Kitten Personality

What shapes kitten personality?

By Helen Jablonski

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Maine Coon Cat with Outstretched Paw
Shy dads make shy kittens, even when the father isn't around. Genetics play a heavy part in cat personality.
Maine Coon Cat with Outstretched Paw
Early, friendly socialization with people will cultivate curiosity and friendliness in kittens.
Maine Coon Cat with Outstretched Paw
Experiences between 2 and 8 weeks of a kitten's life mold his personality.
Kitten behavior diversity makes you wonder just how a kitten’s personality develops. Check out the top four factors in shaping kitten characteristics.

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1. Mom and Dad Make the Most Impact
Mama cat plays the main role in nurturing and raising her kittens, but you might be surprised to learn that their dad has a strong influence on the type of personality the kittens will end up with.  "It’s likely that the development of a cat’s distinct personality begins before birth, as numerous studies suggest that paternity [even if the kittens never have contact with their father], as well as breed-specific characteristics play a role in the development of certain behavioral attributes,” says Sandra McCune, PhD, scientific leader in human-animal interaction research at the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition in Leicestershire, United Kingdom.

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Researchers have found that friendly fathers produce friendly kittens, and unfriendly or fearful toms propagate timid kittens — independent of the fact that the fathers are neither present nor involved in rearing the youngsters. This indicates that the personality trait of friendliness has a strong paternal genetic influence. "Paternity appears to influence the kittens’ response to unfamiliar or novel items or situations,” McCune says. "The inherited trait may be one of boldness generally, rather than friendliness specifically.” Since a bold or fearless kitten is more likely to approach new people, he will be labeled as friendly.

Read about recent research in to feline genetics >>

2. Early Exploration Enables Confidence
A kitten starts to display his own unique personality very early in life,  "... generally by the time the kitten can start being mobile, about 2 1/2 to 3 weeks [old],” says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, a certified applied animal behaviorist and Texas A & M University College of Veterinary Medicine professor. "It is probably around this time that we begin to observe and label distinct personality traits in the context of the kittens’ social interactions,” McCune adds.

See 10 tips to preparing your house for a kitten >>

There seems to be a bossy kitten in every litter — the one who steps on his siblings’ heads and shoves them out of the way to claim his favorite nipple — and then there’s the timid kitten who gets pushed around by the others. These kittens are exhibiting specific personality traits that will grow stronger as they mature and become more active. "Kittens who explore more have increased early contact with people, fostering ‘friendliness,’” says Dennis Turner, ScD, director of the Institute for Applied Ethology and Animal Psychology in Switzerland.  He and McCune are two of the leading authorities on the study of feline personality.

3. Genetics Gears Cats for Years to Come
While genetics provide the innate instructions that guide the development of a kitten’s personality, his social contacts and environment also have a pronounced impact. Kittens learn the most from their mothers. If a mother is nervous or anxious, her kittens will pick up on this and incorporate her attitudes. On the other hand, a mother who is confident, playful and loving toward people will guide her kittens in that direction. "The mother certainly plays as important a role in the development of her kittens’ personality,” Turner points out. "It’s just difficult to separate her genetic influences from the modificatory influences, since she raises the kittens.”  McCune points out that feeding both mother and kittens a complete and balanced diet is essential for normal behavioral development. Good nutrition gives kittens the proper building blocks to reach their full potential.  

In addition to modeling and imitating their mother, kittens learn about boundaries and social manners through playtime and interactions with siblings. All of this input helps a kitten increase his own confidence as he learns about the world. "First there is imprinting to its own species then socialization to other species,” Beaver says. "There is interaction with the environment, and enriched environments facilitate learning.”

A kitten’s sensitive socialization period occurs between 2 and 8 weeks of age, and experiences during this time mold a kitten’s personality. Early interactions with any other species, from dogs, birds or gerbils to children, young women and bearded men, all influence a growing kitten.  Experiences with people who are gentle, loving and playful help a kitten form positive associations. In fact, those kittens with unfriendly fathers who are nurtured and handled by people during this socialization period have better odds of developing into friendly cats.

4. Littermates Lead Kitten Individuality
Kittens raised in the same home by the same people develop completely different personalities. However, because each kitten has a unique genetic makeup, it’s only natural that they will follow varying paths in their growth and reaction to the environment.  "Even kittens from the same litter will have genetic and developmental differences that will impact the formation of their personalities,” McCune says. Furthermore, because a female in heat will mate with multiple tomcats, it’s quite common that siblings within a litter will have different fathers. Birth order doesn’t appear to make any difference on developing personalities, but genetic diversity within a litter certainly does.  

Whether classified as friendly, alert, active, inquisitive, vocal or any of the opposites of these traits, each and every kitten is unique. "As with so many behaviors, both genetic and environmental factors, including learning experiences with littermates and mothers, determine the personality of developing kittens,” Turner says.

Anyone who interacts with cats knows that each one is an individual and no two are exactly alike. With personalities ranging from laid-back to rambunctious and everything in between, we treasure them for who they are: graceful, beautiful and unique creatures who show us how much they love and appreciate us in their own special way. And it’s our pleasure to love each of them right back. 
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Reader Comments

Michalle    Portland, OR

7/9/2013 2:29:23 PM

Every one of our 17 cats have distinct personalities. I became a cat mom to 2 two week old kittens. They learned social graces from the older cats. Honeyfern is the outgoing one of the two. Patch is the shyer of the duo.

M    Lake City, FL

7/8/2013 11:53:57 PM

Wow- always amazing how complex cats really are! Its hard to imagine so many things making each cat the individual that they are.

Cool article- thanks for sharing so many thought-provoking facts!

The Big Apple Gang®    Staten Island, NY

6/25/2013 6:11:13 AM

Great Article and very interesting point Willard made. We take our three babies outside in an over sized stroller everyday. They love to hang out in our backyard and watch the birds, plants blowing in the breeze, etc.

Willard    New York, NY

6/21/2013 9:05:48 AM

Very interesting article. I also believe that exposure to the outside, even for indoor kittens, is developmentally important. We got a Kitty Peeper Window Patio for our two kittens Rally and Rubbers from this place: LINK It's really made a difference in keeping them interested in what is going on outdoors around our house.

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