What type of cat do people prefer?

Research investigates people's preferences for cats with normal, squashed or long head shapes.

What kind of cat do people prefer? In general, people prefer a normal skull shape rather than a brachycephalic one, like this Persian cat
A Persian cat. Photo: Ewa Studio/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Lately we’ve been hearing a lot about brachycephalic dogs and the health issues they can have as a result of having a squashed face, which include breathing difficulties and eye issues (read about why people choose brachycephalic dogs).

But what about cats? Some breeds of cat also have squashed faces. A new study by Dr. Mark Farnworth (Nottingham Trent University) et al set out to investigate people’s preferences by asking them to rate photos of different types of cat.

Dr. Farnworth told me in an email,
“There has been quite a change in the companion animal population with more and more consumer desire for extreme conformations. Although these extremes are not yet mainstream (shown by the reduced desirability of cats with skulls that deviate from ‘normal’), people who own the extremes (e.g. Persians or Siamese) show increased preference for cats with similar skull shapes. We could equate this to a form of ‘brand loyalty’ 
“The problem is that cats with brachycephalia (squashed faces) are also much more likely to have substantial health issues. In this way ‘brand loyalty’ within cat breeds can perpetuate ill-health within large numbers of cats and possibly drive the breeding of even greater extremes. This means that, despite owners unquestionably loving their cats, ultimately the cats pay the health costs of our choices.”

The study asked people to say how much they liked particular cats on a scale from 1 – 10. Some of the cats were brachycephalic, some dolicocephalic, and some mesocephalic. What does this mean?

Brachycephalic means a short, flattened skull and squashed face. Breeds of cat that are brachycephalic are the Exotic Shorthair, British Shorthair, Persian (pictured above), and Scottish Fold.

Brachycephalic breeds are more likely to make noises when they breathe and to suffer from respiratory problems than breeds that are not brachycephalic (Farnworth 2016). They are also more likely to lead a sedentary lifestyle. Brachycephalic cat breeds can also be susceptible to eye problems, neurological issues, and dental issues due to their head shape, all of which can affect quality of life.

Dolicocephalic cats have a relatively long skull. The Abyssinian (pictured below), Siamese, and Sphynx cat breeds are dolicocephalic. At the moment, relatively little is known about the health consequences for cats that have this kind of skull shape.

What kind of cat do people prefer? In general people seem to prefer cats with a normal skull shape, although breeds of cat with a long skull, like this Abyssinian, are popular
An Abyssinian cat. Photo: Alla Lla/Shutterstock.

The scientists say that six of the top 10 most popular breeds of cat in the US are either brachycephalic or dolicocephalic.

Mesocephalic basically means a normal skull shape. If you have a moggy, chances are your cat is mesocephalic.

While extreme skull shapes may cause health issues, there's not necessarily an effect on lifespan in cats. The paper says the average non-pedigree cat lives 14 years, Persians for 14.1 years, and Abyssinians for 10 years.

Before the cat photos were used in the questionnaire, a number of vets gave their opinion as to the skull shape of each cat, from brachycephalic through mesocephalic to dolicocephalic, with ratings from extreme to mild.

There were two versions of the questionnaire conducted at slightly different time points. The first version was available in English and translated into Mandarin for cat owners in China. 9 cat photos were used. The second version had an additional set of photos to make 15 in total. As well as the English version it was translated into Spanish for cat owners in Latin America.

The questionnaire also assessed people’s preferences for coat length, eye colour, and coat colour, which in this study was blue/grey, ginger, tabby, or white/pale/point. (No black cats were included).

So what was the most preferred type of cat? In general, people preferred:
  • Cats with a mesocephalic or mild dolicocephalic skull shape. Brachycephalic cats and cats with moderate or extreme dolicocephaly were the least popular
  • Cats with a medium or long coat rather than short-haired cats
  • Cats with green or blue eyes rather than orange or brown eyes
  • Cats with blue/grey, ginger or tabby coloured coats

People who worked in an animal care field were the least likely to like brachycephalic cats, perhaps because they had some experience of the health issues that can affect these breeds. But this kind of work was not linked to being more or less likely to like the dolicocephalic cats.

People who owned a brachycephalic cat were, not surprisingly, more likely to like this kind of cat. And people who owned a dolicocephalic cat were more likely to like the dolicocephalic cats in the survey.

Small variations either side of the norm (towards brachycephaly or dolicocephaly) were not really preferred. The scientists suggest this may be why people began to breed for bigger variations.

There was a geographical effect too, as people in Asia were more likely to like brachycephalic cats and also dolicocephalic cats.

1239 cat owners completed the survey, of which 92% were female. The researchers tried to recruit some respondents who had a professional involvement in pet care, and almost 19% of participants fell into this category.

64% of the cat owners had a moggy (non-purebred cat).

Although this study relied on a relatively small number of headshots of different types of cats, rather than a larger set (or even videos), it’s a valuable contribution to the literature. It’s important to understand why people are drawn to particular types of cat. Just as with dogs, there are conversations to be had about the breeding of cats and how to take good health into account.

The full paper is open access and includes the photos of the cats, if you want to take a look.

If you enjoyed this post, you'll love my book, Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Modern Cat magazine calls it "a must-have guide to improving your cat's life."

What kind of cat do you like best?

You might also like: Irresistible: Emotions affect choice of breed despite welfare issues and 5 things to do for your cat today.

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Farnworth, M. J., Packer, R., Sordo, L., Chen, R., Caney, S., & Gunn-Moore, D. A. (2018). In the Eye of the Beholder: Owner Preferences for Variations in Cats’ Appearances with Specific Focus on Skull Morphology. Animals, 8(2), 30.
Farnworth, M. J., Chen, R., Packer, R. M., Caney, S. M., & Gunn-Moore, D. A. (2016). Flat Feline Faces: Is Brachycephaly Associated with Respiratory Abnormalities in the Domestic Cat (Felis catus)?. PloS one, 11(8), e0161777.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. As an Etsy affiliate and Marks and Spencer affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

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