The Purebred Dilemma: Purrsonality

As more and more people turn on to cats worldwide, the interest in purebred animals grows. Although the rule, “Ask the person who owns one” holds true for any purebred animal, it holds particularly true for cats. But not only should you talk to people who own the kind of Persian, Siamese, British or American Shorthair, Bombay, or other purebred you like, you should compare those peoples’ lifestyles and temperament to your own. If they match, then find out where these owners purchased their cats and buy one from that same line from that same breeder. Just as one man’s floor may be another’s ceiling, one man’s Persian may be another man’s something else.

We know from studies of animal behavior that whenever we breed to change an animal’s body, we automatically change its mind, and vice versa. And even though some breeders may naively say they breed for coat or eye color, they can’t change any aspect of an animal without changing the animal’s  body and mind in some way. Animals theoretically bred strictly for coat color, such as the many different varieties of Persians, exhibit different personalities as well as physical features. Breeders who focus on temperament may create cats who possess a specific look that goes along with that temperament.

When most people think about a prize-winning purebred cat, they automatically assume that at least as much effort went into creating a sound temperament and healthy body as that special look. Unfortunately this isn’t necessarily the case. While some breeders do spend a great deal of time creating such animals, show standards focus almost entirely on physical appearance. Consequently a lot of champions on a purebred cat’s pedigree in no way guarantees that the cats bearing it or their offspring will make loving household pets.

What about descriptions of various feline personalities in breed books? For those who plan to take this approach, read as many different books as possible. The good news is that this will give you the broadest view of a particular breed’s temperament. The bad news is that, the more sources you examine, the more conflicting reports you’ll encounter. One book’s description of a breed as “very playful” becomes another’s “too energetic to live in a confined space.” A friend waxed ecstatic about his purebred’s tendency to follow him around like a puppy. Other owners of cats belonging to that same breed describe them as “introverted to the point of neurotic.”

Several factors unique to cats contribute to this dilemma. One: Even though some breeders will spout feline histories that trace their particular breed back to ancient Buddhist temples if not further, purebred cats rank as a relatively recent phenomenon. While the legends may be ancient, the actual breeds aren’t.

For example, ever since the 1970s when the western world became aware of some ancient manuscripts housed in the Thai National Library called The Cat Books Poems, the rush has been on to create cats who look like those pictured in the manuscripts. Compare pictures of Siamese cats taken twenty-five years ago to those of today’s cats and only the blue eyes and colored points (feet, tail, muzzle, and ears)and distinctive voice remain. While these modern cats certainly look a lot more like the ancient ones, any actual link to these animals is tenuous at best. And while people seemed to maintain some fairly strong ideas about the “old” Siamese’s personality-which they either loved or hated!-the “new” ones’ body type rather than their personality now gets the most attention.

Two: Many cat breeds—such as the Devon and Cornish Rex and Scottish Fold–arise from spontaneous mutations that occur in “mixed” breed cats. Breeders who fancy a certain look may breed those mutants with purebred cats of different breeds (called outbreeding) to produce this look. So even though the original Devon Rex may have been a tough feral creature capable of surviving on his own, he spawned a breed that may carry British and American Shorthair, Burmese, Bombay, or Siamese genes in addition to those carried by the original. Not only that, which breeds’ genes a particular championship Devon Rex might carry depends on where a particular cat earned his or her championship. Shows sponsored by one cat organization may permit outbreeding to breeds not accepted by others. Further complicating matters, breeds accepted for outbreeding by one organization one year may not be accepted the next.

Obviously if the gene pool of a “purebred” cat can vary from breeder to breeder and year to year, the chance of a particular breed consistently displaying the same personality across the board amounts to more wishful thinking than reality.

Three: Unlike most purebred dogs whose heritage includes breeding for some function that compliments the dog’s physical and mental qualities such as hunting or herding, the cat fancy doesn’t dwell much on function. This occurs because that cat’s ultimate function remains to hunt. Because such a function–regardless how deeply entrenched in the species–so violates the human idea of purebred cats as exotic, elegant creatures worthy of pampering, most American breeders ignore it completely. While some European breed books may describe certain breeds as good mousers, the idea that one of their cats would even encounter a mouse, let alone kill and eat one, strikes many breeders as unthinkable. Moreover, these breeders condemn anyone who would even consider putting cats in environments where they might hunt.

The closest cat breeding comes to breeding for function involves breeding for a nebulous quality known as “companionship.” Put ten cat-lovers together and ask them to describe the ideal feline companion and you’ll get ten different answers. Some want a cat who cuddles; others want a more aloof one. Their definitions will include the most dependent as well as the most independent feline qualities and everything between. This lack of consensus about what the average cat-lover considers a good feline companion probably doesn’t matter though, because the cat breeders can’t agree on it, either,–even those who breed the same breed of cats.

So if you want a cat who likes other cats, dogs, or kids, or one who will follow you like a devoted puppy and hang on your every word, or one who will enjoy roughing it with you in the Andes, don’t rely on breed books or pamphlets put out by purebred groups. Instead talk to people who own the kind(s) of cat(s) you like. Compare those people’s lifestyles and personalities with your own. If you fall in love with a feline look first, as most people do, remember that a body and a mind come with that look. Even if the show standards don’t consider the whole package, the average cat-lover seeking a long, healthy, and rewarding relationship with a suitable pet must.