by Robyn Paterson
December 27, 2023
A fellow Bengal breeder faced a dilemma. She raised Bengals because she wanted to share the joy of these beautiful cats with others. As usual, her clients picked out their kittens while they were young. As the kittens developed, she noticed that one of the boys was not developing the personality she prided herself in offering her clients. She diligently worked to bring the shy kitten out of his shell - having him play with her children, around the dogs, with the littermates, household visitors, and extended family members, but the kitten never became bold. His personality was, by nature, shy. As the kittens' departure date approached, she grew weary. This kitten did not epitomize what she wanted to provide for her clients. So she did what every well-intentioned breeder would do. She offered the family her sweet-natured keeper kitten and kept the shy one for herself, not realizing how the selfless act would affect all of her future kittens when using the shy male as her sire.
Undesirable cat behavior adversely affects the owners' satisfaction with their cats and their cat's welfare (Powell et al.). Several factors, including genetics and in-utero stress, affect physical and psychological development long before a kitten is born (“Kittens”). Once a kitten is born, there are learned behaviors that kittens pick up on from their mother’s reactions to all the stimuli inside of a home - food, other cats, dogs, humans, and everyday household activities. Because personality and behavior significantly influence a cat’s quality of life and one’s relationship with one’s cat, when searching for a new kitten, you want to find out just how each breeder you inquire with makes the right choices to have the personality you want.
Before Kittens Are Born
Breeders' selection of breeding stock directly affects their future kittens’ personalities and behavior. To begin with, both the mother and the father establish the kittens’ emotional capacity, which is their ability to manage their reaction to new situations and even to the body language of other cats, dogs, and humans. While research has not yet determined whether or not cats have self-awareness of emotions, they have a spectrum of abilities to manage and understand the feelings of others, which has been directly connected to the parent’s ability. Breeders should be breeding adult cats who demonstrate emotional resilience - the ability to dissipate emotions (Cats.com Editorial Team). It is best to work with cats that observe without reacting and ultimately avoid danger or conflict. When the parents pass down emotional resilience, their kittens have the emotional capacity to become well-adjusted house cats. Kittens who do not inherit a large enough capacity for emotional resilience cannot learn to become good house cats. Dr. Sarah Heath compares a cat’s emotional capacity to a sink. Sinks come in different sizes. The parents of each cat determine what size sink they are born with. If their sink is too small, no amount of training can build a cat’s emotional resilience beyond what the sink can hold, which is why some feral cats are domesticable and others are not. They have different sink sizes and different capacities to build emotional resilience.
The sire strongly influences his kittens’ personalities, demonstrating a vital genetic component. While a fellow breeder had told Jon about the male’s influence on behavior, we experienced it firsthand around 2014. In 2013, we borrowed our friend’s stud - the one kept because he was too shy to go to a pet home. We used this boy with a few of our girls while our two new studs matured. We found that the kittens took a lot of work to socialize because they lacked confidence. The following breeding season, our new boys - BeauxMondes Home of the Brave and Vividcats Deuces Wild - were ready to breed. When the two bred with the same females, the kittens were naturally confident and easy to socialize. Having this back-to-back experience of working with a male who ended up being a breeding cat because he was not considered friendly enough to be a pet cat, followed by breeding two males who were both confident and friendly, opened our eyes to just how much the sire affects the personality of the kittens.
We have since learned that research backs up our experience. Sires influence the boldness trait in kittens (Heath). Boldness is defined as “The genetic contribution to friendliness towards people in cats…; a general response to unfamiliar or novel objects irrespective of whether or not the objects are people” (McCune 109). Boldness determines not only a cat’s friendliness level but also a cat’s reactions to new experiences. In a study on friendliness in cats, “cats from the friendly father were quicker to approach, touch, explore and remain in close contact with the novel object than were cats from the unfriendly father” (McCune 109). We have seen this correlation in the males we have used over the years. However, friendliness and reactivity are not necessarily connected. For example, we have one male who predominantly produces very friendly kittens, but they are not comfortable in new environments. Quality breeding requires being aware of and documenting traits that are passed down so one does not inadvertently layer up on less desirable characteristics. If, for example, a sire creates kittens who are uncertain in new situations, it is not advisable to breed his daughter to another sire who produces kittens with a similar trait.
Both parents determine emotional capacity - or size sink the kittens must work with. The sire predominantly controls personality - where the kittens fall on the shy-to-bold spectrum. However, the mother cat has the most decisive influence on behavior. During pregnancy, the queen’s stress level affects the kittens’ hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which, in turn, affects the sensitivity of the kittens’ HPA axis and their ability to manage stress (Smith and Vale). This clarifies just how the female contributes to her kittens' emotional resilience. If a mother cat feels safe, she will produce appeasing pheromones both in utero and after birth (Heath). Recalling Dr. Health's analogy of the parents determining the size of each kitten's sink of emotional resilience, the kitten will receive a smaller sink if the mother is stressed during pregnancy. In addition, if a fetus is exposed to a stressor after adrenocortical maturation occurs, “subsequent adrenocortical responses to stress might… increase” (Bain and Buffington). Therefore, the mother contributes to a kitten’s emotional health by affecting both the capacity for emotional resilience and the quality of the kitten's HPA axis.
