NOVELTY BREEDS AND ULTRA-CATS - A BREED TOO FAR?
Copyright 1994 - 2010 Sarah Hartwell

Important Note 1: It is necessary to understand that the European and American definition of "abnormality, "defect" or "deformity"" differs greatly. What American breeders see as a breed trait (short legs) many European countries condemn as a deformity. What is awarded high honours in the USA may be condemned in Europe.

Important Note 2: Quotations represent the opinions of quoted individuals or bodies on the date given with each quotation.

When Ann Baker's Ragdoll cats appeared on British TV in the early 1990s, animal welfare groups were concerned that people would be encouraged to toss cats around like cushions. Her IRCA-trademarked Ragdolls were bred for extreme placidity, a trait not found in the wild where a lack of defensive behaviour would be disadvantageous.

The dachshund-like Munchkin caused uproar among people concerned that breeders had gone too far for novelty's sake. In the wild, short-legged cats would not survive unless the mutation proved advantageous e.g. for following prey down burrows, or at least did not hinder the cats' ability to escape danger.

The wrinkly, bald Sphynx is now accepted in many countries despite initial opposition. When this article was first written, the Peke-Faced Persian had recently arrived in the U.K. (by 2000 it was apparently no longer being bred); maybe the Munchkin, already rumoured to suffer from back problems and from compression of the chest, will arrive too. As an ordinary pet-owner, I just have to ask "What on earth are cat-fanciers doing to cats?"

In human-controlled conditions, mutations or traits can be perpetuated for aesthetic or curiosity reasons rather than in the best interests of the cat. This can lead to curious but healthy breeds such as the Japanese Bobtail or to curious breeds with drawbacks if there are lethal genes or other abnormalities e.g. the Manx.

"Mankind has done bizarre things with his experiments in cross-breeding [meaning seelctive breeding] to the original dog of the wilds. He has tried to do the same to the cat, but has failed completely to alter his first original loveliness. A few breeders have succeeded in producing one generation of pug-nosed, watery-eyed cats, but the kittens of these induced freaks have always returned triumphantly to just cat." (Katharine L Simms in "They Walked Beside Me" [1954])

"There is always a danger that some attractive characteristic may be spoiled by a section of fanciers who for their own ends may breed to extremes. It may be that in gaining the end, the animals produced will be delicate, dull-witted, even deformed and non-viable. There are cases where such types are almost cherished because they please the producers or the perverted tastes of their customers." (Albert C Jude regarding dysgenic products of breeding in "Cat Genetics" [1955])

"Breeders of pedigree domestic shorthair cats can be heartily congratulated upon the fact that they have not sought to alter the appearance of their show cats. The poor Siamese, skimpy and narrow-jawed, the longhairs, short nosed and sometimes with occluded sinuses, have suffered through manís incomprehensible desire to alter their appearance. Such alterations arise from the wish to perpetuate and accentuate the features in the cats that are deemed attractive; the method is always the same one, based upon logic and common sense; the original Persians tended to width of face, and this appealed to breeders, who chose the individuals with the widest facial contours to breed from, mating together the pair best conforming in this respect. Sometimes the lower jaws became weaker and the chins almost non-existent, so that the poor things, staggering under the weight of their exaggeratedly heavy pelage, had teeth that did not meet properly." (Phyllis Lauder: "The British, European and American Shorthair Cat", 1981)

"In the cat fancy, mutation is often spelt NEW BREED" (A Cat of Your Own, 2nd Ed. 1993).

"When selection was made for showing purposes, genetic disasters occurred. In cat breeds, physical mutations that were previously allowed to perish are now being developed merely for the sake of difference. Not all are harmful, but some are achieved at considerable cost to the cat." (Roger Tabor [naturalist & biologist], The Rise of the Cat).

Responsible breeders try to eliminate abnormalities such as the ones mentioned by Tabor in relation to Manx cats although others are willing to perpetuate them for their novelty value. There is a temptation to turn almost any mutation into a breed for the sake of novelty and although cats have not (yet) been bred to such extremes as dogs, some breeds have changed greatly over the years and are still changing. Gebhardt wrote that defects had not been bred out of the Manx - are we in danger of deliberately breeding defects into breeds?

Note: There have been attempts to copyright terms such as "Traditional" or "Older Style" when applied to breeds; these terms are part of everyday descriptive English language and are used to describe a style of cat which adheres to a historical body-type in cases where an ultra-typed version also exists. Such terms have been in common usage in the UK, Australia and USA over many years. In the context of this article, trademark names are used in accordance with copyright laws i.e. as part of a review or commentary and not as misappropriation or competition.

WHAT THE PAPERS SAY

The December 11 (1994) edition of the British "Sunday Express" newspaper printed the following:

Judges at the 1994 National Cat Show at Olympia were so concerned by the increase in breeding extremely freakish cats that they voted to ban the Over-Typed Persian from competing. Other previously banned mutant breeds include the Rag Doll, which is so flaccid and passive as a sofa cushion that it cannot protect itself at all; the American Munchkin, which has legs so short it can barely walk, the Peke-faced Persian, whose face is so flat that its eyes and sinuses are deformed and it has to be on antibiotics for life, the Scottish Fold and the American Curl, which have deformed ears, often accompanied by deformed skulls and joints, and the Sphynx which is virtually hairless and so very vulnerable to cold. All these breeds were developed by intensive inbreeding (offspring back to mother) of spontaneous mutants which once would have been humanely put down at birth but have been propagated in response to a fashion in recent years for extremely bizarre pets.

