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Not All Black Cats Are Lucky

Halloween traditionally presents rescue centres with an opportunity to feature black cats looking for homes, as it is a curious fact that black-coated animals generally take longer to find homes. Perhaps it is because of our deep-rooted folklore beliefs such as black cats being witches' familiars or black dogs guarding the borders between this world and the next. On a more prosaic level, maybe it's the fact that their features are less distinct or even that their teeth look whiter and more prominent than in other coat colours?

All this begs the question of whether the colour of an animal's fur can be an indication of its personality. As in humans, are red heads more fiery and do blondes have more fun?
Although there is little research on this subject and opinions seem to vary widely, there is a common view that there's a close association between an animal's behaviour and pigment production. Over the thousands of years man and animal have lived together, it therefore follows that breeding for tameness and human interaction will inevitably impact coat colour. And when you work with a wide variety of domestic species on a day-to-day basis, some familiar patterns begin to emerge.

There are two well-known studies that support this. First is Belyaev's Silver Foxes, where silver foxes were brought into captivity and bred purely for tame behaviour. Over a period of 26 years, Dmitri Belyaev bred foxes that were happy to approach and interact with humans. The experiment also threw up some surprising results in the physical appearance of the foxes as they developed black and white coats not dissimilar to the Border Collies of today.

A similar study was conducted by Lyudmila Trut and others on wild Norwegian rats with pretty much the same results regarding coat markings. It might explain why we see so many black and white cats in our rescue centres - as they are probably the most common colour for the tame domestic moggy.

If black and white indicates tameness, what about the ginger tom? Various studies suggest that the gene associated with ginger fur may be linked to aggressiveness backing up the common view of the 'alley cat'. Does that link with hot-tempered redheads in other species such as golden cocker spaniels, sometimes believed to suffer from 'rage syndrome' or the moody chestnut mare? 

If you own a tortoiseshell cat, there are some interesting scientific views on the 'naughty tortie' too. The coat is created by switching chromosomes on and off. This is said to also affect the development of the brain tissue so the cat's personality becomes as random as its coat. And what of the black coated animals? The limited research tends to suggest that they and the pale coated are the most tolerant and laid back of any species, although anyone who has encountered a dizzy blonde Labradoodle may take issue with that. So if the science suggests dark coated animals can live happily with both humans and in species groups, it must be our own perceptions that are getting in the way.

Animal behaviourist Stanley Coren ran a short survey to understand people's views on coat colour in dogs and asked 60 people their feelings towards three different coloured Labradors (yellow, chocolate and black). You won't be surprised to hear that the yellow Labs scored best on the categories (like the look, looks friendly, would make a good family pet and how likely it is that it would be aggressive) and the black Lab scored worst. In fact the difference between the yellow and chocolate colours was minimal. He describes this as 'Black Dog Syndrome' and suggested that by using brightly coloured bandanas or collars and changing the dogs name from say 'Nero' to 'Sunny' rescues can improve their chances of finding a new home.
Of course you may be of the school that agrees with academic Joaquin Perez- Guisado who wrote that while genes control coat colour and appear to predispose behaviour in certain dogs, it is how dogs are raised that plays the biggest role in behaviour.

I am of the view that it is a bit of everything from genetics to environment to preconceptions. Whatever our theories, we will do what we can to help our black-coated animals find their forever homes and will be shamelessly exploiting the Halloween opportunity again this year.

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