Copyright 2004, Sarah Hartwell

Show cats are bred to meet exacting standards and competition can be fierce. In the past, dirty tricks have included bleach or other noxious substances sprinkled onto cats in their cages and even cats being poisoned or stabbed with hat-pins. Some exhibitors, it seemed, were willing to harm their competitors' cats. Thankfully, such incidents are now far less common, but another type of "interfering" may soon be on the rise - cosmetic surgery.


Cosmetic surgery is not new to the cat show world. In the late 1800s and early 1900s there are references to creating Manx cats through tail-docking and to using dye on cats not just to mask an imperfection, but to entirely change a cat's colour. In the past, cats of nondescript colours could be dyed to create the then popular Maltese (blue) cats. According to an issue of "Our Cats" magazine in 1900, the blue dye dried almost instantly but did not produce the desired solid effect; it had to be supplemented with dye combed into the fur. The catís muzzle would be dyed using a sponge. Within an hour, the owner could have a Maltese cat and if done well, the judges would be none the wiser. Producing a fake tortoiseshell cat took around three hours, because dyes had to be applied in patches using a comb. Some of the dyes were no doubt toxic.

Manxes may undergo more radical intervention. Only tailless Manxes can be shown in championship competition; naturally tailless Manxes are therefore valuable to breeders and exhibitors. Tailed Manxes are sold as pets, but since Joe Public often refuses to believe that Manxes can have tails, most fully tailed Manx kittens are docked at birth (in the USA at least). Joe Public is more receptive to buying an honestly docked Manx because it "looks like a Manx" than to buying a tailed Manx that looks like an ordinary moggy. Manx kittens with tail-stubs may be docked for medical, rather than aesthetic, reasons - the partial tails are prone to painful arthritis and ossification later in life. Removing the kitten's tail-stub prevents the problem; leaving it for later results in the pain of arthritis, the trauma of surgery and the adult cat has to adapt to taillessness. Docked Manx are ineligible for competition, but there are often dark rumours among beaten exhibitors that a winning specimen may not have been born tailless.

Like the Manx, some American Bobtails have long tails that are surgically docked at birth. They are ineligible to show in competition and show judges look for cats with naturally shortened tails that are erect when alert. A few years ago, the cat shelter where I worked took in a tabby cat rescued from Hong Kong whose tail had been "cruelly cut off by a previous owner". It was actually very easy to see and feel that the cat was a natural bobtail, but she was nevertheless homed as a cruelty case! It's easier to distinguish between a natural and a faked bobtail (the end of the tail will look and feel wrong) than it is to detect a faked Manx. Judges may soon be looking out for a lot of other alterations. There are also tales of "ear reduction surgery" on some Persian cats to reduce slightly too-large ears to the small kittenish ears required by show standards - you need to look closely at the edges of the ears for signs of surgery.

Lesser forms of enhancement are perfectly permissible, for example plucking a few unsightly wrong-coloured hairs from a cat's otherwise perfect coat e.g. the odd white hairs that mar the coat of otherwise black cats. The fur around a cat's nose leather may be plucked or shaved so the nose leather is better displayed (particularly in chinchilla cats where the black rim must be well displayed). However, ever since cat shows began not all exhibitors have restricted themselves to these minor interventions. There are rumours of white lockets, too large to pluck, on solid colour cats being dyed with hair dye or of pale chins, a fault on tabbies, being darkened with dye. If the vet is willing and the exhibitor can afford it, ears can be reshaped and eyelids operated on. So far claims of cosmetic alteration are few and far between and some are entirely fictitious, spread to discredit certain exhibitors. Things may soon change and unless judges are able to spot the signs of cosmetic surgery, there is little the cat fancy can do.

During the late 1990s it was alleged that a Chinchilla Persian had achieved high honours in the USA despite it "being well known" that the cat's ears had been surgically reduced. At that time, the Chinchilla Persians had not been extreme typed to the same extent as the solid Persians. The allegations and rebuttals were discussed on cat-related mailing lists (the social networks of that time). Guidelines went onto websites showing photographs of Chinchilla Persian ears (natural size and set) and noting the signs of cosmetic surgery. Dashed lines on the photos showed the shape and set of ears after cosmetic surgery. The alignment of the hair on the outer part of the ear was one indicator of surgery - did it point towards the ear tip or point off to the side where the ear tip had originally been before reshaping?


A precedent is being set in the world of pet and exhibition dogs. According to Brazilian veterinarian Dr Edgard Brito, plastic surgery can be good for dogs - he offers botox wrinkle reduction, eyebrow correction and even full canine facelifts. While some of these procedures constitute corrective surgery to put right a fault that affects quality of life, others are conducted for aesthetic reasons (owners want their dogs to be beautiful). More worryingly, some procedures are carried out for personal gain in the show ring.

Anita Alt, a breeder of miniature schnauzers, imported a potential show dog from Argentina. Unfortunately, one of Brutus's ears started drooping - a disqualification fault in the show ring. An injection of Restylane later, Brutus's ear now stands up straight and Brutus is a winner in the show ring. However other breeders and dog lovers believe it is unethical for a surgically enhanced dog to win the top prizes. What was once achieved only through careful breeding could now be achieved through surgery, allowing substandard dogs to win. With only 3 minutes in which to judge the animal, it is hard for judges to detect the cosmetic surgery.


