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Cat Personality Structure: Implications for environmental enrichment and emotional care

Gartner MC, Powell DM, Weiss A.  Personality structure in the Domestic Cat (Felis silvestris catus), Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia), Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia), and African Lion (Panthera leo): A Comparative Study. J Comp Psychol 2014;128(4):414-26.

Studies of personality in nonhuman animals are still few in number, and most have focused on primates and canids.  Only 20 studies of personality in felids have been published, and the majority of these have focused on the domestic cat. Personality in humans and other families of nonhuman animals has a genetic underpinning, and better understanding of personality in an animal species is likely to facilitate better health care, husbandry, and environmental enrichment. Comparative studies of personality structure may also provide information on evolutionary relationships of closely related species.

This study compared personalities of domestic cats in shelters with those of wild felids living in captivity. In humans, five factors best describe personality:  Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.  An additional factor, Dominance, was identified in chimpanzees.  The factor scale described above has been used to evaluate personality in four nonhuman primate species, as well as Scottish wildcats.

The five felid species evaluated in the study were chosen based on availability of captive individuals for study as well as their phylogenetic relationships.  The clouded leopard is the basal species of the genus Panthera that split from a common ancestor 8.7-10.8 million years ago, and the members of this genus most distantly related to the clouded leopard are the lion and snow leopard.  Domestic cats evolved from the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), and the Scottish wildcat is a subspecies of the European wildcat (Felis silvestris), as is the African wildcat. The domestic cat lineage was the last to split from a common ancestor in the order Carnivora, around 6.2-6.7 million years ago.  As the clouded leopard was the first felid to speciate from a common ancestor, differences in the personality of the other felid species studied from that of the clouded leopard may give information regarding the evolution of personality in the family Felidae.

Subjects included in the study included 25 Scottish wildcats from three zoos, 100 domestic cats from two shelters, 16 clouded leopards from two zoos, 17 snow leopards from three zoos, and 21 lions from 2 zoos.  Each species was represented by both sexes and a range of ages. The animals were evaluated with a 45-item personality survey based on previous felid personality surveys and a hominoid personality questionnaire.  The survey included a specific description for each personality trait, and each trait was rated on a scale of 1 to 7, wherein ‘1’ signified “not at all” and ‘7’ indicated “very much so.”

The strongest personality traits identified in the five felid species studies were as follows:

–Scottish wildcats: Dominance, Agreeableness, and Self Control

–Domestic cats:  Dominance, Impulsiveness, Neuroticism

–Clouded leopards:  Neuroticism, Agreeableness/Openness, Dominance/Impulsiveness

–Snow leopards:  Neuroticism, Impulsiveness/Openness, Dominance

–African lions:  Dominance, Impulsiveness, Neuroticism

In the taxon as a whole, there were three clear factors:  Neuroticism, Impulsiveness, and Dominance. The similarity in personality traits across all species was unexpected by the investigators, and agreed with similar personality studies in cheetahs and tigers.  Aging led to personality changes in some of the species.  Older Scottish wildcats were rated as more Agreeable than younger ones, while clouded leopards were found to be less Agreeable/Open as they aged.  Domestic cats and snow leopards were evaluated as less Impulsive as they age. Female African lions were more Impulsive than males, while male African lions were rated as more Dominant than females.  No age effects were found in the African lions studied.  There were no other identified age or sex effects on personality traits.

The personality factors Neuroticism, which had the highest loadings on fearful of people, suspicious, and insecure; and Impulsiveness, which had the highest loadings on impulsive, excitable, and erratic, may not have evolved much since modern cats split off from a common ancestor of the order Carnivora, but genetic analyses are required to confirm this. With regard to Dominance, aggressive to conspecifics, bullying, and jealous loaded onto the Dominance factors of all five species, while there was interspecies variation among other traits that loaded positively and negatively onto each species’ Dominance factors. There is no obvious connection between these personality factors and adaptability or the predatory way of life of felids, so it is possible that these personality traits are associated with the captive status of all animals included in the study.  Evaluation of animals living in the wild could yield different results, but at least in chimpanzees, no difference in personality factor structure attributable to environment was found.  Even if the principal personality traits of Neuroticism, Impulsiveness, and Dominance are exaggerated in captive felids relative to wild conspecifics, understanding of these characteristics serves as a useful starting point for caregivers concerned with providing emotional care and environmental enrichment for these animals.

Results of the study have important implications for the care and welfare of domestic cats, and for understanding their behavior.  Psychologically they are similar to their big cat relatives, “little lions,” although the social structures of lions and domestic cats are different.  Just as environmental enrichment programs are now afforded to big cats and other wild species housed in zoos and wildlife parks, environmental enrichment and care for emotional needs can also be provided for domestic cats in both home and shelter situations.  [PJS]

See also:

Clubb R, Mason G. Animal welfare: captivity effects on wide-ranging carnivores. Nature 2003;425:473-4.