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Feline Personalities

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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As all cat owners know, individual cats have very different personalities. This is why people who seek to clone their cats – if the technology does become feasible – are in for a disappointment if they think they'll get an exact replica.

However, there are some common themes in the way they act. For example, cats tend to be more independent than dogs; they are somewhat more cryptic; they sleep a lot; they are fixed in their habits; and they are fastidious about their hygiene.

These commonalties aside, there are many unique personality types that are the result of their genetics and personal experiences. Behaviorists, like other scientists, are never happy when presented with infinite arrays of anything, and that includes personalities. Trying to make order out of chaos is what scientists do for a living, and true to form, some have spent many long hours trying to capture the essence of feline personalities. While there is no absolute best classification of personality, there are some things that can be learned from the studies.

Of Cats and Men

There are a number of ways that human personalities can be classified: There is the gold standard California personality Index (CPI), the Myers Briggs personality profile analysis, and its abbreviated derivation, the Kiersey Temperament Sorter. Each one has a slightly different spin and assesses personality in a slightly different, more or less complicated, purpose-specific way. At the end of the day, all the various traits can be distilled down to four basic types that present in different combinations in different individuals. So it is with cats, except currently the basic subtypes of personality have so far only been distilled down into three.

Owner Assessment

In one study, owners were asked to describe their cats using terms that displayed high inter-observer reliability: terms like, active, aggressive, curious, excitable, vocal and watchful. When these terms were put into a statistical melting pot and rendered down, they were segregated into three non-correlating (i.e. completely different) categories termed alert, sociable and equable. A cat like the Rudyard Kipling's famous cat that preferred to "walk by itself" may have been described as fearful of cats and people, solitary, tense and watchful. That aspect of the cat's personality could be assessed under the single heading of sociability, or rather, lack thereof.

Condensed Groupings of Personality Type

1. Alert: The assessment of the quality known as "alert" is based upon the cat being active and curious. Low or high levels of alertness and curiosity are embraced by this score.

2. Sociable: Describes the range of temperamental characteristics that hinge on the ability of the cat to get along with other cats or people. At one end of this scale are anti-social, loner cats. At the opposite end of the scale are gregarious cats that tolerate well or even seemingly enjoy the company of all comers.

3. Equable: This term describes evenness of mood. At one extreme, the term embraces long-suffering cats that weather the worst psychological insults stoically. At the other end it describes those cats that fly off the handle for the slightest reason or sometimes, from our point of view, for no reason at all.

Interpretation of Grouped Assessments

As is the case with human personality assessment terms, the qualities divined are found in different combinations in any one individual. A cat that rates favorably in all three areas is thus active and curious, calm, even-mooded cat – your typical well-adjusted Maine coon. On the other hand, an introverted loner cat that hates other cats and most people and flies into an egregious rage whenever things don't go his way, or his solitude is disturbed, is one that is extremely difficult to live with and to treat.

It would be boring if all cats were even-mooded, affection-seeking sycophants. On the other hand, they would not make good pets if they were all impatient and bad-tempered. Fortunately, either extreme is quite uncommon and in real life the vast majority turn out to be blends and swirls of the basic three personality types, each presenting at a different levels of expression.

For example, you can find the inquisitive, friendly cat that happens to be a bit skittish; or the highly inquisitive, owner-loving eccentric that hates all other cats but tolerates strangers well. And then there's the even-tempered, long-suffering recluse that prefers to be alone but will accept just about anything that's thrust on him. The list of individual personalities is infinite, thank goodness; making cats as interesting as the reputation that precedes them.

There are some ways that you can tilt the balance of the type of cat you are going to get. One way is by selecting a certain breed. It is well known, for example, the Abyssinian's tend to be more active and emotional while Persians are more often quiet stoics. If you close your eyes at a cat show, you can hear where the "Abys" are by the commotion they are making, and you can tell by the acoustic void where the Persians are located.

Another way you can stack the deck for or against you is by careful inspection of a cat's background. Cats that have been raised without the company of people for the first seven weeks of their lives are never good with people, having missed the sensitive period for socialization to humans. The corollary applies to orphan cats raised without exposure to other cats; they will probably never be comfortable around their own kind. Cats' personalities are a product of their genetics (probably around 50 percent contribution) and their experience. Unless they are identical twins, no two cats have identical genes and even twins will not have identical experience. This makes them, like all of us, truly unique and irreplaceable.

If you look for a cat that matches one you have loved, don't expect him or her to be an exact replacement. You may find a cat with a similar personality because you help shape your cat's reaction to the world around it, but there will never be an exact replacement, just like there'll never be another you.

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