Just Ask the Expert: What role does genetics play in a pet's temperament?

Just Ask the Expert: What role does genetics play in a pet's temperament?

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Oct 01, 2010

Dr. Tynes welcomes behavior questions from veterinarians and veterinary technicians.
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I have heard in lectures that male cats contribute proportionately more genetic influence on offspring behavior than do females, probably to balance the fact that females have more socialization influence than absent males. If this is true, do you know of a scientific reference to support this, or is this theoretical?

Similarly, do you think a male dog contributes more genetic influence on behavior? I work with a canine breeding kennel that wants to improve the personality of their puppies. Would it be worthwhile for them to find a healthy dog of the correct breed with a great personality and buy its semen to artificially inseminate their bitches?

Katherine Brown, DVM
Hillside Veterinary Hospital
Cottonwood Heights, Utah


Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, DACVB
We should all be familiar with this subject since it is so critical that we play a role in educating breeders about the importance of breeding animals that are behaviorally as well as physically sound. A great deal of research over the years has clearly demonstrated that many behavioral traits have a genetic basis in both dogs and cats. The research in cats, in particular, has demonstrated that the friendliness of the father has a significant effect on the friendliness of its offspring, regardless of the amount of early handling received by the kittens.

However, no study has clarified the genetic role of the queen on offspring friendliness. In order to do this, several litters of kittens with the same father would have to be cross-fostered by mothers of differing levels of friendliness. If an unfriendly mother raised a kitten from a friendly father and friendly mother, the resulting behavior of that kitten might help us to separate the genetic effects from the environmental effects. For example, if the kitten grew up to be unfriendly, that would suggest that environmental effects may outweigh genetics, at least regarding this one trait. If, conversely, a kitten with the same friendly father but an unfriendly mother could be raised by a friendly mother, its resulting behavior, especially if significantly different from that of the other kittens, could add even more to the picture. If this kitten turned out to be unfriendly, that could suggest that the mother's genetics played a more important role than the father's genetics and the environment. Ultimately, without removing the kittens from their own mother, the environmental effects cannot be separated from the genetic effects.

Studies of temperament and personality in dogs have also suggested varying degrees of heritability of different personality traits. In particular, shyness or fearfulness seems to have a high heritability. Other studies have determined that aggression and a characteristic the researchers called boldness are heritable. While some studies have suggested the presence of stronger maternal influences on behavior, others have found minimal maternal influence on behavior, and none appear to have specifically looked at paternal genetic influences. Clearly, we still have much to learn about the genetics of behavior.

While it is understood that each parent contributes half of their offsprings' genetic material, whether or not they vary in their specific contributions to different traits remains to be elucidated. Until more is learned, it would be ideal to encourage breeders to evaluate all potential breeding animals equally and only breed animals that exhibit good temperament and good health.

Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, DACVB
Premier Veterinary Behavior Counseling
P.O. Box 1040
Fort Worth, TX 76101

SUGGESTED READING

1. Goddard ME, Beilharz RG. A multivariate analysis of the genetics of fearfulness in potential guide dogs. Behav Genet 1985;15(1):69-80.

2. McCune S. The impact of paternity and early socialisation on the development of cats' behaviour to people and novel objects. Appl Anim Behav Sci 1995;45:109-124.

3. Reisner IR, Houpt KA, Erb HN, et al. Friendliness to humans and defensive aggression in cats: the influence of handling and paternity. Physiol Behav 1994;55;(6):1119-1124.

4. Strandberg E, Jacobsson J, Saetre P. Direct genetic, maternal and litter effects on behavior in German shepherd dogs in Sweden. Livest Prod Sci 2005;93:33-42.

5. Turner DC, Feaver J, Mendl M, et al. Variation in domestic cat behavior towards humans: a paternal effect. Anim Behav 1986;34:1890-1901.

6. Wilsson E, Sundgren PE. Behaviour test for eight-week old puppies—heritabilities of tested behaviour traits and its correspondence to later behaviour. Appl Anim Behav Sci 1998;58:151-162.