Domestic cats may be more institutionally similar to big cats than previously thought, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the Bronx Zoo.
The study, “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)”, compares the behavioural tendencies of each of the named species.
For the purposes of the study, cats’ behaviours were measured under five rubrics classically applied to human personality tests: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness (the binary opposite of impulsiveness), extraversion or introversion, agreeability, and neuroticism.
Traits normally observed in big cats – dominance, impulsiveness, and neuroticism – have remained present in modern domestic cats, according to the study.
The most pronounced trait observed in domestic cats was neuroticism, meaning that these felines crave control and are prone to negative emotions like anxiety and fear.
Some publications have suggested that the study implies that domestic cats would kill their owners if their owners were smaller or they themselves were closer to the size of big cats. But Marieke Gartner, an Edinburgh University researcher who took part in the study, disagrees.
Speaking to CNET, Gartner said: “Cats have different personalities, and they ended up living with us because it was a mutually beneficial situation. Some cats are more independent, some are quite loving. It just depends on the individual.
“It’s not that cats are self-centred. It’s that they are a more solitary or semi-solitary species.”
For her part, Gartner blamed humans for domestic cats’ sometimes-violent behaviour towards their owners. “Cats don’t want to bump you off, but people often don’t know how to treat them and are surprised by their behaviour.”
The study’s authors hope that their findings will be used to improve feline wellbeing in captive conditions.
In the study’s conclusion, the authors note that the “similarity [between feline species observed in the study] may allow for a more generalised approach to captive care of felids based on personality – that is, felids of these species rated higher on Neuroticism, for example, may be able to have similar treatments to address any welfare issues, including health outcomes, associated with that personality factor.
“However, it would be important to assess more felid species’ personality structures, and also direct links to welfare and health outcomes, as well as to conservation outcomes.”
The study, which relied exclusively on observation of animals in captivity, has been criticised for its external validity, or the ability of the study’s findings to be extrapolated to non-captive animals.
Neuroticism in felines, the study’s critics have alleged, may be accentuated by the conditions of their captivity, which is not a natural state for any of the big cats observed in the report. This potential limitation is alluded to in the study’s body, but is not acknowledged as problematic to the study’s validity.
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