Cats have 7 distinct personality and behavioral traits, researchers find

HELSINKI, Finland — Cats often get accused of being much less personable than dogs. While they tend to be much more independent than their canine counterparts, a new study finds there’s much more to a cat’s personality than meets the eye. A team from the University of Helsinki say they’ve identified seven distinct personality and behavioral traits which cats display regularly.

The study also finds that cat owners should expect those personalities to differ depending on the breed they bring into their homes. Using a comprehensive questionnaire of cat owners, researchers examined the behavior of over 4,300 cats across 26 different breeds. The team notes that felines are the most common household pets, but knowledge about their behavior is still lacking in comparison to pups.

“Compared to dogs, less is known about the behavior and personality of cats, and there is demand for identifying related problems and risk factors. We need more understanding and tools to weed out problematic behavior and improve cat welfare. The most common behavioral challenges associated with cats relate to aggression and inappropriate elimination,” says doctoral researcher Salla Mikkola in a university release.

What’s on a cat’s mind?

Professor Hannes Lohi’s team examined cat personality and behavior through a collection of 138 questions to their owners. From those answers, study authors spotted seven specific states that felines display:

  • Activity/playfulness
  • Fearfulness
  • Aggression towards humans
  • Sociability towards humans
  • Sociability towards cats
  • Litterbox issues (relieving themselves in inappropriate places or displaying poor litterbox cleanliness)
  • Excessive grooming

“While the number of traits identified in prior research varies, activity/playfulness, fearfulness and aggression are the ones from among the traits identified in our study which occur the most often in prior studies. Litterbox issues and excessive grooming are not personality traits as such, but they can indicate something about the cat’s sensitivity to stress,” Mikkola adds.

Not all cats are alike

Along with finding out the different personalities our furry friends display, the team notes some breeds tend to show more of one specific quality than others. It turns out that phrases like “scaredy cats” and “frisky felines” are more than just a saying.

“The most fearful breed was the Russian Blue, while the Abyssinian was the least fearful. The Bengal was the most active breed, while the Persian and Exotic were the most passive. The breeds exhibiting the most excessive grooming were the Siamese and Balinese, while the Turkish Van breed scored considerably higher in aggression towards humans and lower in sociability towards cats. We had already observed the same phenomenon in a prior study,” says Professor Lohi.

“We wanted to obtain a rough idea of whether there are differences in personality traits between breeds. In further studies, we will utilize more complex models to examine factors that affect traits and problematic behavior. In these models, we will take into consideration, in addition to its breed, the cat’s age, gender, health and a wide range of environmental factors,” Mikkola continues.

You can’t put a cat in a lab

If you think cats can be difficult to get along with in their own homes, scientists say don’t even think about trying this study in a lab. The Finnish team opted to survey owners at home, noting that cats don’t necessarily behave like themselves when you take them out of their comfortable environments.

“Internationally speaking, our study is the most extensive and significant survey so far, and it provides excellent opportunities for further research. The reliability of prior feline behavioral questionnaires has not been measured in such a versatile manner, nor are they as comprehensive as this one. Establishing reliability is key to making further analyses worthwhile and enabling the reliable identification of various risk factors,” says Lohi.

Researchers are hoping their findings will help animal scientists identify genetic, environmental, and personality factors which could affect feline behavior.

The findings appear in the journal Animals.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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