After the Kittens Are Born
Once the kittens are born, the mother continues to affect their behaviors. From the queen, kittens learn essential aspects of behavior, such as food acceptance, toileting habits, and fear responses to other species - including people and dogs (“Kittens”). In feral situations, the kittens need a mother to demonstrate protective emotions to increase their chance of survival. Kittens need to learn to fear the unknown for their safety. However, we want the exact opposite in domestic cats. We do not want a mother to exhibit protective emotions when exposed to situations they will experience in a typical home, including the presence of humans, dogs, and everyday household noises. The kittens will mimic their mother’s behavior in new situations. Ideally, breeders work with mothers who model good behavior and do not release stress pheromones. If a breeder works with a mother who will not exhibit desirable behavior, the mother should not be present when the kittens are introduced to new experiences.
Trauma in early life can affect a cat's emotional and physical health later in life. Unfortunately, the full effect of this trauma is not seen until cats are typically two years of age. All experiences the kittens have in their breeders’ homes factor into the cat they will grow up to be. To begin with, it is essential that kittens live inside of a home so they are exposed to ordinary domestic experiences. We want the dishwasher, vacuum, TV, kid noise, the existence of dogs, and strangers coming in and out to be typical experiences for kittens before they join the home of their new family (Heath).
Ideal kitten socialization is a lot of work. Cats are not naturally social; they are obligatorily social (Heath). If the cat is not in control, it does not feel safe; thus, it is the breeder’s job to slowly alter this instinct within the kittens. Kittens need to be touched all over, lifted frequently, and gently restrained, all of which are unnatural for a cat (Heath). Before the kittens are seven weeks of age, they must be handled by a minimum of five different people, not just their breeder (Heath). This presents a challenge as kittens do not typically receive a vaccine before eight weeks of age, so the breeder must be able to trust the cleanliness of those handling the kittens. They should not be people who work with large populations of cats. Breeders should expose the kittens to new situations that allow them to grow their emotional resilience. However, this must happen in ways that encourage the kitten to engage with the new stimuli instead of fleeing or fighting. For example, the kittens should meet new adult cats, dogs, people, etc., but they need to do this in a way that they learn to face new experiences, not flee from them. Establishing and maintaining a correct feline environment for kittens' first 14 weeks does wonders for their emotional development, making the cats happier and healthier throughout their lives.
What Does This All Mean?
When looking for a new kitten, select the breeder first, then the kitten. People typically choose their pets based on appearance and availability without considering how the breeder's choices affect the kitten's ability to form a relationship. While appearance is important, personality and behavior affect a cat’s quality of life, particularly whether it is rehomed. One advantage of buying a pedigree pet is that it is bred for purpose. What is a cat’s purpose? To be a lovable household companion. When rescuing a kitten, it is expected to accept the risks of not knowing the parents’ genetics or how the upbringing will impact behavior, but pedigree cats should not have the same risk.
When interviewing breeders, ask how they prepare their kittens to be well-adjusted, happy pets. Listen to their answer. Does their answer explain:
- How their choice of parents increases the kittens’ capacity for emotional resilience
- How the sire increases the boldness factor
- How the dam models positive reactions to stimuli
- How the breeders raise kittens in a home (not a garage, shed, cattery, etc) so the kittens experience home life
- How the breeder exposes the kittens to unnatural experiences that house cats must learn to enjoy: being touched, held, restrained
Even well-intentioned breeders can make mistakes that affect the entire lives of kittens when they do not understand how genetics and socialization shape the confidence and behaviors of cats.
Bain, Melissa, and Tony Buffington. “Stress and Feline Health - PMC.” National Library of Medicine, Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 27 April 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8801065/. Accessed 27 December 2023.
Cats.com Editorial Team. “Do Cats Have Emotions?” Cats.com, Cats.com, 14 April 2023, https://cats.com/do-cats-have-emotions. Accessed 27 December 2023.
Heath, Sarah. Preparing Kittens for the Domestic Setting. Online Breeder Conference. Crazy Cat Vet, 16 December 2023.
“Kittens.” AAHA, American Animal Hospital Association, 2023, https://www.aaha.org/aaha-guidelines/life-stage-feline-2021/behavior-and-environmental-needs/kittens/. Accessed 27 December 2023.
McCune, Sandra. “The impact of paternity and early socialisation on the development of cats' behaviour to people and novel objects.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, vol. Volume 45, no. Issues 1–2, 2000, pp. 109–124. Science Direct, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/016815919500603P?via%3Dihub.
Powell, Lauren, et al. “Understanding feline feelings: An investigation of cat owners’ perceptions of problematic cat behaviors.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, vol. Volume 266, no. September, 2023. Science Direct, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0168159123001971. Accessed 27 Dec 2023.
Smith, Sean, and Wylie Vale. “The role of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in neuroendocrine responses to stress.” National Library of Medicine, Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 8 Dec 2006, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181830/. Accessed 27 December 2023.