Caturday felid: A bad week for kittehs—Berkeley study shows fur-color discrimination, and TSA screws up again, losing tabby

October 27, 2012 • 3:29 am

I guess this isn’t surprising given that humans judge each other by skin color, but a new study at the University of California at Berkeley shows that people judge cats by their fur color (see reference below). The University’s blurb:

To establish a link between how cat color influences adoption rates, Delgado and her co-authors used Craigslist to recruit a national sample of cat owners and cat lovers in large U.S. metropolitan areas. Participants were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 7, the personalities of black, white, bi-colored, tri-colored (tortoiseshell or calico) and orange cats based on their tendencies to be active, aloof, bold, calm, friendly, intolerant, shy, stubborn, tolerant and trainable.

While most people surveyed said personality informs their decision about which cat to adopt, the characteristics they ascribed to cats based on their coat color indicated that color consciously or unconsciously played a key role in their final choice of which kitty to take home.

Overall, orange cats and bi-colored cats were characterized as friendly, while black cats, white cats and tri-colored cats were regarded as more antisocial. White cats were considered to be more shy, lazy and calm, while tortoiseshell cats were more likely to be depicted as both more intolerant and more trainable. Black cats were typified as having less extreme character traits, which might contribute to their mysterious reputation.

What about tabbies? I haven’t yet read the piece but I’m sure Baihu wants to know.

. . . 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, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in psychology at UC Berkeley.

I’m sure you can guess at least one of the repercussions:

At the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society (BEBHS), cat coordinator Cathy Marden is all too familiar with the psychology involved in pet adoptions. Staff members and volunteers there try to break down stereotypes at every opportunity, she said, and descriptions of each cat written on the adoption rooms cages highlight the individual’s characteristics.

While black cats are seen as mysterious, they’re also seen as bad luck, which is not a personality characteristic but undoubtedly plays a role in the following:

. . . reactions to black cats can be so strong, she said, that few adoptions take place at the shelter when there are more than a few black cats in the adoption room. “It’s a huge bummer,” said Marden, who has blogged on the BEBHS website about the “Top 10 Reasons to Adopt a Black Cat” and about the joys of adopting a monochromatic cat.

I had a black cat, Pangur, for 18 years, and he was a gentle and loving beast. I’m sure reader Linda Grilli, who has four goat-milk-swilling black cats, would vouch for them, too.


In the meantime, continuing the annals of TSA (Transportation Security Administration) incompetence and malpractice, they’ve lost a cat. According to the New York Times:

Iris Yu left a lot behind when she left Queens to care for her ailing father in Taiwan 10 months ago. But she was finally set to reunite with her cat, Xiaohwa, courtesy of a friend who was leaving for Taiwan last Thursday and agreed to take the cat to her.

When a Transportation Security Administration officer at Kennedy International Airport inspected Xiaohwa’s crate just before departure, though, the cat darted and disappeared into the bowels of Terminal 4.

Just like that, Xiaohwa, a 4-year-old tabby and mother to several litters of kittens (though none recently), became the latest in the growing roster of pets to go missing in an airport, leaving Ms. Yu and her boyfriend, Jerry Cheung, distraught.

Mr. Cheung, 36, of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, said on Tuesday that he was afraid that Xiaohwa could not survive long without care because she has the feline version of H.I.V. He said he did not think the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport, was doing enough to find her.

This is the missing moggie:

Photo Courtesy of Iris Yu: Xiaohwa, who was heading for Taiwan, bolted from her travel carrier at Kennedy International Airport last week and has been on the loose since.

This is not the first time that the TSA has lost a cat, and, according to the Times piece, they’ve lost a whippet, too.

Better to be groped than lost.

h/t: Diane, Dom


Delgado, M. M., J. D. Munera, and G. M. Reevy. 2012. Human perceptions of coat color as an indicator of domestic cat personality. Anthrozoos 25:427-440.

42 thoughts on “Caturday felid: A bad week for kittehs—Berkeley study shows fur-color discrimination, and TSA screws up again, losing tabby

  1. I will absolutely vouch for black-cat winning personalities.

    Barney, Bailey, Ebony and Bibiana are all friendly and cuddly and playful.

