The Feline Personality

Cats' Habits, Personality Traits, and Behavioral Patterns

Photo of Alpha Cat Jaspurr
Alpha Cat Jaspurr Surveying His Domain. photo © 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:

Our latest adoptees, Sage and Gaither, came from the same rescue group, but lived with different fosters.

They were just kittens when we adopted them (Sage five months, and Gaither four), but they look and act like brothers, and we refer to them as brothers. They were loved as fosters, and even more loved in our home, and they adapted readily.

  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."
  1. 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.
  2. 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 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.
    • 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 cool fresh 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 sextet right now would be a huge mistake. We were pushing it when we adopted Sage and Gaither in October, 2014, and though our home life has vastly improved as a result, there simply isn't "more room at the inn."  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 worst-case scenario, the sick one dies, many cats will mourn the loss. I found this to be the case with Shannon's death, Bubba's passing, and again with my husband's death in May of 2008.

  1. 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:
  2. 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 going back several generations will be part of the purchase price. 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 first 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 older brothers would maliciously fling one kitten at another. I suspect Joey was a victim of the latter.

    Billy was born in a foster home, the only boy in a litter of five. The foster was a kind, caring 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 our street, 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." 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."

    Hierarchy 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 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 training technique here (one privilege 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 have eaten."

    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, although Gaither and Sage, adopted in 2013, are up and coming contenders. 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.