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The Feline Personality

Cats' Habits, Personality Traits, and Behavioral Patterns

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Photo of Alpha Cat Jaspurr

Alpha Cat Jaspurr

Photo Credit: © Franny Syufy

Disclaimer:I am neither a human nor animal psychologist, and the following information is derived only from extensive research, coupled with the observation of my own cats over several decades, supplemented with stories my readers have told about their own cats over the years. Therefore, please take the following with a grain of the proverbial salt, as these are only my theories.

Cats' Personalities Derive from Four Sources:

  1. Genetics
    It is only possible to fully know the genetics of pure-bred cats. Various cat breeds have been around long enough that their distinguishing characteristics such as body type and personalities are fairly consistent. Since cat breeders have made efforts to breed to type, colors within the breeds have also been consistent, according to breed standards. It is an interesting aside that colors in cats sometimes carry personality traits too. All in all, personalities within a given breed remain fairly consistent, other factors aside. As an example, the Cat Fanciers Association Persian Cat Profile describes its personality as "sweet", "gentle," and needing "an atmosphere of security and serenity," "but with love and reassurance, can easily adapt to the most boisterous of households."
  2. Environment
    Since the vast majority of pet cats are of the domestic or mixed breed variety, environment is the single most important factor behind their personalities.

    Factors in the Environments of Homes With Cats

    The single most important environmental factor for cats in their home is "What is the overall mood of the home?" A home where the human family members' interaction is normally on an even keel, whether it be quiet and harmonious or noisy and happily active, is the most desirable atmosphere for cats. One of the things cats hate the most is change of any kind, and that includes changes in the attitudes from day to day. If the humans are happy and active one minute, moody and distant the next, and perhaps arguing loudly the next, the cats will reflect these changes according to their own personalities. A shy, withdrawn cat may hide under the bed for days. A normally active, gregarious cat may suddenly turn on his favorite feline housemate - sort of a variation on the redirected aggression syndrome.

    Conversely, if the human family members are for the most part on an even keel, although it is not an automatic guarantee of peace within the cat population, the cats will feel free to interact according to their own temperaments.

    Other environmental factors which affect cats:
    • Strangers Coming and Going
      As an example, during the time my previous home was on the real estate market, we first had tradesmen coming in and out, and the entire house was disrupted with hammering, doors slamming and people shouting across rooms. It was an extremely traumatic time for all of us. My only alternative was to keep the cats confined to my master bedroom, with a litter box, food, and water, and to give them extra attention and quiet time in the evenings. However, the tradesmen were soon replaced by real estate agents on tour, coming in with potential buyers, and the inevitable open houses.
    • A New Cat in the Household
      Bringing a new cat or kitten into the home is a decision that must be made with care. I am almost positive that to add another cat to my quartet right now would be a huge mistake. We simply don't have the room, and my three boys have just recently started to accept Jenny after all the changes we've had in the past few years. In a stable home with just one or two cats, even a foster cat might work out well. As with cats' health, the number one rule is to "Know Your Cat," and how he or she will react to a new, even if just temporary, family member.
    • Does the Home Suit Cats' Needs?
      Cats are fastidious creatures and don't tolerate dirty litter boxes or spoiled food. Untidyness is one thing, but a dirty, stinky house is entirely another. In that kind of atmosphere, most cats would become withdrawn, depressed, and likely physically sick. On the other hand, a clean home (not necessarily tidy), with nutritious food, cool, clear water, plenty of toys and scratching posts, lays the foundation for happy cats, all other things being equal.
    • Illness in the Home
      Whether it's a sick human member, or a sick cat, it is a change for all the cats. A sick cat may become depressed, as our Joey did when he was first diagnosed as hyperthyroid.

      Some cats may deal better than others, and it's almost impossible to predict until you have experienced it. If in the worse case scenario, the sick one dies, many cats will mourn the loss. I found this to be the case with Shannon's, Bubba's, and again with my husband's death.

  3. History
    A cat's history plays a large role in his or her personality, as well as behavior. With most purebred cats obtained from a cattery, a complete pedigree will be part of the purchase, going back several generations. However, history is not just a pedigree. Certainly, a purebred cat purchased from a backyard breeder (kitten mill) will have a much different personality than a cat raised "underfoot" in a reputable breeder's home.