"It's a perversion we view with abhorrence" say the RSPCA, and even the Cat Fancy admits that "The whole idea that you can create breeds of cats like a fashion designer designs clothes is terribly cruel". Which is better late than never, considering that one breeder at the 1994 show claimed that "90 per cent of Persians, whether they're ultras or not, have blocked tear ducts." The RSPCA are also concerned at a new breed, the Bengal, which is a cross between a wild cat and a domestic, and could be dangerous, especially to children.

The account was alarmist and contained a number of inaccuracies and misconceptions about the breeds themselves, but it reflected the concerns over ultra-typing and concerns about 'novelty breeds' where the cats' health could be compromised.

While breeds based on 'deformities' aren't finding favour with the judges, ultra-typing is permitted. The words of the standards must be re-interpreted as the cat moves further and further away from the original type while still adhering to the 'letter of the law'. Though the Peke-faced Persian is unacceptable, the standard for the 'normal' Persian may soon have to be rewritten to keep the nose leather below its eyes. Ultra-types have given a whole new slant on requirements for the nose leather to be placed 'high' and it seems that requirements for a 'short muzzle' are being interpreted as 'no muzzle'. It will soon be necessary to define the outer limits of what is acceptable if the cats are not to suffer.

Never mind needing help with grooming, some modern Persians have muzzles so short that they cannot eat properly.

 

CAT AND ULTRA-CAT

The current trend is to make existing breeds more extreme - producing 'ultra-type' cats. If the 'ultra-type' finds favour with judges, more breeders start to produce it in order to compete. Standards get revised to accommodate it and the 'old style' becomes unfashionable and rarely seen, even though non-exhibitor cat owners may prefer it. Some breeders feel pressurised into conforming to the new look in order to be competitive on the showbench.

"It is the role of judges to penalise exhibits which ... show incorrect type due to over-typing. If judges lack the willpower and confidence to pursue this course, eventually a new look is set into place within the breed and the standard altered to incorporate that 'look'. This is not always in the best interests of the breed." (Letters, National Cat, August 1993)

"A standard which adopts an 'anything goes' attitude allows breeders to create more and more extreme specimens with disastrous results for the health of the breed." (Jeff Spall, Letters, Show World, March 1993)

The Siamese once resembled a shorthair with coloured points. It was chunkier than the modern fragile-looking Siamese with their ultra-tubular shape, ultra-wedge-shaped face and ultra-slim legs which arose through selective breeding for an extreme foreign shape. Although both types are said to occur naturally, breeders have worked to 'refine' the Siamese. According to an American breeder of traditional style Siamese cats, the CFA Siamese breed council actually changed the definition of a Siamese cat so that the original cat can no longer be shown because it does not meet the revised breed standard. The new definition not only encourages, but actually drive the breeders to produce an even more extreme animal than was current when the standard changed. The natural Siamese/Oriental cats I have found in Thailand and Malaysia are not cobby like European cats, but they are nowhere near as extreme as the modern show-quality Siamese, so I am convinced that this "refined" style is an invention of the breeder.

According to Tabor, in "The Rise of the Cat", the build of the Siamese has been taken to extremes. American and British breeders aimed to change the true Siamese into a more "foreign" cat than the real thing, selecting for a longer-looking, thinner, lighter-built animal. In response, US show schedules specified a "dainty" cat, preferring frailer animals with long, tapering, wedge-shaped heads with flat foreheads. Tabor writes that relatively few Siamese were shown at main CFA and TICA shows in 1991 compared to the numbers during the 1980s: "the point came when the show breed could be pushed no further and disastrously collapsed, for these genetically weak cats were prone to illness and breeding from them became difficult and uneconomic."

Tabor additionally noted that Viki Markstein (TICA) and Richard Gebhardt (past President of the CFA) believed that if the USA had followed the British example and embraced other Oriental Colourpoints as Siamese, the wider gene pool would have averted disaster. He believes that lines were taken too far with little or no regard for the authenticity of breed and that the modern showbench Siamese needs fresh genetic input from robust pet lines of Siamese (traditional type Siamese, Thai Siamese or even cats from Thailand).

In America, there have been claims that the breeders of the new-style Siamese recognized that their "look" could only be maintained by, and within, a controlled breeding program, and hence they encouraged the new style in order to capture a market. Breeders of older-style (pre-ultra-typed) cats claim to have been marginalized as the new-style breeders persuaded cat fancies and cat owners that only the ultra-slim cats were the genuine article. And of course, any breeders disagreeing with this not only lost market share, but also lost access to ultra-typed stud cats.

Many cat lovers, though, hanker after the old-type Siamese. A number of American breeders refused to adopt the modern, slimline Siamese and the traditional Apple- or round-head Siamese is now making a comeback alongside the elongated 'Classic' Siamese in America. That pet owners express a preference for the traditional style Siamese is a matter of polite tension between traditional style and new-style breeders. Allegedly the presence of the traditional style Siamese in a CFA show's household pet class can virtually stop all new-style Siamese sales at that show and, for a time after, in that show's geographic area as the cat-loving public look for old-type Siamese cats. In Britain, Colourpoint British Shorthairs and Tonkinese are finding favour among those who prefer the old style Siamese and as a result of public interest, there are now breeders working with the traditional style Siamese.

