Since their self-domestication some 10,000 years ago [1
], cats have undergone numerous genotypic [2
] and phenotypic [3
] changes as a result of selective breeding. Despite the relatively recent proliferation of fancy cat breeds, the genotypic changes that underlie breed-specific features are now able to be distinguished [5
], suggesting substantial segregation of genotypes at the breed level. Historically, the proportion of the owned cat population in the United Kingdom reported as pedigree or purebred is between 8% [6
] and 11% [7
], with around 3% of cats registered with a veterinarian being Persian [6
]. Demographics of the cat population will, in part, be driven by human preferences for specific conformational traits and the intrinsic value placed upon them [8
Numerous factors may influence an owner’s choice of a companion animal. During adoption, evidence suggests that problem behaviors in cats and dogs significantly reduce their likelihood of rehoming [10
]. Older cats have a longer duration of stay within the shelter environment [11
] and dark coat coloration both reduces adoption likelihood [10
] and increases length of stay [11
]. With the advent of social media, the opportunity to assess animals through static photographs, and without direct interaction has increased, despite evidence that a cat’s human directed behaviors (e.g., rubbing) may play a greater role in speed of adoption than more subtle facial characteristics and movements [12
Studies suggest that the popularity of different dog breeds is influenced by media exposure, even though some of today’s most commonly used breeds experience health problems associated with their appearance [13
]. Recent research indicates that the choice to own a brachycephalic (BC) dog breed is driven by its appearance, which is often prioritized above breed health [15
]. This effect may also apply to cats, with BC breeds (Exotic Shorthair; British Shorthair; Persian; Scottish Fold) and dolichocephalic breeds (DC) (Sphynx; Abyssinian) now comprising six of the top 10 breed registrations in the United States of America [16
]. Much of the recent literature concerning owner reports of, and attitudes towards, the impacts of changes in skull morphology focuses on BC dog breeds [17
], with limited evidence on the health implications of skull shape in cats and attitudes towards them. However, there is growing evidence that brachycephalism in cats is directly associated with disorders that impact respiratory [19
], ophthalmic [22
], endocrine [24
] and neurological [25
] health. Many of these issues require corrective surgical intervention to improve the welfare of the individuals affected [27
]. Those conditions that cannot be alleviated may result in a reduced quality of life. However, such conditions do not necessarily affect longevity equally, skull shape is only once a genotypic component of any given breed, and longevity will be determined by a number of heritable and environmental factors. For example, Persian cats generally experience lives of equal or greater length to crossbreeds (median 14.1 years and 14 years respectively), whilst British Shorthairs’ lifespans are comparatively reduced (median 11.8 years) [31
]. The growing body of evidence concerning the impacts of brachycephalism has prompted debate within the scientific literature as to whether the breeding of BC cats should be reconsidered [32
]. In contrast, dolichocephaly has remained relatively underexplored in terms of direct consequences arising from craniofacial morphology. In DC cats, evidence of breed-related issues appear to be largely associated with characteristics other than skull shape [34
]. There is some evidence of degenerative ocular disorders in DC cats that are related to breeding rather than skull conformation [35
]. Similar to BC cats, the impacts of breed selection on longevity of DC cats are equivocal, with Siamese cats living longer (median 14.2 years), and Abyssinians substantially shorter lives (median 10 years) as compared to crossbreeds (median 14 years) [31
How preferences for cat breeds are formed, especially those cats with extreme skull shape, is little understood. The objectives of this research were to explore:
(i) The relative popularity of phenotypic features in static images of cats
(ii) How respondent-related factors impacted their preference for cats’ phenotypic features, with particular focus on skull shape.
There is a relative paucity of information surrounding preferences for phenotypic features in cats. Research in this area tends to focus on direct acquisition of individuals from shelters [10
]. The current study focused on direct assessments of preference based only on appearance in a static image. It therefore excludes wider factors that may influence preference. These include temperament, human directed behaviors [12
], the individual cat’s sex and age [11
], and more unusual effects such as providing the individual with a name [10
]. Clear differences in preference ratings for skull morphology were observed in this study, with deviations from moderate conformation (mesocephaly) receiving lower preference ratings, which further declined as conformation became more extreme. Mild deviations from mesocephaly were not substantially less preferred in either category (DC or BC), and this may present a mechanism by which more extreme deviations begin to be selected for. The decline in preference appears more marked for BC cats as opposed to DC cats. Previous research suggests that “exotic” cats may be adopted more rapidly from a shelter environment [11
]; however, the amalgamated category used in that research included both BC (Persian) and non-BC (ragdoll and Russian blue) breeds. Another study demonstrated that Persian cats had greater odds of adoption from a shelter environment, possibly indicating increased adopter preferences, although only with comparison to domestic short, long and medium coated individuals [10
]. Our findings indicate that preferences scored from a static image may differ from broader adopter preferences when direct interaction and ownership intent are involved. The decline in preference for BC cats was greater than that for DC cats, even though the proportion of BC cat owners was larger within the overall sample. This suggests that changes in preference across the spectrum of skull shapes are not simply driven by the proportion of BC/DC owners within the sample.