    However, with domestic cats, many of whom may have been found on the street, or adopted from animal shelters, often very little is known or revealed, of the cat's history. A cat may have been in an abusive situation. He may have been loved by someone in his previous family, but someone else decided to get a dog, and the cat had to go. Or the previous owners may have been evicted from their rentals, or foreclosed by the lender. In the latter cases, it is not unusual for them simply to leave the cat behind, or drop him off at the shelter.

    I was fortunate in that I knew most of their history when I adopted my four cats. Unfortunately, none of them came from ideal circumstances, and their personalities reflect that history. Jaspurr and Joey came from an irresponsible home where the woman of the house refused to spay/neuter her cats. My kits' mother was seven or eight years old when they were born. Small children in the house abused the kittens. A little girl carried a kitten around swinging him by his neck, while her brothers would throw one kitten at another.

    Billy was born in a foster home, the only boy in a litter of five. The fosterer was a kind man, but he had a number of other cats to care for, and Billy was an underweight, sick baby when we adopted him.

    Jennifur was a fugitive from another kind of an abusive home. She came from a home in our neighborhood with at least 20 cats on their driveway, day and night, summer and winter. They were apparently never allowed inside, and we saw one or two of their bodies as we drove up the street to our house, hit by cars. Jenny had chutzpah though, and came down to our end of the street looking for someone to love her. We did, and we still do, and Jenny still has chutzpah, although now we call it "tortitude."

  4. A Combination of the Above
    Any combination of the above factors will have an effect on the various personality traits of the cats within a given home. Example: A cat who was abused in a previous home will likely require special nurturing, but may eventually become a well-rounded cat with a sweet, loving personality. However, if he is "dumped" into a disorganized, dysfunctional atmosphere, or a home with numerous stress factors, he may always be a "fraidy cat."

Hierachy Among Cats

Most multi-cat households have a "pecking order," which may change from time-to-time, and even day by day.

The Alpha Cat

My big red cat, Jaspurr, is the sweetest, most loveable cat in the world - when he chooses to be. The other two boys acknowledge him as the Alpha, however he has issues with Jennifur, who is a calico cat, which carries with it the personality trait we call "tortitude." Jaspurr apparently regards Jenny's tortitude as a threat to his dominance, and for a couple of years they have had regular encounters. Jaspurr puffs himself up, runs up to Jenny, then stops just short of attacking her, but stares at her threateningly. Jenny retaliates by hissing and swatting, which often provokes Jaspurr into an out-and-out attack.

Pamela of Way of Cats blog writes a somewhat tongue-in-cheek description of a typical alpha cat, "Alpha cats are the mad scientists of the cat world. They want to manipulate their environment to suit them. Their lack of thumbs is the only factor keeping them from World Domination. That, and those naps." There is truth in this assertion, though.

Alpha cats also try to exert their dominance over their humans, a tricky situation. While we do not want to be bullies, neither can we allow a cat to bully us. Removal of privileges is a good traning technique here (one privilige being our company.) It teaches the cats "cause and effect," e.g., "You bite me when I'm petting you, and you get no more pets today," or, "You try to hog up the food dish; you get locked up until the other cats can eat."

The Beta Cat

Usually second in line to the Alpha Cat is the Beta Cat, although this doesn't necessarily mean the Beta cat aspires to be Alpha. According to this website, "When the alpha cat is out of the room, the beta cats may tussle among themselves for a secondary kind of dominance. Beta cats will also tussle with the alpha cat, but it's usually pretty clear who's the big boss, even if she or he has to knock around the contenders every now and again." In my home, Joey and Jenny are the ones who tussle for secondary dominance. Little Billy is the scapegoat for all of them, although now and then, he muscles up to Jaspurr with a swat, just for the heck of it.

Can We Ever Figure Them Out?

Our cats are often enigmas, displaying first one personality trait, then another. With humans, we might call this sort of behavioral trait "moodiness." Over the many years I've enjoyed and observed cats, there are only three things about them that I can say for certain:

  1. We will never understand them fully.
  2. They are a rare source of unconditional love, something we all crave.
  3. Our lives would be empty and boring without them.
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