A number of breeds are now divided two or even three ways among "classic" (modern), "contemporary" (even more modern) and "traditional style" (how it used to look - sometimes termed "older style", "original" or "authentic"). Cats now available in modern and older styles include (but are not limited to) the Persian/Himalayan (colourpoint Persian) and their shorthaired counterparts the Exotic Shorthairs, Foreign/Oriental breeds such as the Siamese/Balinese, Havana and Foreign Selfs, Korat, Russian Shorthair, Burmese and Abyssinian/Somali and even comparative newcomers such as the Bengal and the Cornish Rex.

An American breeder of the older or traditional style of Siamese and Balinese explained to me that she exhibits, but does not compete against the modern cats. Breeders of the modern cats apparently don't like her exhibiting because the ordinary public prefers the old-type Siamese and they place orders for traditional style Siamese kittens and not for Classic Siamese kittens! Some cat fanciers complain that the Balinese, once a longhaired version of the Siamese, is now little more than a Siamese cat with a fluffy tail and not a longhaired version of the Siamese at all!

The most striking differences are found in the two oldest recognised breeds - the Siamese and the Persian Longhair. In general, British and European breeds are more moderate in type than their American counterparts (American cat fanciers may argue that the European varieties are "less refined" than American ones). The European Burmese and the British Cornish Rex find favour with those who find the round-headed look of the American Burmese or the leggy foreign style of the American Cornish Rex too extreme. Some "European" breeds now co-exist alongside the American versions and show just how far the breeds have diverged in the two countries, not just in type but also in permissible colours!

Because of the difference in conformation (American Burmese are compact and short-nosed) the GCCF does not permit "imported Burmese", or their progeny, to be registered as Burmese under its classification system. If a Burmese cat is imported and bred from, its status (and that of its descendants) may be reviewed only when there is sufficient evidence available to confirm that the "Contemporary" genes are not present in the descendants. This prevents the sort of skull defects found in American Burmese (associated with the round head shape) from afflicting Burmese cats in Britain and ensures that the more moderate foreign type, preserved from the original Burmese standard, is not compromised. The "contemporary" look is not recognised outside of North America hence "Burmese" in this article denotes the Burmese type found in Britain, Europe, Australia and New Zealand while "American Burmese" denotes the type recognised only in North America.

Peke-face Persians (solid red and red tabby) generally conformed to the red Persian standard. However, they had slightly higher ears and a very different head due to the skull structure differing greatly from the standard Persian. The bone structure created a very round head with a very strong chin. Eyes were large, round and very wide-set. The nose was depressed and indented between the eyes. The muzzle was wrinkled and there was a horizontal break located between the usual nose break and the top dome of the head. This second break created half-moon boning above the eyes and an additional horizontal indentation in the center of the forehead. The Standard for the Peke-Face called for a brow ridge, dimple, and a double dome. The term peke-face is often incorrectly used to describe extreme-typed Persians, some of which are certainly flat-faced, but do not have the forehead indentation or brow ridge of the true Peke-face Persian. Peke-face reds appeared in litters of normal reds, but mating two Peke-face Persians together was not guarantee of getting Peke-face kittens in the resultant litter.

According the the CFA, true Peke-face red Persians are not seen in exhibition today and few CFA judges can remember handling one. Only one (a male) was registered with the CFA in 1993 and a total of only 98 had been registered since 1958. In November 2003. the CFA's Persian Breed Council discussed eliminating the Peke-Face red and red tabby Persian. Only one such cat was registered as a Peke-face in 2002 and there were only 3 Peke-face Persians registered in 2000 and 2001. It was not even certain that those cats were genuine Peke-faced Persians or were extreme-type Persians erroneously registered as Peke-faces. No CFA breeder was known to be working with Peke-face Persians. It is unlikely that any geneuine Peke-face Persians survive in 2010.

However, the Peke-face may have left its legacy in the increasingly brachycephalic modern Persians in the USA. During the mid 1970s and early 1980s, American Persians changed dramatically. The pre-1980s look had heavy brows, flat-topped heads rather than domed heads. During this period, the "sweet, open-expression" was lost as fanciers pursued an extreme head type (ultra-type). These Persians were dubbed "pigs" or described as having a "piggy expression." The nose became narrow and ultra-high; the breaks above the eyes were moving towards the forehead; the eyes were tiny and the jaws often misaligned to produce a frowning mouth. It is suggested that Peke-Face red Persians were bred to other solid colour Persians to produce this piggy look. The teardrop-shaped eye of modern ultras is attribited to the legacy of Peke-face cats. The new look was deemed an exciting development and open-ended standards favoured this look on the showbench. During the 1990s, both open-face and Persian pigs were advertised, but the trend later moved back towards the healthier open-face cats. Besides which, the piggy Persians were just plain ugly.

BREED STANDARDS - DANGEROUSLY OPEN ENDED

Breeders and registries like to argue that all that is happening is that the breed standard is itself is not changing, but modern cats are getting closer to their breed standard. The problem is that breed standards are dangerously open-ended. Early breeders apparently did not realise the extremes of selective breeding which would be used to create more and more extreme specimens because the breed standard did not say when to stop shifting the ears or nose.