    And before them, there was VW. He got away, as a kitten, from someone at the flea market, and could not be located. He’d gone under our VW van (hence his name), and he rode 26 miles home, with a stop at the grocery store, clinging to the transmission housing. He lived to be fifteen, and even though he’s been gone for several years, I still miss him.

    The crabbiest cat I ever had was gray and white, Gracie. She was once perfectly described by a good friend of mine as “having no sense of humor”. But even she, at times, was playful and loving. L

    1. Totally agree.
      A few years back I had a black cat that I rescued from a drain.
      Within a few months he was the most sweet and loving little thing.
      He would jump on my lap and look at me with the most adoring expression.
      Alas, one morning I found him deceased but no idea why.
      I still think of him 8 years on.
      I now have a tortie that also very sweet and a Siamese that can be quite aloof.

  2. Did the study consider possible confounding factors like breed and sex that might have biased coat colour distributions and affect perception? Around me, for example, all the white cats I see are very fluffy and look quite “precious”, whereas the black ones are almost always sleek and slinky with very short hair. Neutered males are also generally more chunky and cuddly than females and there are definitely sex-linked coat colour traits.

    (I also have a lovely female black cat, BTW. And a male tabby with a very different but equally lovely personality.)

    1. Wish they had also looked into longhair v shorthair or Persian v Angora, etc., but I’m sure their resources were limited.

  3. “Silly humans.” I used to think Siamese were difficult until I realized this was a bias based on my childhood neighbour “Sasha” who actually became lovely and mellow in her old age.

    1. Trust me, Siamese ARE trouble. Both I and my wife (a real cat enthusiast) have known quite a few people with Siamese (including breeders). Generally trouble.

      1. What can I say? We’ve had four Siamese (simultaneously for about a year) and while one of them, Lieutenant Kizhe, could get temperamental about being handled if he didn’t want it (giving him pills was a nightmare), all of them were affectionate. Even Kizhe was a lap cat.

        My favorite cat of all we’ve had was Mozart (Siamese), whose devotion to me was rivalled only by that of his son Beethoven. When I would kick back to watch TV, they would both jump in my lap and engage in a shoving match to as to which one would get the highest position on my chest. It would only end when I grabbed both of them by their scruffs and planted them firmly in my lap, one along each leg.

        Mozart died seven years ago, and I think he’s the only cat I ever cried over, and I still miss him. Russell — a white moggie from the Humane Society — is now my devoted lap cat who greets me affectionately when I come home each day. But it’s not the same.

  4. It never occurred to me that personality traits might correlate with coat color, and those descriptions have absolutely no resonance with me at all.

    Some friends have a shorthaired black cat who’s a really sweet guy. The only other black cat I know right now is a longhaired feral in the neighborhood who won’t let me get within 30 feet.

    Every cat I’ve known has had a distinct personality, but never anything it had ever occurred to me to ascribe in whole or in part to coat color.


    1. It’s certainly occurred to breeders of both cats and dogs that different breeds can have different personalities, and that specific personality traits might be something you’d want to select for. Indeed, breed descriptions (such as those found here) routinely include remarks about personality and temperament.

      So to the extent that coat color correlates with breed, it should also correlate with personality (assuming the perceived differences between breeds aren’t imaginary).

      Admittedly the picture gets more complicated for mongrel and mixed-breed animals. But it’s still not inconceivable that there could be some genetic linkage between coat color and behavior as a result of millennia of selective breeding.

      1. That there’s a genetic component to behavior is very well established, particularly by the recent work with Russian foxes.

        But coat color and pattern expression? That’s far more nebulous. Remember the cloned cats who had dramatically different coats from the DNA donor?

        I would suspect that, yes, there are behavioral tendencies associated with breeds, and those tendencies, by being associate with the breed, are also associated with the coat color that’s also associated with the breed.

        But in the case of the generic mongrel cat, it’s pretty clear that the various coat patterns are rather random and don’t appear to be associated in any significant way with personality traits.

