WINGED CATS - WHAT ARE THEY?
Over the years there have been many reports of winged cats. These have been treated as cryptozoological phenomena. Many people would like to believe in flying cats, but the real explanation is medical, not mystical. The answers lie in poor grooming, a developmental defect or an uncommon hereditary skin condition.
Note: This is not, as some blogs suggest, a fake site akin to Bonsai Kittens. The condition is called "Cutaneous Asthenia" and is related to the human Ehler-Danlos Syndrome (described at the end of this page). These conditions are documented in medical and veterinary journals. The impression of "wings" can also occur due to matted fur in Persians and other longhaired breeds. Viewers of the UK's "Animal Hospital" will have seen several cases of this (e.g. "Shaun" the badly matted silver Persian).
HISTORICAL REPORTS OF WINGED CATS
There are around 138 reported sightings of winged cats. There are 28 documented cases i.e. with physical evidence and at least 20 photographs and, in recent times, one video. Several bodies and living winged cats have been examined. There is at least one stuffed specimen, but this may be a nineteenth century fake.
Possibly the earliest report of a winged cat is that by Henry David Thoreau: "A few years before I lived in the woods there was what was called a 'winged cat' in one of the farm-houses in Lincoln nearest the pond, Mr. Gillian Baker's. When I called to see her in June, 1842, she was gone a-hunting in the woods, as was her wont ... but her mistress told me that she came into the neighbourhood a little more than a year before, in April, and was finally taken into their house; that she was of a dark brownish-grey colour, with a white spot on her throat, and white feet, and had a large bushy tail like a fox; that in the winter the fur grew thick and flattened out along her sides, forming strips ten or twelve inches long by two and a half wide, and under her chin like a muff, the upper side loose, the under matted like felt, and in the spring these appendages dropped off. They gave me a pair of her 'wings,' which I keep still. There is no appearance of a membrane about them. Some thought it was part flying squirrel or some other wild animal, which is not impossible, for, according to naturalists, prolific hybrids have been produced by the union of the marten and the domestic cat. This would have been the right kind of cat for me to keep, if I had kept any; for why should not a poet's cat be winged as well as his horse? "
An undated case from Leeds in the early 1900s involved a winged cat at the centre of a custody dispute with one party claiming him to be their cat, Thomas, and the other claiming it to be their feline, Bessy. Thomas/Bessy was born in 1900 at Bramley Workhouse and when he died he was exhibited at fairs in a glass case. The last sighting of taxidermised cat in his display case was at a pub in Scarborough owned by a Mrs Clague the daughter of the last showman to have it.
In "Animal Fakes and Frauds" (1976), Peter Dance wrote of a 19th century winged cat that was preserved and offered for sale in the early 1960s (unlikely to be Thomas/Bessy as the dates do not correspond). According to information about the creature, distributed from an address on London's Bond Street, the wings had grown when the cat was very young. It had been exhibited during the 19th century by a circus owner until its original owner demanded its return. A lawsuit ensued and the cat was ordered to be shipped back to its original owner. It died in transit and it was alleged that it had been deliberately poisoned. Its body was taxidermised and placed in a glass case displayed in a pub, ultimately ending up in an attic until being rediscovered and offered for sale. Dance had offered, apparently unsuccessfully, to buy it in order to discover whether or not it was genuine.
An undated, but old, winged cat taxidermy specimen can be found in the Niagara Valley. It has bony structures near its shoulder blades covered with flaps of skin. The specimen appears genuine, but the nature of the bony structures is unknown (possibly extra limbs).
Another early report comes from India in 1868, but it is not possible to make a positive identification. The report described a nondescript animal, said to be a flying cat. The Bhells called it pauca billee, from the Hindi "pankha billi" (winged cat). It had been shot by Mr Alexander Gibson, in the Punch Mehali and the dried skin exhibited at a meeting of the Bombay Asiatic Society. The skin measured 18 inches (44 cm) in length, and was quite as broad when extended in the air. Mr Gibson, who was well known as a member of the Asiatic Society and a contributor to its journal, believed it to be a cat, and not a bat or a flying-fox as other people contended.