Early Angora - the ancestor of modern Persians

100 years of selective breeding later

60 years later - plenty of fur, but still has a muzzle

1990s Persian - "the smashed-in" look

 

"High nose leather" in Persians has resulted in the nose being flat against the face and practically between the cat's eyes (with detrimental effects on tear ducts and nasal passages). A logical conclusion to the phrase "high nose leather" would result in the nose being above the eyes. As a result, some registries have had to specify the position of the top of the nose leather in relation to the lower rim of the eyes.

"Ears set low and wide" is another open-ended statement which could result in ears being on the sides of the cat's head. A call for long, svelte Siamese with large wide-set ears and long nose has led to frail, anorexic-looking specimens with bat-ears and banana-profiles.

The British Shorthair has now moved so far away from a refined version of the household pet that it is getting ever closer to being a shorthaired Persian (Exotic).

So long as breed standards are open-ended, the way is clear for cats to become more and more extreme and for cat breeders and judges to deny that ultra-typing is not only happening, but is out of control with judges pressurised to change standards rather than to penalise dangerously ultra-typed specimens. There is also the danger of inbreeding if a particularly typey stud cat is used to "improve" the breed. In later generations, his name will appear multiple times in a cat's pedigree in an attempt to produce more cats like him. This is what happened in Siamese cats - the name of Fan Tee Cee (shown in the 1960s and 1970s) appeared in more and more Siamese pedigrees, sometimes several times in a single pedigree, as breeders were anxious to fix the Fan Tee Cee look in their own breeding lines (see The Pros and Cons of Inbreeding for more information).

FLAT-FACED CATS

Drawings and stuffed specimens show that the original Persian was similar to the Angora. Persians have changed greatly and are still changing today; the trend being towards the American 'Piggy' (Ultra-type or Extreme) style. These have nose breaks so high that their nostrils are almost between their tear-shaped eyes and their mouths do not seem to close fully.

We tend to think of this as a modern trend, but back in 1958, breeder and author PM Soderberg wrote in "Pedigree Cats, Their Varieties, breeding and Exhibition" "Perhaps in recent times there has been a tendency to over-accentuate this type of short face, with the result that a few of the cats seen at shows have faces which present a peke-like appearance. This is a type of face which is definitely recognized in the United States, and helps to form a special group within the show classification for the [Persian] breed. There are certainly disadvantages when the face has become too short, for this exaggeration of type is inclined to produce a deformity of the tear ducts, and running eyes may be the result. A cat with running eyes will never look at its best because in time the fur on each side of the nose becomes stained, and thus detracts from the general appearance." Soderberg repeated the plea against ultra-typing in another section: "The nose should be short, but perhaps a plea may be made here that the nose is better if it is not too short and at the same time uptilted. A nose of this type creates an impression of grotesqueness which is not really attractive, and there is always a danger of running eyes"

The short muzzle causes problems with eating. Cats cut their food using their side teeth (carnassials). Their muzzle has evolved into its natural shape to suit the cat's diet and lifestyle. Many flat-faced cats must "throw" their food into the air in order to manoeuvre it into their mouths (like a bird swallowing a fish). Some owners of Ultra-typed Persians and Exotics (shorthaired Persian-type) puree their cat's food so the cat can lap it up. Breeding for extreme facial type has made the cat even more dependent on humans and has compromised its lifestyle.

Some breeders are alarmed by this trend; it can cause problems with undershot jaws. Not all societies accept ultra-type cats. Maybe they will eventually have to accept them due to pressure of numbers. Personally, I find the 'punched-in look' unattractive and prefer the 'Open-faced' Persian, with its round eyes and more of a muzzle. They have beautiful sweet expressions and I hope that they don't lose out as judges get more used to seeing Ultra-types.

The American Red/Red Tabby Persian was taken to extremes with the 'Peke-faced' Persian. Peke-faceds occur spontaneously in litters and were established as a breed despite reservations about their health. According to a columnist in the American 'CATS MAGAZINE', they are dying out; the squashed and wrinkled muzzle being accompanied by a high palate, causing suckling problems in the kittens and high kitten mortality (as high as 50%). Peke-Faced kittens often need to be delivered by caesarian. Adult Peke-faceds often have breathing difficulties and constricted tearducts with tears trickling constantly down their cheeks. When I saw them on TV, I cried too. The glorious longhaired, heavy-boned, sweet-faced Persian, like those my grandmother kept, had been sacrificed on the altar of novelty. There is nothing beautiful about a cat with a smashed-in face.

In 1991, Roger Tabor commented on the Peke-faced Persian on British TV. The British cat fancy considers it "over-typed" i.e taken too far. The CFA standard stated: "Nose should be very short and depressed, or indented between the eyes. There should be a decidedly wrinkled muzzle." In other words, there is no longer any muzzle. Tabor commented that it is hard to produce this shape without having accompanying breathing difficulties and faulty teeth due to the compressed muzzle. While researching his TV series, he found that even good type cats were prone to watering or running eyes as the draining ducts to the nose are compressed and notes that it is "breeding gone too far, yet it often wins top American honours".

THE OLD AND THE NEW
OLD-STYLE PERSIAN AND THE MODERN FLAT-FACED VERSION

The American Burmese is now heading much the same way with a shorter nose and more domed skull than the Burmese recognised outside of North America. A New Zealand Burmese breeder has described the American look as "squished face" while an American Burmese enthusiast describes the cats as "pug-like". American breeders find the European cats equally alien-looking. In 1958, when the Burmese was a recent addition to the showbench, PM Soderberg wrote in "Pedigree Cats" "It is to be hoped that the experimental fervour of a few breeders will not try to alter this cat too much from its original shape and colour. Let it remain Burmese." In Britain, it has remained Burmese as Soderberg wished. In America it has become something quite different.

