The Crossroads of Behavior and Genes
Applying what we learn from gene association research.
Posted March 4, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Behavior can be simplified as the product of an individual’s genotype multiplied by the environment.
- Several studies have investigated associations between coat patterns, colors, and behavioral traits in dogs and cats.
- Animal behavioral studies should document how traits are defined, the need for consensus, and various limitations among studies.
by Lena Provost, DVM, DACVB
Veterinary behavioral genetics is a thrilling field with the potential to improve the welfare of future generations of pets. But how much weight do we give these studies, since genes are only part of any individual's story?
Behavior can be simplified as the product of an individual’s genotype multiplied by the environment. This is likely the most important concept to remember as we read the latest headlines about breeds, genes, and behavior. So, what should we do with new information about behavior and genes that fill our news feeds?
First, appreciate the hard work and dedication put into those studies because it takes a scientist’s diligence and planning. Then realize that behavior is complex and not only influenced by the environment but under polygenic control—that is, the interaction of more than a single gene. Then analyze how the study was done and the limitations so that you can use the information as a guide, rather than a rule.
The field of genetics is always expanding and building on what is known. Since eye color is a readily observed trait, understanding its inheritance may seem simple. In my undergraduate genetics class, I recall learning that eye color inheritance was a Mendelian trait. Years later, I relearned that eye color is a much more complex trait controlled by several genes that may or may not allow for pigmentation of the iris. And I suspect that the scientific community will only add to this knowledge in the future.
Coat color is also readily observed and known to be under polygenic control. Thus, several studies have investigated associations between coat patterns, colors, and behavioral traits in dogs and cats. Early studies of English Cocker Spaniels reported behavioral differences between solid and particolored dogs in reference to aggression towards unfamiliar people. Other studies investigating behavioral differences between red versus black-coated English Cocker Spaniels showed similar results: red-coated dogs were more likely to display aggression than black-coated dogs.
The studies investigating coat color and patterns in cats also found behavioral associations with certain breeds and coat colors. However, these studies used different owner-response questionnaires. They ultimately had conflicting results regarding aggression of what one study referred to as a piebald coat pattern and the other referred to as black/white and gray/white-coated cats. Such findings should highlight the need for consensus and the limitations in behavioral studies.
This brings us to another point: how behavioral traits are defined and quantified. Some behavioral studies report breeds as “bold” or “shy.” It is important to note that the shyness-boldness continuum is a super trait. Super traits attempt to explain an individual's tendency in any situation instead of a specific situation. Thus, some studies may not account for this or reference a different behavioral trait when using certain terminology.
To learn more about the interaction between genetics and behavior, see ACVB's webinar.
Lena Provoost is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist who works at Penn Vet in Philadelphia as a clinician and lecturer in Small Animal Behavior & Welfare. Her Master’s in Science project integrated owner-response questionnaires, in-person behavioral assessments, and evaluating differences in the promoter region of candidate genes. Her major interests include all aspects of cognition, effects, and pain management on behavior, behavioral genetics, and the human-animal bond.