Don’t believe what you hear about black cats

UC BERKELEY (US) — Stereotypes about kitty colors—black cats are bad luck—can have a negative effect on adoption rates at animal shelters, research shows.

“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 colors are friendlier than others,” says Mikel Delgado, lead author of the study published in the journal Anthrozoos and a doctoral student in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

“We hope that this study will be a starting point for further research in what qualities affect adoption and retention of pet cats, and whether there is a genetic or physical basis (such as coat color) for personality differences in cats,” she adds.


Of an estimated 100 million domesticated cats in the United States, at least one million end up in shelters each year. Many are abandoned because their personalities conflict with their owners’ expectations.

A 2002 study from UC Davis found that one in four cats are brought to shelters because they did not get along with their owners or other household pets. A common complaint is that they’re, “too active.” That study also found that dark cats are more likely to be euthanized, and that tortoiseshell cats are frequently typecast as having too much attitude or “tortitude”.

“Previous research supports the existence of ‘black cat’ syndrome, where black and brown cats are less likely to be adopted than cats of other colors,” Delgado says. “We were interested in whether people’s perceptions of the interaction between personality and coat color might play a part.”

To establish a link between how cat color influences adoption rates, Delgado and her co-authors used Craigslist to recruit a national sample of cat owners and cat lovers in large US metropolitan areas.

Participants were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 7, the personalities of black, white, bi-colored, tri-colored (tortoiseshell or calico), and orange cats based on their tendencies to be active, aloof, bold, calm, friendly, intolerant, shy, stubborn, tolerant, and trainable.

While most people surveyed said personality informs their decision about which cat to adopt, the characteristics they ascribed to cats based on their coat color indicated that color consciously or unconsciously played a key role in their final choice of which kitty to take home.

Overall, orange cats and bi-colored cats were characterized as friendly, while black cats, white cats, and tri-colored cats were regarded as more antisocial.

White cats were considered to be more shy, lazy and calm, while tortoiseshell cats more depicted as both more intolerant and more trainable. Black cats were typified as having less extreme character traits, which might contribute to their mysterious reputation.

At the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society (BEBHS), cat coordinator Cathy Marden is all too familiar with the psychology involved in pet adoptions. Staff members and volunteers there try to break down stereotypes at every opportunity, she says, and descriptions of each cat written on the adoption rooms cages highlight the individual’s characteristics.

“You can’t judge a cat by its color,” she adds. “If someone comes in to adopt, we encourage them to spend time with all the cats, because it’s the personality of that cat—not the color—that will let you know if the animal’s the right fit for you.”

Still, reactions to black cats can be so strong, she says, that few adoptions take place at the shelter when there are more than a few black cats in the adoption room. “It’s a huge bummer,” adds Marden, who has blogged on the BEBHS website about the “Top 10 Reasons to Adopt a Black Cat” and about the joys of adopting a monochromatic cat.

Domestic cats are believed to be descended from African wild cats and have coexisted peacefully with humans for 4,000 years. Through literature, movies and other cultural channels, cats have long been characterized as solitary, independent species who are “tolerant of affection only when it suits their needs,” according to the study.

That said, cats have adapted well to a variety of living conditions, and this has made them successful at cohabiting with humans, the study points out.

Other coauthors of the study are Jacqueline Munera at the New College of Florida and Gretchen Reevy at the California State University, East Bay.

Source: UC Berkeley