MINI-CATS AND MEGA-CATS

Cats are not as diverse in size as dogs, the smallest is probably the Singapura and the largest the Maine Coon or Ragdoll. There have been attempts at breeding miniature cats in America where the 'Mei Toi' was advertised as the 'first genetically miniature cat, mature at 4-5 lb' though I've seen nothing more on the breed. Mei Toi Munchkins are now being advertised in their place.

In 1996 I was contacted by a Persian breeder whose 14 lb stud tom was consistently siring miniature kittens, apparently as a result of a spontaneous mutation of the germ cell. The trait appeared to be dominant but the stud cat was normal size, suggesting a mutation to his sperm-producing cells. There were concerns that miniature cats might carry recessive genes for normal size and might sire normal-sized kittens on miniature females with disastrous results. Several test breedings were done under the guidance of vets and a geneticist and the miniature Persians have so far proved to be healthy and vigorous. 76% of the kittens sired by that particular stud were miniatures, with two degrees of miniaturisation: Toy Persians mature at approximately 5 lbs; Teacup Persians mature at approximately 3-4 lbs.

Miniaturisation has occurred separately in another breeding line of Persians. A New York Persian breeder selectively bred undersized cats to progressively downsize the Persian/Himalayan breed. Like Ann Baker, she bypassed the normal breed registration process by trade-marking the cats. These days, trade-marking is a good way of getting a controversial breed recognised.

At the other end of the scale are the mega-cats. Some breeders have tried to breed giant cats by crossing existing large breeds together (e.g. the "Renegade"). Since domestic cats seem to have an upper size limit, breeders sometimes look to wild species of small cat to give the size a boost. Cats are inter-fertile with numerous wild species and the offspring may inherit the size of the wild parent.

The desirability, or otherwise, of giant cats is summed up by British biologist/naturalist Roger Tabor: "So far the catís size is the one parameter that has not changed significantly, but it is surely just a matter of time before that comes about through mutation or genetic manipulative techniques. The concept of a domestic cat the size of a lion is unnerving, but the hybrids with wild species that have already been produced could be a step on the way. We accept Rottweilers as house pets despite their genetic selection for aggression, so who will challenge the inevitable insanity of large house cats wandering their neighbourhood?"

The Munchkin is a normal breed with mini-legs. The cat's spine is not like the dog's spine, so these cats are not as prone to spinal problems as are dachshund dogs despite early reservations (and the continued reservations of the British GCCF). However there are concerns that the mutation is not as harmless as it was originally claimed thought although it is probably less harmful than the spinal problems which can occur in longer-established breeds such as the Manx or the Scottish Fold. Recent breeder and veterinary reports indicate that a condition called lordosis (causing chest compression) occurs in Munchkins and the small size of litters suggests that some kittens die soon after conception and are reabsorbed by the mother i.e. the gene has a lethal effect. With the advent of the Munchkin, a whole new trend awaits - there is now the potential to introduce the short-legged trait into any breed of cat to produce cats which don't jump on your tables or counters!

A step further gives us cats with almost no front legs at all. The Twisty Cat is the ultimate in non-destructive cats. With its forelegs reduced to flippers, it must hop or hobble. Despite its disability, there are those who would deliberately breed such cats and, worryingly, there are those who would own them - not out of compassion, but as a novelty. See Twisty Cats and The Ethics of Breeding for Deformity for information and pictures of this mutation.

MILD OR WILD?

Many cat lovers consider that breeds carrying wild blood demonstrate yet another novelty-value extreme. Hybridization for curiosity's sake is not new - plenty of zoos have exhibited Tigons and Leopons and domestic/wildcat hybrids were bred as far back as the 1800s.

Only recently have hybrids been the basis for new breeds. Bengals combine a wild appearance with a docile temperament and find favour with people who might otherwise have bought an exotic wildcat kitten obtained by killing the mother. The Bengal's wild heritage, though part of the novelty value, does not seem to have created any health problems.

There is now an ever increasing variety of wild-derived breeds - Bengals, Safaris, Chausies, Savannahs, Viverrals, Machbagrals, Euro-Chausies, Desert Lynx and more. Cats have been hybridised with Jungle Cats, Asian Leopard Cats, Servals, Bobcats, Fishing Cats, Geoffroy's Cats, European Wildcats, Margays, Rusty-Spotted Cats and Blackfooted Cats. There is also interest in using the diminutive Sand Cat (F margarita) and the attractive Marbled Cat (F marmorata). There is reputedly a person working with Bengal/Canadian Lynx hybrids. Some hybrids are a natural dead end due to infertility, but others have produced cats which look like miniature panthers, miniature leopards, miniature cougars or little lynxes. It is possible to have a wild-looking, mild-mannered cat.

A number of wild species are domesticable. Modern pet cats are domesticated African Wildcats with a few assorted genes contributed by the wild species listed above. The Geoffroy's Cat is so domesticable that some zoologists are surprised that South Americans did not bother to domesticate them in prehistory. The Margay also has the tendency to become tame. Another species where at least some individuals are tame is the African Sand Cat. Living in desert regions, perhaps it did not come to the notice of humans. The Rusty-Spotted Cat is reported to interbreed naturally with domestic cats in India. Its kittens are reported to become tame and to make good pets though this has not been properly verified.