Another dangerous aspect of cosmetic surgery for the show ring is that breeds may be weakened. An animal with a genetic defect might have that defect surgically corrected. Show-winning animals, unless they are neuters, are greatly in demand for breeding (especially the males). While they appear perfect, their perfection is a surgically applied gloss and they could well be spreading substandard genes into the next generation.

The most extreme cases of concealment involves prosthetic testicles. An animal with one or both testicles undescended cannot win prizes or be used to breed from. Although a monorchid dog or cat may well be fertile, there is evidence that the trait can be inherited. By fitting a monorchid animal with a prosthetic testicle to match the one that has descended normally, no-one need know that it has a potential genetic defect. Silicon testicles have even spread into dog show urban legend which tells the story of a dog whose "missing" testicle descended naturally and whose prosthetic was revealed when the judge encountered three testes in its scrotum during judging.

Particular physical traits can be mimicked by surgery: tails can be bobbed or removed; ears can be reduced, reshaped and possibly even curled or folded; eyelids can be altered to modify the eye shape; in theory, laser depilation could be used to "improve" hairless cats. White spots can be masked with hair dye. Genetic defects that would result in disqualification can be hidden. A perfect, prize-winning specimen can be created out of a mediocre one. None of those surgically enhanced traits can be passed on to the next generation; its offspring will inherit its hidden imperfections. It may not even have the genes for the desirable traits at all! If that happens, innocent breeders who thought they knew what genes they had in their bloodlines will find they don't actually know what genes their cats carry. A few will compound the problem by sweeping it under the carpet.

Decades of careful breeding might be undone if a widely used sire or dam turns out to have been a cosmetically enhanced fake. The effects, and the distrust, will spread through the cat fancy like ripples in a pond.


Historically, horses have had their tails docked i.e. not trimmed, but had the tail cut off between two caudal vertebrae. When the surgery healed, they were left with a short, brush-like tail that often stood semi-upright, a look that can be seen in many old paintings. Tail alteration still occurs in horses. American Quarter Horses may have the nerves in their tails severed or numbed to make the tail lie flat, depriving the horse of its ability to swish away flies and causing it to be soiled with urine and faeces. It is up to the judges to deter cosmetic surgery cheats by disqualifying horses with lifeless tails. It is up to show organisers to prohibit surgically enhanced horses from competition.

The question is "will judges and show organisers take the initiative and ban cosmetic surgery in show animals?" In Australia, cosmetic surgery on show cattle has already been banned by organisers of the Tasmania Agricultural Show. The cattle must be exhibited as they were bred and with no enhancements - either permanent or short-term - to improve the appearance of their udders.

Paralysed tails and enhanced udders are one thing, but it may be far harder for judges to detect cosmetic surgery on well-furred cats or dogs and to disqualify enhanced animals.


In many countries there is legislation against "mutilation" or unnecessary procedures being carried out on animals. Like dew-claw removal and tail-docking in the USA and UK and like ear-cropping in the USA, cosmetic surgery currently exists in a grey area that is not currently classed as "mutilation" and may, therefore, be legal. Ear-cropping is banned in the UK as it is a mutilation that makes a dog look fierce but, contrary to folklore, does not improve its hearing or reduce ear infections. In the UK, tail-docking is more and more being restricted to working dogs only, but remains legal if performed by a qualified veterinarian. How does this translate from the doggy world to the cat world? The conservative nature of the UK cat fancy means that cosmetic enhancements have not yet become an issue in Britain. In the USA, where doggy mutilation remains part and parcel of the dog fancy and where cat mutilation in the form of declawing is considered acceptable, there may be greater acceptance of cat cosmetic surgery.

If found to be legal and if considered acceptable by owners, cosmetic surgery has huge implications for show animals. Not everyone considers cosmetic surgery to be cheating. An exhibitor with enough money, access to a willing veterinarian and few enough morals can ensure that his/her imperfect specimen has a better chance of winning than more perfect, naturally bred specimens. Cat show judges may soon have to learn how to spot signs of surgical alteration and cat show rules or judging standards may have to be revised to prohibit cosmetic alteration of exhibits.

If show judges don't tackle cosmetic surgery at this early stage and before it becomes accepted practice, the damage will have been done and genes from cosmetically altered, but genetically imperfect, cats will end up in the gene pool, pulling the breed down for generations to come. If cosmetic surgery is not deterred at an early stage, it will be the future generations, for whom cosmetic enhancement is (or at least, should be) prohibited, that will suffer. Breeders will have their work cut out trying to eliminate faults that have been surgically hidden and bred back into their bloodlines.

Cat shows should be about breeding cats to meet an agreed standard. They should not be about who can afford the best cosmetic surgeon for their cats. It's up to judges and show organisers to make sure cat shows remain about careful selective breeding and never deteriorate into a cosmetic surgeon's showcase.