In August 1894, a report of a winged cat appeared in the Independent Press. A live cat with duckling-like wings was exhibited in the neighbourhood by Mr David Badcock of the Ship Inn, Reach, Cambridgeshire, England. The year old cat had only revealed its wings after being somewhat roughly handled. The owner was charging 2 pennies for callers in the daytime to see his winged cat and had begun to take it around neighbouring villages in the evening. Several days later, the Cambridge Weekly News carried a similar account, presumably of the same cat. A sceptic had apparently asked the paper for further details about the winged cat which flew about in the village of Reach, near Peterborough and had suggested that there had been a good reason for the cat to hide its wings for 12 months, only unfolding them when gooseberries were ripening! The paper advised him not to make light of cats since creatures that are as much at home on the roof as in the cellar and that are never reached by stones, bullets, bootjacks or water thrown out of the window, could well be the winged cat of Reach in disguise! At the same time as the second report Independent Press reported that the "remarkable cat" had been stolen, but it was hoped that the perpetrators would soon by apprehended as the cat had apparently been traced to Liverpool, England. It is possible that the cat had shed its wings, leaving its owner somewhat embarrassed.
In 1897 a winged feline was discovered in Matlock, Derbyshire and was described in a local newspaper as 'an extraordinary large tortoiseshell tom cat with fully grown pheasant's wings projecting from each side of its fourth ribs'. According to eyewitnesses state the cat used its outstretched wings to increase its speed as it ran. If genuine, the cat would have been unique for two reasons - its 'pheasant's wings' and the rarity of male tortoiseshell cats. The story was reported in the High Peak News of Saturday 26 June 1897:
Extraordinary Capture at Winster: A Tomcat With Wings.
The most interesting item in natural history, so far as the Matlock district is concerned, transpired this morning (Friday). Our reporter learns that Mr Roper of Winster, while on Brown Edge near that village, shot what he thought to be a fox, which had been seen in the locality some time previously, on Mr Foxlow's land. Thinking he had missed his aim, Mr Roper gave up the quest, but returning later he found he had killed the animal. It proved to be an extraordinarily large tomcat, tortoiseshell in colour with fur two and a half inches long, with the remarkable addition of fully-grown pheasant wings projecting from each side of its fourth rib. Unfortunately, the climate having been so excessively hot, the animal was allowed to putrefy, and after being generally exhibited all round the district the carcase has now been interred. It was seen by Mr Joseph Hardy and ample witnesses, so that there is no doubt the museums have missed a most curious animal. Never has its like been seen before, and eye-witnesses state that when running the animal used its wings outstretched to help it over the surface of the ground, which it covered at a tremendous pace.'
In 1899, London's Strand Magazine contained a report of a 'winged cat' or kitten belonging to a woman living in Wiveliscombe, Somerset, England. A photo accompanied a short item in the November issue of Strand Magazine, whimsically entitled "Can a Cat Fly?". The cat was normal in every way, except for two fur-covered growths sprouting from either side of its mid-back. These flapped about like the wings of a scurrying chicken whenever the cat moved. The Wiveliscombe kitten was able to lift up its wings. Cat fancier, breeder and prolific writer on all matter feline, HC Brooke, described the winged cat in his weekly magazine "Cat Gossip" in 1927: "This cat had growing from its back two appendages which reminded the observer irresistibly of the wings of a chicken before the adult feathers appear. These appendages were not flabby, but apparently gristly, about six or eight inches long, and place in exactly the position assumed by the wings of a bird in the act of taking flight. They did not make their appearance until the kitten was several weeks old. Alas! One of those brutes in human form who, encouraged by callous or knock-kneed magistrates [Brooke meant those too lenient with animal abusers], still are too plentiful, cut off the 'wings' with fatal results to the cat!"
There was a report of a winged cat in Time Magazine in 1926: "Citizens of Portland, Oregon, flocked to see a curious creature publicly exhibited by one Arthur Kingery of Wapato, Washington, who said he had captured it in his chicken-yard. It was a cat, thrice the size of a house cat, with a tail heavy and furry, like a coyote's. On each side of its spine, beginning just back of the shoulders, grew a pair of muscular ridges, for all the world like two pairs of rudimentary wings, furred heavily. The feline's hind feet measured five inches, spreading out like the feet of a snow-shoe rabbit. Old settlers were reminded of Paul Bunyan's "minktums" and "tigermonks." Natural scientists suspected it was a cross between a lynx and a house cat. Nature lovers recalled that Naturalist Henry David Thoreau, in his book Walden mentioned a "winged cat." It was the pet of a farmer-neighbor, d scribed as "dark brownish grey color, with a white spot on her throat, and white feet, and had a large bushy tail like a fox; that in the winter the fur grew thick and flatted out along her sides, forming strips ten or twelve inches long by two and a half wide, and under her chin like a muff, the upper side loose, the under matted like felt, and in the spring these appendages dropped off. They gave me a pair of her 'wings,' which I keep still. There is no appearance of a membrane about them."