Brachycephalic cats were given a significantly lower preference rating by veterinary or animal care professionals as opposed to other respondents, an association not seen for DC cats. This reduction in preference rating for extreme BC conformation is more marked within the animal care subsample than within the sample overall. It is likely driven by exposure to the management of medical issues directly associated with brachycephaly in cats [25
] and knowledge of the general literature surrounding the implications of brachycephaly for breed health e.g., respiratory [19
] and ophthalmic health [23
]. Several clinical case reports [30
] indicate that brachycephaly has a substantial negative impact on the health of affected cat breeds. The general paucity of studies citing similar health impairments directly associated with dolichocephaly in cats may explain the differences between preferences for extreme DC and BC individuals. Research around breed issues in dogs identifies substantial negative perceptions of BC dogs amongst veterinary professionals, which may be mirrored in this result [36
]. Further research is warranted to explore public and professional knowledge and attitudes concerning the impact of brachycephaly and dolichocephaly on cats.
This research is one of the first reports to explore preferences for feline appearance based on geographical location. Respondents residing in Asia were significantly more likely to provide a higher score for both BC and DC cats when compared to respondents from other countries or regions. These preferences were not driven by a greater representation of BC and DC breeds within the Asian sample; of the Asian respondents, none owned a DC breed whilst BC breed ownership was in line with the wider sample. This indicates that preferences for altered skull morphology within Asia may be driven by other, more culturally embedded, factors. Breeding for brachycephaly has a long history, with dog breeds such as the Pug and Pekingese originating from China [37
], and BC and DC cat breeds such as the Persian and Siamese originating, or perceived as originating, from the near east [38
]. Proximity of breed origin may have an impact on cultural preference and further research is required to explore this dynamic.
Ownership of a particular type of cat was strongly associated with expressed preferences. Respondents whose eldest cat was either BC or DC showed significantly greater preferences for cats that display similar skull morphologies. This was also linked to a substantially diminished preference for cats in the opposite skull shape category (i.e., DC vs. BC and vice versa). The literature suggests that positive “brand” preferences are strongly influenced by prior experiences and knowledge [39
]. Likewise, reduced preference for a specific object or idea may be driven by its deviation from something with which the rater has had positive prior experience. It is reasonable to postulate that these effects may apply to specific companion cat breeds. Respondents familiar with, and attached to, a cat of one type (e.g., one with extreme BC) rate similar attributes in other individuals more highly. Conversely, they may also provide a lower rating for individuals with the opposing attribute (e.g., extreme DC). The current study did not explore other issues that may guide preference ratings, such as the ownership of other animals (e.g., dogs) or other cats (both living or deceased) with BC and DC profiles.
As well as general variation around preferences for BC and DC cats, there were also significant differences around coat length, eye color and coat color, although these had a lesser effect as compared to skull shape. These parameters were not assessed relative to the currently or previously owned cat, so they were unable to be linked with prior experience. They were also not evenly represented across the photographs included but were considered important confounding variables and so were included in the analyses. In our study, the reduced preference for white/pale/point cats is not supported by other studies [11
], where pale pelages were associated with more rapid adoption. It is also difficult to extricate these preferences from wider perception-based discrimination without more in-depth exploration of respondent’s beliefs—for example, the tendency for people to assign positive or negative traits to orange and white cats, respectively [40
]. Similarly, breed characteristics as they are often linked (i.e., extreme DC cats and BC cats are limited to a few breeds such as Siamese and Oriental [DC] or exotic and Persian [BC], which have characteristic features associated with coat color and coat length), making it hard to differentiate the effects from one another. As such, we suggest that the results and conclusions around these variables be treated with caution. Further research is required, using a controlled sample, to explore exactly how and why these phenotypic variations influence preference.
This study is not without its limitations. The number of images was relatively small, and the distribution of BC and DC individuals within the sample was not equivalent. Likewise, the images had a number of poses and backgrounds that likely affected upon the rating. Finally, it is important to acknowledge that the survey content comprised a number of questions about the health of BC cats, which may have negatively affected preference scores for BC images in the immediate term. This said, the authors consider the findings, and their novelty, important in guiding future research and ideas concerning preferences for cats with varying characteristics, including skull shape. This may be especially important considering the current increase in the use of images of cats in social media.