Genetic Influences on Cat Behavior Traits

Have you ever wondered why some cats are so friendly while others seem to be poster-cats for that aloof, untouchable attitude cats are famous for?  Not much research has been done into cat personalities, but one important study looked at the effects of paternity and early handling.

Almost 20 years ago Dr. Dennis Turner, a behaviorist in Switzerland, found a paternal effect on cats’ friendliness to people.  Friendly fathers tended to produce friendly kittens.  Because the sires in Turner’s study never saw their kittens, he concluded this had to be a genetic effect rather than how the males behaved with the kittens.

In most cases, we don’t know how genes operate to influence behavior.  Behaviors themselves are not inherited.  Cats and other animals don’t have a gene for friendliness or other complex behaviors.  Many genetic effects are indirect, which turned out to be the with “friendly” cats.

A later study by Dr. Sandra McCune looked into how both paternity and early handling between 5 to 12 weeks of age affected “friendliness”.

Interestingly, whether or not the kittens were handled did not influence their likelihood to approach a novel, inanimate object.  But kittens from the friendlier fathers approached novel objects more quickly than those from unfriendly fathers. 

This led the researchers to revise their original findings, and conclude that the trait paternity was influencing was not “friendliness” but what they labeled “boldness”.  Paternity actually influenced the kittens’ response to things they hadn’t seen before, whether these were people or objects. 

The effects of early handling were specific to the kittens’ behavior toward people, and seemed to add to the “boldness” effect.  Handled kittens from friendly fathers approached people the quickest, and unhandled kittens from unfriendly fathers were the most standoffish.    Unhandled kittens from friendly fathers and handled kittens from unfriendly fathers were intermediate in their behavior toward people. 

This is a good example of how behaviors are readily influenced by both genetic and environmental factors.  We still have people ask us, what behaviors, or portions of behavior are “inherited” and which are “learned”.  This is a meaningless question.  An individual’s genetic makeup may help to set limits on behavior, as it seems to with cat friendly behaviors.  Early handling produced different results, depending on the kittens’ genetic makeup.  Kittens from unfriendly fathers never approached people as readily as those from friendly fathers, even though they had the same kind of handling.

The factors that influence behaviors are numerous and they often interact with each other in complex ways.  It is misleading to try to partition behavior into “inherited” and “learned” components.  To learn more about all aspects of cat behavior from a scientific point of view, we suggest The Domestic Cat: the biology of its behaviour” edited by Drs. Turner and Bateson.  Not an easy read, but a very educational one. 

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