For some people, the preferred pet cat of the future may not be a hybrid, but a domestic version of one of those wild species. For others it will be a hybrid where the more dependable temperament of the domestic cat prevails. The interest in hybridization is so great that breeders are willing to surmount quite extreme problems to produce new hybrids. For example the African Serval is more than twice the size of a domestic cat and it takes some ingenuity for the two different species to mate in the first place. The different gestation periods mean that kittens are often born prematurely and must be hand-reared until strong enough to suckle from a domestic cat (a female serval may kill them accidentally). And after all of that, only the female hybrids can be used for further developing the breed since the males are sterile!

At present, there is no saying where hybridisation will end; there are plenty of domestic breeds not yet crossed with a wild type cat and there are already hybrids which mix the genes of more than one wild species and where natural mating fails, artificial insemination is possible. If there is a problem with mismatched gestation period, why not implant the embryos into a different host mother? How long, in fact, before it is possible to simply splice a few genes from a wild species into the domestic cat's genome to transfer the cheetah's spots and lion's mane to pet cats. This may seem like science fiction, but genetically modified pet cats is closer than you may think.

See Domestic x Wild Hybrids for more information on the various wild/domestic hybrids.

GENETICALLY MODIFIED HYPOALLERGENIC CATS

A step on from hybrid breeds there are plans for GM cats in the quest for a truly hypoallergenic cat. I am often asked about the "hypoallergenic" Egyptian Hairless Cat and where to find one. There is no such cat. This fictional breed was apparently invented by the TV show "Friends" and then reported as actual fact on websites by vets who had been misled show. A further misunderstanding then led people to look for a "Chinese Hairless Cat"; again there is no such thing.

It was irresponsible of the show to mislead viewers, not just about a non-existent breed of cat, but also to perpetuate the myth of hairless cats being hypoallergenic. Possibly they assumed that the breed name "Sphynx" meant it was Egyptian and did not actually bother to check any further. Regardless of the TV fiction, hairless cats are not hypoallergenic. For the vast majority of cat allergy sufferers, it is the dander (dried saliva and/or skin flakes) which causes the allergic reaction, not the actual hair. Hairless cats may produce less dander, but they still produce enough to trigger a reaction in many people. But in the continuing quest for ultra-cat this could all change! In 2001 scientists announced that they had identified the gene which produced the main allergen. This would allow them to genetically modify cats to "knock out" (remove or deactivate) this gene. GM cats would therefore not produce the allergen.

There are major flaws in producing GM cats. Firstly, no-one knows whether the allergen-producing gene also has other functions e.g. involved in producing an enzyme, hormone or part of the immune system. Removing a gene without understanding all of the implications could produce crippled cats or ones unable to produce a vital enzyme. It could be deadly. To find this out, scientists would have to experiment. This would involve producing GM cats which would live and die in the laboratory. In the quest for non-allergenic cats, thousands of kittens would be produced and many (or most) would be killed. Some would have unwanted side-effects and die or be destroyed. In others, the gene might be reactivated; with so many unwanted cats already there would be no point in trying to find homes for these by-products of genetic engineering. Many are likely to be experimented on or killed for the sake of performing dissections to see if the elimination/deactivation of the allergen producing gene affected internal organs.

By 2001 there were several hairless or nearly hairless cat breeds in the world. The best established is the Sphynx (Canadian Hairless). There are two hairless Russian breeds which are now also found in the USA and parts of Europe; these are the Don Sphynx (Donsky) and Peterbald (St Petersburg Hairless). Hairlessness occurs as an occasional mutation and there were two other hairless types which are now extinct. The oldest hairless breed was the Mexican Hairless Cat. By the 20th Century only one breeding pair remained and the breed died out when one of them was accidentally killed. The breed could have been saved by mating the survivor to a domestic shorthair and then back-crossing and inbreeding to regain the original hairless type. The other extinct hairless variety was the original French Sphynx. It appears that no attempt was made to breed this mutation.

In December 2001, the cloning of cats also became a reality. This means a particularly typey stud could have his breeding life extended or expanded by cloning him. He could also be resurrected if tissue was taken within hours of his death or could be "genetically resurrected" by producing an unneutered clone if the original cat had been castrated (or spayed). See The Pros and Cons of Cloning for more information.

LEGISLATION AGAINST HYPERTYPES AND BREEDS WITH DEFECTS?

European bodies are concerned about the gradual shift towards American-style ultra-types (referred to as "hypertypes") in domestic pets. If made law in the member states of the Council of Europe, a number of cat breeds risk being banned: ultra-typed Persian/Exotic, Manx, Scottish Fold, Sphynx, Munchkin. Germany has accepted, and is implementing, Animal Welfare Laws based on the "European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals".

This controversial edict regarding genetically defective and ultra-typed breeds was issued by the Council of Europe which covers 41 member States including the UK. Though not (yet) law, the March 1995 draft of their "European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals" would ban ear cropping and tail docking in dogs and potentially ban abnormal or defective dog and cat breeds. The Council recommends that if the breeders do not amend their own breeding practices, the affected breeds should be "phased out". Note: What is termed a "defect" in thetreaty may not be considered a defect elsewhere. More comprehensive details are contained in Twisty Cats and the Ethics of Breeding for Deformity.

