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See, I Told You So: Cat Color Does Not Influence Personality

A new University of California study shows that human perception, not color, is the problem.

JaneA Kelley  |  Jan 11th 2017


Humans have an unfortunately long history of judging people and animals by their color. We’ve hopefully begun to (re)learn that this practice is still harming people. But have you considered that color prejudice is also harming cats?

Just look at that antisocial black cat, snuggled next to my leg!

Just look at that antisocial black cat, snuggled next to my leg!

We’ve heard it before: the intolerant calico with “tortitude,” the spooky “evil” black cat, the aloof and snobbish white cat, the super-friendly and laid-back orange kitty.

Well, it turns out that the cat color isn’t the problem. The problem, according to a new study from the University of California at Berkeley, is with us and our perceptions — something I’ve been saying for years, mind you.

Study lead author Mikel Delgado, a doctoral student in psychology at UC Berkeley, 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.”

A tortoiseshell cat in a person's lap.

Just look at that tortitude! You can see it in her eyes, I tell you! Photo CC-BY-NC-ND Sakurako Kitsa

At least a million cats end up in shelters every year, and a tragically high number of them are euthanized because they don’t find homes before their time runs out. Color prejudice means that some cats are unnecessarily eliminated from potential adopters’ minds before they even get a chance to prove how full of love and affection they are.

The study found that dark cats are more likely to be euthanized, and that tortoisehell cats are frequently typecast as having too much “tortitude” to make good pets.

In order to figure out how cat color influences adoption rates, the researchers recruited a national sample of cat owners and cat lovers in large U.S. metropolitan areas. They were asked to rate the personalities of a variety of cat colors “based on their tendencies to be active, aloof, bold, calm, friendly, intolerant, shy, stubborn, tolerant and trainable.”

White cat

This white cat’s eyes look full of love, not aloofness, to me. Photo CC-BY-NC Florian

Turns out that orange and bi-colored cats were thought to be more friendly, while black cats and white cats were assumed to be more antisocial. And of course, the ever-present specter of “tortitude” reared its ugly head when people responded with their perceptions of calico and tortie cats.

Shelters all over the country do their best to ensure that each cat in their care has a bio that shows their distinct character traits and personalities, but unfortunately, those conscious or unconscious biases can hurt these cats’ chances at finding forever homes.

Sometimes the tendencies even harm cats of other colors. Berkeley East Bay Humane Society cat coordinator Cathy Marden said that people react so strongly to black cats that overall adoption rates are a lot lower than usual when there are more than a few black cats in the adoption room.

How sad is that?

A black cat and a tortie snuggle.

Maybe this tortie and this black cat seek comfort in each other to take the sting out of anti-black and anti-tortie prejudice. Photo CC-BY-NC hehaden

So what do we do about cat coat color prejudice?

First, let’s examine our own prejudices. I’m sure each of us makes some generalizations about cat colors based on our own limited experience. When we figure out where our prejudices are, we can work on overcoming them so that when we go to adopt our next furry friend, we can make our choice based on the individual cat’s character, not color.

Second, work to overcome others’ prejudices. If you hear someone talking about “tortitude” or not wanting to adopt a black cat because they’re antisocial, it’s a good time to gently say, “Every cat is different, and even science says there’s no connection between coat color and personality.”

Third, why not take home one of those hard-to-adopt cats? I don’t know about you, but I’ve had kitties of many colors, most notably a tortie and a calico who had exactly zero tortitude, and several black cats who were anything but spooky and antisocial.

My beautiful black cat, Siouxsie, loved everybody.

My beautiful black cat, Siouxsie, loved everybody.

What about you? Do you have some ideas for overcoming cat coat-color prejudice? Does your cat’s personality match or conflict with generalizations about her coat color? Have you ever managed to talk someone into adopting a black or tortie cat? Please share your stories in the comments!