        Even across breeds, though, personality seems to have much more to do with upbringing and how others interact with the animal. Put even the most notorious of dog breeds in a healthy, loving home and it’ll be a dear and friendly sweetheart; cruelly train even a Golden Retriever to be an attack dog and it’ll be a vicious menace.


  5. I have seven cats: two bicolor (black/white, and tabby brown/white), one grey, one calico, and three black. They all have their distinct personalities, but I never once thought it had much (if anything) to do with their coloration.

    And as far as black cats being unlucky, well, my three little Basement Cats are pretty damned lucky. They were abandoned on a scorching hot day, and would’ve died of exposure had my mom’s corgi not found them (so I suppose dogs are good for something). I took them in and spoil them rotten. So see? Black cats are lucky. 😉 (Yes, I do know that’s not what is meant by black cats being unlucky.)

      1. They have. Two of the three are real cuddle-bugs, so I *finally* have some lap-cats. The other five are affectionate, but not in a “let me sit on your lap and purr” kind of way.

        1. I must be very lucky then as I have two out of two lap cats.
          The tortie loves to lie along my chest with her head under my chin.
          Her whiskers are very tickly and it makes reading in bed quite difficult.

  6. The only coat pattern I would associate with personality is Siamese, who have a reputation for being affectionate and devoted. FWIW, the stereotype is born out by comparing the four Siamese with the seven other cats we have had over the last 35 years. But of course, a breed represents a genetic sequestration of more than just coat pattern; there isn’t likely anything about “colour point” per se that associates with temperament.

    1. From working at an animal hospital, I can tell you that Siamese also have a reputation for being dangerous and unpredictible.

    2. Please shed some light on this impression of mine. From what I hear from neighbours with (neutered) Siamese cats, they like marking their territory by urinating in different part of the house. I’ve had many types of non-Siamese cats, and the only one that ever urinated outside the litter box was in his old age and having kidney problems.

      Over the years, our cats have all been adopted from shelters, and our current black cat is the perfect cat. She’s one lucky cat because we almost didn’t adopt her. Our first selection was a gorgeous white Persian (a shelter worker/friend had alerted us that there was a beautiful Persian there, ready to be snapped up any second). We ended up getting him and a black and white kitten sharing a cage with a little black kitten who purred a lot. Well, all hell broke loose at home, and the Persian (more well-behaved at the shelter) started to attack the B&W kitten and also defecated where it shouldn’t. And there was white fur clinging to everything in the house. So we had to return him to the shelter. In his stead, we adopted the little black kitten. As it turned out, she’s been the perfect cat and she and her “sister” have been with us for 15 years. This is the second black cat I’ve had that’s been the perfect cat.

      1. Hadn’t heard the marking thing about Siamese, and we never had a particular problem as long as the litter box was kept reasonably clean. But I had heard about the problem suwise3 mentions (our theory is that if they get a lot of attention from their people, they are happy and well-behaved, but if neglected or in an unfamiliar situation they stress out and get nasty).

  7. You might as well say humans have a correlation between hair/skin color and their personality. And we know where that leads.

    Every cat I’ve known is distinctive, and there is no relationship between color/pattern and personality that I’ve noticed. Admittedly, my sample size is small.

  8. I agree with Ben. I’ve never considered a correlation between appearance and personality, and simply had a preference for certain colours/types (I prefer short-haired white, black, and tuxedo cats). The nicest cat I’ve owned was white, and the most laid back was tuxedo. A ‘talkative’ cat is usually a good pet.

    1. I suspect that there is a correlation between appearance and perceived personality, although I would be really surprised if it did come down to something as superficial as coat colour. That’s why I wondered if size/build/head shape/fluffiness etc. might be correlated somehow and people are making (still false) judgements on those things. Humans love to anthropomorphise animals, especially pets, and I could easily imagine a certain breed looking more moody (or friendly) than another.

      It would also be interesting to know how much experience of cats the test subjects had. I certainly did not realise how distinct their personalities were until I owned a couple.

    2. A ‘talkative’ cat is usually a good pet.

      I’ve never noticed that.

      One of my best cats was a 3 year old feral black cat that adopted me.

