Judging a Cat By the Color of Its Coat

April 4, 2014

By Julia Williams

You’ve probably heard these stereotypes about our feline friends: black cats are bad luck; tortoiseshell cats have a feisty attitude (“tortitude”); tuxedo cats are very loving; calico cats are always crazy; ginger cats are super friendly; while white cats are aloof or shy.

People (and even some veterinarians) pre-judge cats by the color of their coat all the time, but is there any truth to the stereotypes? Can a cat’s coat color predict behavior and personality?

Plenty of people who share their home with a tortoiseshell will tell you their cat does indeed have that aforementioned tortitude, but I have to wonder how much of that is perception rather than reality. In other words, perhaps they heard about tortitude somewhere along the way, and projected that stereotype onto their cat. If someone has a preconceived notion that all tortoiseshell cats act a certain way, they may subconsciously look for things that substantiate this. Then too, it seems to me that every housecat could be perceived as having a spunky attitude, at least some of the time. That is the nature of a cat, more or less.

“Black cat syndrome” is a somewhat different story. Shelter workers say that black cats typically have a much harder time getting adopted than their more colorful counterparts. Some believe it’s because of the “bad luck” myth and purported association with witches, while others think it has more to do with the fact that darker colored cats are harder to see and observe in the shelter cages.

I find it immensely sad that any cat might languish in an animal shelter for no other reason than that they were born with the wrong color fur. To me, that’s just wrong. It makes a lot more sense to spend some time with a cat to see firsthand what his or her personality is like before jumping to conclusions based on coat color. Every cat is an individual, and it’s their unique personality – not the color of their fur – that will let you know if the cat is the right fit for you and your family.

Sadly, a study at the University of California, Berkeley in late 2012 concluded that typecasting cats based on the color of their fur does exist. Researchers asked 189 cat owners to rate the personalities of black, white, bi-colored, tri-colored (tortie or calico) and orange cats based on certain traits including active, aloof, bold, calm, friendly, intolerant, shy, stubborn and trainable. The respondents were more likely to assign positive personality traits to orange cats and less favorable ones to white and tortoiseshell cats.

The results of this study indicate that feline stereotypes can have a negative impact on the adoption rates for some colors of cats. Although the participants said personality influenced their decision about which cat to adopt, the characteristics they ascribed to cats based on their coat color did impact their final choice of cat, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Mikel Delgado, lead author of the study, said “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.”

The dangers of typecasting a cat based on fur color are twofold. For one, it means that black cats, torties and white cats are less likely find forever homes. Secondly, it can lead to more cats being abandoned or surrendered to a shelter because the personality didn’t fit the preconceived expectation.

Noted cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy also believes that making generalizations about a cat based on the color of its coat can be harmful. “I’ve heard generalizations about every coat color … but that’s because of your personal experience with those colors,” he said. “I guess my problem is that in the long run, it does a disservice to define animals by their breed, their color, their sex, or their age.”

I have to agree. I have two black cats that I adore. They are cherished members of my family. If I had bought into the stereotype that black cats are bad luck, I would have missed out on two wonderful feline companions who both add immeasurable joy to my life. It’s their unique personalities that I love, and I couldn’t care less what color their fur is.

Top photo by Clara S.
Middle photo by Lexy5By5
Bottom photo by Julia Williams

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  1. sandy weinstein says:

    i had not heard this abt cats, however, going to dog shows recently, black dogs do not do well, and they have the same problem as cats in adoption shelters. judges are very biased against black dogs. it seems has something to do w/ how they stand out, their outline against the background. people say they dont show well against the background. even if a black dog is the best in the ring, the judge will still not pick them….

  2. I hadn’t heard about this until we were at the shelter adopting our cat. People there (not staff members) told us to stay away from the calico cats. Sad.

  3. Catzowey! Weeza supposed to be a diverse world and not doing color coding whether weeza 4 legs or 2 legs or colorful feathers. Yep Uh Huh that’s fur shure. Just love everybody puhleeze

  4. Ruby and Angel Pip says:

    We have always had black cats and adore them! Actually, I’ve heard that black cats are actually related to Siamese cats …who of course, are very popular in shelters. All so silly, but sad so many get overlooked!

  5. DMatsuura says:

    I have owned a rainbow of different colored cats in my lifetime. One thing I can say for certain – I prefer longhair over shorthaired. My current cat is a shorthaired Siamese mix and I wouldn’t trade him for the world. Diane @ CANIDAE

  6. meowmeowmans says:

    We’ve had almost every color cat there is, and we’ve loved them all. 🙂