Never Judge A Cat By Its Color
October 24, 2012

Feline Typecasting Has A Negative Impact On Adoption Rates

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Just as you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, a new study from the University of California, Berkeley says you shouldn't judge a cat by its color.

Domestic cats are often judged by their color, with media and folklore perpetuating the stereotypes. Think about feline archetypes: the snobbish, white Persian promoting Fancy Feast cat food or the spooky, bad luck feelings engendered by a black cat.

The research team wanted to investigate the link between adoption rates and cat color, so they surveyed 189 people with cats as pets. They found that orange cats were more likely to be assigned positive traits such as being friendly, while white and tortoiseshell cats were assigned more negative traits such as being aloof or intolerant.

The results of this new study were published online in the journal Anthrozoos. The study suggests that feline typecasting has a negative impact on adoption rates at animal shelters.

“To date there is little evidence that these perceived differences between differently colored cats actually exist, but there are serious repercussions for cats if people believe that some cat colors are friendlier than others,” said Mikel Delgado, a doctoral student in psychology at UC Berkeley.

“We hope that this study will be a starting point for further research in what qualities affect adoption and retention of pet cats, and whether there is a genetic or physical basis (such as coat color) for personality differences in cats,” she added.

There are an estimated 100 million domesticated felines in the United States. Of those, at least one million end up in shelters each year, abandoned because their personalities conflicted with  owner expectations. A study from UC Davis in 2002 found that one in four cats are turned in to shelters because they didn't get along with their owners or other household pets, with the most common complaint being that they are "too active." That earlier study also found that black cats have a higher rate of euthanasia, and tortoiseshell cats are considered to have too much attitude.

“Previous research supports the existence of ℠black cat syndrome,´ where black and brown cats are less likely to be adopted than cats of other colors,” Delgado said. “We were interested in whether people´s perceptions of the interaction between personality and coat color might play a part.”

Delgado and her team used Craigslist to obtain a national sample of cat owners and lovers in large metropolitan areas of the U.S. Survey participants were asked to use a scale of 1 to 7 to rate the personalities of black, white, bi-colored, tri-colored and orange cats based on a set of criteria that included their tendencies to be active, aloof, bold, calm, friendly, intolerant, shy, stubborn, tolerant and trainable.

The characteristics that were assigned by participants based on cat color indicated that consciously or unconsciously, color played a key role in their final adoption choice even though most people said personality informed their decision.

The study found that overall, orange and bi-colored cats are thought of as friendly. White, black and tri-colored cats are regarded as more antisocial. White cats were assigned the traits of being shy, lazy and calm, while tortoiseshell felines are thought of as more intolerant and, strangely, more trainable. Probably contributing to their mysterious reputation, black cats are thought of as having less extreme character traits than any other color.

Cathy Marden, cat coordinator at the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society (BEBHS), is familiar with the psychology involved in pet adoption. To combat this, staff and volunteers attempt to break down stereotypes at every opportunity and each cat's description is written on the adoption room cages to highlight their characteristics and personality traits.

“You can´t judge a cat by its color,” she said. “If someone comes in to adopt, we encourage them to spend time with all the cats, because it´s the personality of that cat — not the color — that will let you know if the animal´s the right fit for you.”

Marden said that reactions to black cats can be so strong that fewer adoptions take place when there are more than a few black cats in the adoption room. Marden has tried to fight this prejudice by blogging on the BEBHS website about the "Top 10 Reasons to Adopt a Black Cat” and about the joys of adopting a monochromatic cat.

For about 4,000 years, domesticated cats have peacefully coexisted with humans. They are believed to have descended from African wild cats. Cats have been characterized as a solitary, independent species  who are “tolerant of affection only when it suits their needs." This stereotype has been perpetuated through literature, movies and other cultural channels, the study finds.