      He was mute. He had a voice but had never learned to say meow and never did.

      But he was a clown, always underfoot, always doing something funny, always following me around.

      He liked to cadge food. He would find me in the kitchen and would just sort of slouch in and hang around and act charming until he got a treat.

  9. I’ll hold out hope for the lost cat. There are plenty of dangers in an airport, but the fear that she might die from FIV is overstated. From everything I have read the mortality rate for kittens is very high, but that FIV positive adult cats are little affected. In fact I had a cat with FIV who lived to be 19 and did not die from anything related to his FIV.

  10. I had a black cat named Ebert. When he died six years ago, I got drunk and stayed that way for two days. Even thinking his name brings tears to my eyes. He was fat and loving with shiny soft fur, and he purred me to sleep for 17 years.

      1. Thanks.

        I have a rescue cat now whose purr is like a chain saw. To start him up, all you have to do is look at him. Isn’t that amazing?

    1. I wonder that is? With black cats, a lot of it comes down to ignorance and superstition (they bring bad luck, they’re of the devil). I’m not aware of such a superstition with dogs. Could it be because people associate black with certain “dangerous” breeds?

      1. The superstition thing is odd. (As with most superstition, I guess.) Over here in the UK (and Ireland too), black cats are supposed to be good luck. (Japan too, I think.) Most of the rest of Europe it’s bad luck and in Germany it depends which way the cat’s going (and/or which way you’re going, presumably).

        The biggest problem with black cats, in my experience, is that they are really hard to take good photos of!

        1. The biggest problem with black cats, in my experience, is that they are really hard to take good photos of!

          Not if you have (and know how to use) a gray card or ambient light meter!


          1. That’s true. The ones taken with the SLR are normally quite good. It’s the spontaneous iPhone pictures that suffer! (Our tabby, on the other hand, can look good in a photo with the most rubbish camera.)

  11. Many years ago I had a black persian male whose name was Black Cherry, although his call name was Cricket, so named because he was very small at birth and looked like a cricket. He was a monorchid (having only one descended testicle) but was used unsuccessfully for breeding for the first 4 years of his life, kept in the breeder’s basement in a 2′ x 4′ cage. When I first met him, I told the breeder that if she ever decided to sell him, I would buy him, which is what I did when he was 4 years old.

    I had the boy neutered, and I showed him in the cat fancy, where, unlike the dog fancy, altered animals can be shown in their own class. He loved shows, he loved people, and was an extremely affectionate cat, a real head butter. And he was very proud of himself. I recall in one show at the Copely Plaza in Boston the judge waved a peacock feather at him; his response was to look disdainfully at the judge, then trot over to a jar full of feathers on the judging table and play with those.

    In 1978 he was Cats Magazine’s Best Altered Cat. He died at the age of 12 of a stroke. I still miss him years later. He was truly magnificent, not only in appearance, but also in personality.

  12. I have two cats – one is a neutered male all in black and he is the biggest sweety you would ever meet, though he is is a bit shy. His littermate sister is a tabby and she is a bit of a diva and always has plenty to say/complain about. She is also pretty clever and will shake hands on command.

    I got these two when we were living in the USA and brought them to Australia when we moved here last year. On the way we had to take them from Memphis to L.A. as “carry on”. We got the the TSA security screen and they asked us to take the cats out in the middle of the airport and carry them though the metal detector while their carry cage went through the xray (twice). Fortuately the cats were so terrified and we were the only familiar things arround, so they just hid their heads in the crook of our arms and didn’t want to go anywhere – except back in the carry cage (interesting since it was so hard to get them in there in the first place). It is easy to see how this could have gone terribly wrong – TSA really has to come up with a better system for animal transport.

    1. Oh and there was a TSA agent there who announced that she was SCARED of black cats. Weird – I guess some people are still superstitious about black cats.

      The only time it is bad luck when a black cat crosses you path, is when it’s dark and he tries to race you down the stairs and cuts you off halfway down!

  13. My chum Ruth said the lady she got her two – mostly black – kitts from, almost kissed her as she was so pleased to find them homes, with black cats less prefered.

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