In 1933 or 1934 (dates vary), a winged black and white cat was captured in the garden of a private house in Oxford, England. Mrs Hughes Griffiths found the cat in her stables during the evening of 9th June, 1934. She saw it unfurl a pair of long black wings sprouting just in front of its hindquarters and jump on to a beam. She described the distance as 'considerable' but apparently did not think of measuring it. She did not think it could have leapt the distance unaided and claimed it had used its wings in a manner similar to a bird, she said. Mrs Hughes phoned Oxford Zoo for assistance and the zoo's curator W E Sawyer and managing director Frank Owen arrived with a net. The two men captured Mrs Hughes' winged cat, and took it back to the zoo, where it was displayed for some while. Its wings were 6 in (15 cm) long. (The piece of cord visible in the photo is a leash.)
In 1936, a winged cat was found on a farm near Portpatrick, Wigtownshire, Scotland. From all accounts it was a very odd looking cat. It was described as a white longhair with one blue and one red eye. Its wings were flaps 6 in (15 cm) long and 3 in (7.5 cm) wide on its back and were said to rise when the cat ran and 'fold down into her side' when she rested. This is consistent with large mats of fur or loose flaps of skin which flap about when a cat was in motion, but rest hanging down under their own weight when the cat stands still.
In 1939, a black and white winged cat from Attercliffe, Sheffield, England, was sold by its owner, Mrs M Roebuck, to a Blackpool museum of freaks. Sally, actually a black-and-white male cat boasted a 2 ft wingspan and wings which could be actively raised above his body. According to Mrs Roebuck, Sally used his wings to assist him in making lengthy leaps through the air.
During the Second World War, a large, overweight black-and-white cat in Ashford, Middlesex was a local attraction because of the wings which sprouted from its shoulders. It was owned by two pensioners and people peered over their garden wall for a glimpse of the winged cat. Overweight cats frequently have problems grooming themselves and this can result in matted fur.
In June 1949 a 24 inch (60.9 cm) long, 20 lb (9.07 kg) winged cat was shot dead in northern Sweden. It had the largest recorded feline 'wing-span' of 23 inches (58.4 cm). It had allegedly swooped down on a child before being shot. The body was given to the local museum. Though said to have hindquarters covered in feathers, a report from Professor Rendahl of the State Museum of Natural History said the wings were a deformity of the skin which happened to take the shape of wings.
In 1950, a winged tortoiseshell cat called Sandy became star attraction at a carnival in Sutton, Nottinghamshire. Sandy was an adult cat but unaccountably grew a sizeable pair of wings and was loaned to the carnival by her owners. Such was her impact, that she was fondly remembered many years later by local people. Since there were no previous reports of Sandy growing wings, this sounds like a case of matted fur.
In May 1950, Madrid porter Juan Priego's grey Angora cat, "Angolina", made Madrid newspaper headlines due to her pair of large fluffy wings (the date of mid-1959 is also given for Angolina). "Our Cats" magazine of August 1950 reported another winged cat from Madrid:
"According to newspaper reports, Madrid, Spain has been very excited during the past few months at the appearance of winged cats in the city. Here is one of them, Michi by name. Except for the "wings" on each side of the body, Michi is like any other cat and veterinarians have stated that these are formed by a quick growth of cartilage that eventually forms bone. They are well covered by fur and sprout up to 10 inches in length. The cat is able to fold them up chickenwise. It is reported that thousands of people have rushed to see the flying cats of Madrid and in one instance the owners have "cashed in" to the extent of a substantial daily gate. Fantastic sums are said to have been involved in insurance, exploitation rights, etc and it appears likely that one of the winged cats will fly to America, but not under its own power!
And several winged cats had been reported from the USA.
In May 1959, a winged cat was caught near Pinesville, West Virginia. Teenager Douglas Shelton found the Persian cat (which he named Thomas) and he and the cat became instant celebrities. Following a TV appearance, a local woman, Mrs Charles Hicks, began legal proceedings against him to reclaim her lost cat, Mitzi. When the cat was produced in court, she was wingless, having shed her wings two months after Shelton had found her. The "wings" had been kept and were seen to be no more than extensive mats of fur which had eventually fallen away from the body. At that point Mrs Hicks claimed the cat was not hers after all!
In 1966, a winged cat said to be swooping down on farm animals and attacking other cats was shot dead at Alfred, Ontario, Canada and buried but was exhumed several days later for examination by scientists at Kemptville Agricultural School. Their conclusion was that the cat's "wings" were nothing more than matted fur. The cat was also found to have had rabies which would account for its strange behaviour.
