I take this to mean that in terms of the breed of the dog dictating the character of an individual dog, it only has a 9% influence.

My conclusion and comment on the research which is reported in The Times newspaper of April 29, 2022, is that if we are to assess the character of a dog or cat we do so on an individual dog or cat basis although there may be some general trend as mentioned on character.

I think that it is fair to say that if you take both purebred and random bred cats and dogs you will find that they are 90% the same in terms of character and the remaining 10% representing variation in character on an individual-by-individual basis combined with general trends in cat breeds. In other words, for example, the Siamese is going to be more vocal than the quieter British shorthair but between these two breeds the character is the same because they’re both domestic cats and the differences between breeds are going to be fairly incidental.

Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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