Pet column: Color, coat and temperament
October 2, 2012
Perhaps the most well-known scientific study of animal behavior and physical attributes is the 40-year Belyaev experiment with wild silver foxes on a Russian fur farm. Belyaev took Darwin’s interest in the difference between wild and tame animals to new levels. As tameness developed in his foxes, erect ears drooped, tails curled, coat color changed from solid silver-black to silver with white patches (piebald), the head broadened, behavior altered to include dog-like responses of wagging tails, whining and other subtle changes. The Belyaev study eventually expanded to rats and other species. A later study in Norway concluded that “the biological relationship between temperament and coat color may therefore be one of the historical reasons that black and piebald colorations are so much more common in domestic animals than in their wild counterparts.”
Multiple scientific studies have shown that black foxes, deer mice, and rats are more docile. Their strands of hair are true black with no bands of light and dark pigment which produce a dark, but not pure black, hue. Color is related to a molecule in the brain which affects both neurochemicals and size of the adrenal gland. It is established that fur pigment cells are found in areas of the brain which involve reactions for fear, aggression, and stress.
Through time, dogs have been classified as stubborn or tractable related to a smooth or rough coat. Dachshunds, for example, are expected to be apprehensive and reserved if long-coated, alert and friendly if short-coated, and energetic but stubborn if wirehaired. The journal Applied Animal Behavior Science published results of a study by Joaquin Perez-Guisado and colleagues at the University of Cordoba, Spain. They determined that golden red English cocker spaniels are the most dominant and aggressive, black were found to be the second most aggressive, parti-color (white with color patches) were more mild-mannered. Previous studies of labrador retrievers ranked color from yellow as most aggressive, black as mildly aggressive to chocolate as least aggressive. It is hoped that ongoing studies can help pinpoint causes and treatments for “dog rage” and other abnormal behavior seen in modern pets.
Folklore has long attributed feline fur variations to personality. In 1895, author R.S. Huidekoper described cat temperaments including affection, hunting inclination, patience, laziness and even selfishness by coat and color. Many feel black cats are the most friendly of felines. They seem to be the most prolific. Other traits widely attributed to domestic cats include ginger or redhead felines who, like their human counterparts, are flashy and feisty – Garfield with an orange tabby “cat-attitude”. Calico cats – tricolor, blended, Tortie, or pastel – are rated from independent diva to loving eccentric. Gray cats are expected to be calm and amiable. Tuxedo cats are clowns and schmoozers both with other cats and humans. Asian color point cats are elegant and distant, vocal, but also can be very dog-like, including newspaper retrieving Burmese.
In the end, you can’t judge a book by its cover. For pets already domesticated thousands of years, genetics, environment and socialization determine personality and match for an individual home. All things being equal, that “chemistry” between species ultimately determines the right pet for you.
– Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to help “Keep Tahoe Kind.” Dawn Armstrong is the executive director.