Chapter One, Article Five of the Treaty says: "Any person who selects a pet animal for breeding shall be responsible for having regard to the anatomical, physiological and behavioural characteristics which are likely to put at risk the health and welfare of either the offspring or the female parent." The resolution demanded that breed standards be rewritten to eliminate (by fiat if voluntary efforts failed) certain characteristics or potential genetic abnormalities (some of which were defining traits of a breed). It ruled that certain breeds, deemed to have defects, be discontinued.

As far as ultra-typing is concerned, the Recommendation by the Council of Europe's Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals encourages breeding associations to: reconsider breeding standards and amend any causing potential welfare problems. It would ensure, by educating breeders and judges, that breeding standards are interpreted so as to discourage development of extreme characteristics (hypertype) which can cause welfare problems. In other words, it is up to breeders to curb, and even to reverse, the excesses of ultra-typing before matters are taken out of their hands by European legislation.

It might phase out and prohibit breeding, showing and selling of certain types or breeds whose characteristics are linked to harmful defects such as abnormally short face and misaligned jaws (brachycephaly and brachygnathia in Persian cats) to avoid difficulties in feeding and caring for the newborn. If severe defects cannot be eliminated, cat breeders would have to avoid or discontinue breeding the animals altogether. This affects Manx and Scottish Fold breeds (already facing total ban in Germany where the laws are being implemented).

Britain has rejected the restrictions. Many member countries have accepted only parts of the treaty. However, it is being implemented in Germany (I am not sure how well it is being enforced) and has this to say on overtyping:

Breeding associations to determine an index defining over-typing. Breeding ban on cats not meeting this index. It applies particularly to cats showing brachycephaly and brachygnathia (under-bite/over-bite). Brachygnathia is particularly associated with short muzzled breeds but may be found in other breeds. It places a breeding ban on extremely short-nosed cats where the upper edge of the muzzle is higher than the edge of the lower eye lid. Before permitting a brachycephalic individual to breed it must undergo health checks for breathing problems, tear ducts (drainage), shortened upper jaw and dental problems. Cats showing one or more of the described symptoms would be banned from breeding as they would produce offspring with similar defects.

The laws require modification of the breed standard of brachycephalic breeds to avoid an overly pronounced stop, too high nose, too short muzzle etc. Preference should be given to cats with longer facial bone structure. Breeders must avoid breeding from individuals affected by brachygnathia, cleft palate and other facial defects.

There appears to be no comparable "legislation" (or potential legislation) in the USA although animal welfare organisations have voiced concerns against deliberate breeding of gross deformities such as the Twisty Cats bred by Vicky Speirs (Twisty Cats and the Ethics of Breeding For Deformity) while animal rights organisations additionally condemn many of the breeds/types targetted by the Council of Europe's Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals and for the same reasons. Breeding ethics remain the province of breeders and breed societies and are jealously guarded from interference. Responsible breeders are keen to point out that they not only minimize the potential for genetic abnormalities in their breeds, they raise money and participate in studies to find genetic markers for various diseases and to develop treatments and cures. Some breeders are uneasy about seeing how far a certain look can be taken hence the slowly growing number of "traditional style" non-ultra-typed breeds.

European breeders justifiably argue that any ban would be unfair since targetted breeds will be unaffected in countries outside of the Council of Europe. They argue that a global approach is needed to prevent cat breeds being taken to unacceptable extremes. Meanwhile, a small number of breeders will produce hypertypes, regardless of the adverse effect on the cats' health, in order to be competitive on the showbench. It really is up to judges and breed societies to curtail these excesses or they may find the decision taken out of their hands.

Cultural differences cannot be ignored. In Europe, common American breeds with structural differences (Scottish Fold, American Curl) or hybrid origins are considered, rightly or wrongly, to be undesirable. By contrast, American breeders are quick to adopt structural changes but remarkably reluctant to introduce new colours, already common and admired in Europe, into existing breeds. What one registry perceives as desirable or admirable, another seeks to ban as deformed, harmful or impure. Readers from both regions must understand that the definition of "defect" is country specific. One American breeder asked me what defects she could expect to see when breeding Sphynx. In the eyes of some European legislators, hairlessness (the Sphynx's defining trait) is the defect!

In 2006, TICA proposed to clamp down on certain breeding trends. Their Genetics Committee report stated: "The Committee proposes that TICA does not accept any proposed breeds for Registration Only status that do not exhibit novel mutations. The current mutations would be reserved for currently recognized breeds exclusively. This would end the seemingly endless applications for "munchkinized" new breeds, and then deter the inevitable introduction of "rexed", "Bob-tailed" and Poly-ed" everything else."

BRED FOR LOOKS

When wandering round cat shows I have seen beautiful specimens with the warning "will not handle" on their pens. When breeding for superlative looks, there is a danger of ignoring temperament. The result - stunning cats which judges dread handling. A (European) Burmese breeder of my acquaintance refers to her cats as 'feline Rottweilers, but they look superb'. Never mind that judges go pale when approaching them. This breeder's "feline rottweilers" were bred for looks at the expense of temperament. She added that they had bitten judges and that she had withdrawn a male neuter from an upcoming show because he had a damaged ear from fighting another cat, apparently normal behaviour for that particular cat! While her cats are not representative of the Burmese temperament ("alert, active, intelligent, extremely friendly and affectionate" according to the GCCF standard), they highlight the temptation for exhibition-oriented breeders to sacrifice health or temperament for the sake of competitive looks. Notes: the term "feline rottweiler" does not refer to the cat's conformation; the Burmese cat in Britain, Europe, Australia and New Zealand is "an elegant cat of a foreign type", not cobby and barrel chested; "square cobby body" is a Withhold Certificate fault. The short nose and round head of the American Burmese would result in disqualification outside of North America.

