When I was looking to adopt a cat I spent hours on the web reading about cat care, kitten proofing, behavior and, of course, breed.
Run a Google search about looking for the right cat and you’ll get several pages of nearly identical results about different cat breeds, what their personalities are like and what to expect from them.
Yet it turned out advice from a friend — who grew up with cats and has two of his own — was more accurate than anything I’d read online.
“When it comes to cats it’s a crapshoot, man,” my friend told me. “You never know what you’re gonna get.”
I wanted an engaged, friendly pet, and all the breed guides suggested Siamese are the best choice. But what I heard from shelter staffers echoed my friend’s observation: Don’t depend on a breed description because every cat is unique.
In the end I adopted Buddy, a gray tabby domestic shorthair. No particular breed, in other words. (Though he thinks he’s his own special kind of cat, and he’s not wrong.)
Buddy, it turns out, is vocal, bold and friendly. He’s constantly by my side. He’s got a vibrant language of trills, meows and chirps with which he shares his opinion on everything. Where other cats hide when guests are over or a delivery guy knocks on the door, Buddy runs up, curious to see who’s on the other side and if they’re going to be his newest friends.
So why is it so difficult to pin down a cat’s personality, and why don’t cats fit the behavioral profiles of their breeds the way dogs do?
The answer lies in how both animals were domesticated, and their respective paths to becoming companion animals.
Dogs have been working animals for 30,000 years. The earliest dogs helped their humans hunt and guarded their camps at night, alerting them to dangerous situations or intruders. Later, when humans domesticated livestock and developed agriculture, dogs were bred for different purposes: Some herded sheep, some scared off wolves and coyotes, others pulled sleds.
Today we’ve got dogs who sniff out explosives, drugs and diseases. Police dogs catch a scent and help officers track down suspects. Therapy dogs bring joy to the elderly, sick and injured, while guide dogs make it possible for people with disabilities to live independently.
The point is, human hands have indelibly shaped canis familiaris since long before recorded history. These days dogs are valued primarily for their companionship, but virtually every breed has a lineage that began with practicality, meaning humans shaped them for disposition and ability. A dog’s breed is a good indication of its temperament.
Cats? Not so much.
Cats are famously self-domesticated: When humans developed agriculture and began storing grain, rodents flocked to the abundant new food sources, to the dismay of early human societies.
That’s when cats just showed up, exterminating rodents while showing no interest in grain. Humans didn’t need to breed felines to hunt mice and rats — it’s as natural to cats as grooming and burying their business.
Cats didn’t take on many other jobs in addition to their mousing duties, mostly because they’re famously resistant to following orders, but their hunting skills were so valuable to early societies that they didn’t need to do anything else to earn their keep.
Because of that, no one bothered breeding cats until fairly recently, and the vast majority of cat breeding focuses on changing the way cats look, not how they behave.
We like to attribute qualities to cat breeds, and some of them are based in truth. Siamese do tend to talk more than other cats, ragdolls really do go limp when they’re picked up, and Maine Coons are famously chill despite dwarfing most other domestic cats.
But without the behaviorally-specific lineage common to dogs, cat breed behavioral attributes are more like broad stereotypes.
Beyond that, a cat’s personality is primarily determined by genetics and how they were raised in kittenhood. That’s why it’s crucial to handle and socialize kittens when they’re just weeks old, and why ferals will always fear humans.
It’s also why you should take stereotypes about cat breeds with a grain of salt when looking to adopt. If you’re adopting an adult, any good rescue will have information on the cat’s personality, likes and dislikes. If you’re adopting a kitten, you’re pulling the lever on a slot machine.
My advice is to put aside preconceptions about breeds, keep an open mind about looks, and find a cat who connects with you. Like people, no two cats are the same, and a cat’s personality is much more important than the color of its fur when it comes to bonding with an animal who will be in your life for the next 15 to 20 years.
Featured image: Natalie Chettle holds Rupert, a Maine Coone.