Nice face, but "Do Not Handle"! A Persian with very bad attitude.

Bred for looks, shame about the temperament.

 

"There is a temptation to make trade-offs between looks and temperament. In any breed, any registry and any country, a minority of highly competitive, exhibition-oriented breeders will be willing to sacrifice temperament in order to produce typey cats. Some breeders have lost sight of the fact they are breeding companion animals. It is up to judges to penalize cats with 'challenging' temperaments and remove the incentive." (Personal Correspondence.)

At the cat rescue shelter we once dealt with a stunning Silver Classic Tabby Shorthair whose temperament was so atrocious that he had to be homed as a farm cat - hardly a fitting position for what should have been a show-stopping cat or attractive pet.

I admire breeders and breed societies who put an emphasis on temperament. Both the Spotted Mist and the Bengal are bred with temperament as well as appearance in mind but neither exhibit extremes of placidity claimed for the Ragdoll in the early 1990s. I was particularly impressed to read that "there is nothing extreme about the Spotted Mist" in its breed standard. If only moderation was a keyword in other breed standards and enforced on the showbench. Since the infamous footage of Baker and her floppy IRCA cats, the Ragdoll breed has been studied carefully and found to be a relaxed, but not flaccid, cat with a normal pain threshold. The concerns of British judges were allayed ("perfectly normal and not in the least limp" wrote Pat Turner in Show World, January 1993).

Or as Tabor wrote in his book: "The trend towards weirdness for its own sake is alarming - and at what cost to the cat? Someone, some time will present the world with a gross combination of a bald, flat-nosed, flat-eared, stumpy-legged, thin cat with no tail, on the terrible presumption that because it is possible it is all right. Suddenly it seems that the cat may be in danger of careering into the same range of shapes and sizes as the dog world, with all their associated genetic problems."

No doubt as a non-exhibitor I just don't understand the breeders' reasons for creating ultra-cats which I find unattractive, but it makes me very sad wondering where it will all end.

STATISTICAL VS EMPIRICAL, QUANTITATIVE OR QUALITATIVE?

Lovers of statistics should note that observations on ultra-typing are based on empirical data i.e. on observation, experiments e.g. test matings performed to detect carriers of certain traits. Results are qualitative not quantitative. Not everything in life can be represented statistically. It is highly dangerous to over-rely on statistics: to "use statistics as a drunk uses a lamp-post - for support rather than illumination" or to "first create a hypothesis then collect the statistics accordingly". To produce statistics on the rate of defect in Breed X requires a large sample population to be bred for study. In laboratory studies using mice, the vast majority of the mice are destroyed during or after the study once statistics have been obtained. It is neither practical nor in the best interests of cats to do this; it would contribute to overpopulation, cause an increase in an already deplorable euthanasia rate (on which there are statistics, moreover very grim statistics in the USA, UK and Australia) and would result in the birth of dozens of possibly damaged individuals (potentially contravening animal cruelty laws).

Only recently have genetics techniques become available that allow investigation into potential genetic defects without recourse to breeding dozens of kittens to see how many are affected. Studies into defects in Ojos Azules were apparently performed this way and for this reason. It is morally unacceptable to deliberately breed, or risk breeding, damaged individuals. This gives rise to the problem of interpreting what constitutes a damaged individual; few would dispute that Twisty Cats have a defect, but what about hairlessness? It depends on which country you are in and which registry you are with as to whether it is defined as a defect!

Some statistics do exist. Statistics on the incidence of deafness in dominant white cats (all breeds/random bred) have been collected and analysed and have been reported by the Feline Advisory Bureau (FAB) and referenced in Statistics for Cat Breeders (Roy Robinson et al). FAB have collected data via questionnaires distributed to its members (predominantly breeders, rescuers and veterinary staff) when a researcher conducts studies into a particular area. In the case of defects associated with breeds, most are reported by veterinarians in veterinary texts and journals (or casebooks, post mortem notes and surgery records), by owners in cat magazines and journals, by charities as a result of their own surveys. The latter represents data based on observation and reproducible in experiments. It is not possible to extrapolate statistics from those reports - most vets see cats when the cats get sick/injured! This would result in highly misleading statistics.

NOTE

"A Breed Too Far" is based on observation, information from books, journals, texts, newspaper and emails from breeders, owners, welfare workers/rescuers and veterinary staff. Some readers have chosen to comment on isolated parts of this article out of context or in support/opposition of their own theories. While many of the comments may be unpalatable to afficionados of particular breeds, it contains nothing that cannot be found independently elsewhere. It does contain information which some might prefer to ignore as inconvenient. It represents observations and opinions from different countries where different registries have different views on what constitutes a "defect".

FURTHER READING

As well as innumerable sources on the web, cat magazines, journals and veterinary texts, two good sources of further reading are:

Robinson's Genetics for Cat Breeders, 4th Edition (Robinson et al)
CATS - The Rise of the Cat, Roger Tabor

Both may be found on your local Amazon website, Books Online or similar online booksellers.

MESSYBEAST : BREEDING ETHICS AND PURPORTED BREED ORIGINS