In the October/November 1967 issue of "The Cat", Cecily Waddon wrote "May I appeal to anyone thinking of having a cat, not to choose a long haired one unless they are prepared to spend about ten minutes a day on grooming throughout the cat's life? I recently had brought to me one with fur not only matted solid all over its body, but with felt-like wings the size of my hand, growing outwards." The two photos here show a Persian with the beginnings of "wings" caused by felt-like lumps of matted fur. When the cat moved, the wings did indeed flap!
In 1970, J A Sandford of Wallingford, Connecticut saw a winged cat in a neighbour's garden. The orange-and-white longhaired cat was "positively waddling due to large wing-like growths hanging from its midsection". The owner explained that this was the way it shed their fur in summer. Sandford noted that the fur was indeed matted forming rectangular pads about 5 inches long by 4 inches wide. Although Shuker (Lost Ark Forum, Fortean Times 168) described this as a textbook example of Feline Cutaneous Asthenia (see next section), it is a textbook case of a badly matted longhair cat such as are regularly seen by vets and as described by Ms Waddon in 1967. I personally have seen large mats causing longhaired cats to waddle exactly as Sandford describes. Any Persian owner will tell you just how quickly a longhaired cat's fur forms into felted mats if left ungroomed. By contrast, in Feline Cutaneous Asthenia, skin and connective tissue are also involved in the wings.
In 1975, the Manchester Evening News published a photograph of a winged cat which had lived in Banister Walton & Co builder's yard at Trafford Park, Manchester, England during the 1960s. The cat had a pair of long fluffy wings (11 inches/29 cm)projecting from its back and the skin of its tail had flattened into a broad flap. According to some of the men working in the yard at that time, the cat could even raise its wings above its body, suggesting a deformity which contained muscle as well as flaps of skin. In 1986 a winged cat was noted in Anglesey, Wales and later moulted its wings. In April 1995, Martin Millner spotted a fluffy winged tabby in Backbarrow, Cumbria, England. The following was reported in "L'ARGENTEUIL" on Monday 4th October 1993:
Who has ever seen a cat with wings? Here is one cut down (killed) last Tuesday evening in Ayersville by Mr. Conrad Larocque of Hammond Street. The animal leaped forty feet and, after having attacked a cat and a dog, it went to take refuge under Mr. Claude Larocque's porch. Mr. Larocque had shoot seven 22 gauge bullets to kill the 20 lb animal. One is lost in thought about the source of the anomaly which gave this cat wings.
Online source: Petits et Grands Mysteres de ce Monde (Jean Morisette)
RECENT REPORTS OF WINGED CATS
In 1986 a winged cat was reported in Anglesey, UK. Shortly after being photographed it shed the wings, suggesting they were mats of fur.
In 1998, a black winged cat was to be found in Northwood, Middlesex. The wings were 2-3 inches back from the shoulder blades about 8 inches long, 4 inches wide and an inch thick. They flapped as the cat ran.
At Bukreyevk (near Kursk), Central Russia, a winged cat was killed by superstitious villagers in 2004. According to the local Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper locals drowned the deformed cat after believing it was a messenger of Satan. The stray cat had entered the yard of Nadezhda Medvedeva. She said it stood up and "just like a chicken" stretched out two wings. This made her hair stand on end and local people were in no doubt that the cat was a messenger of the devil. Medvedeva had initially heard a soft meowing and poured some milk into a bowl. The cat - a ginger tom cat "twice as big as normal" drank greedily meowed for more. She continued to feed the stray, but after a couple of days her daughter became scared, claiming the cat had wings. Nadezhda Medvedeva observed the cat slowly move its wings just like a chicken. She immediately concluded her visitor was some sort of demon. However the daughter had already named the cat Vaska and claimed he was affectionate and had obviously been someone's pet. The rumour of the winged cat soon reached Kursk, but by the time a reporter heard it and reached the village, the unfortunate cat had been drowned by a local drunk. A sack contianing the cat's body was later recovered from a pond near the Medvedev's home. Although decomposition had already set in, the reporter from the local Komsomol newspaper confirmed the cat did actually have wings. There are no reports of the body being sent for further analysis to determine what the wings were. The Russian news article was illustrated with a grainy copy of the Manchester winged cat from the 1960s.
According to the Huashang News (China) on 24th May, 2007, in Xianyang city, Shaanxi province grandmother Mrs Feng's tom cat grew a pair of 4 inch long furry wings. Mrs Feng said the wings began as 2 bumps, and grew quickly, becoming wings in just a month. Mrs Feng says the wings contain bones and claim they grew after her cat was sexually harassed by the many females in heat. The cat doesn't look unkempt so this appears to be a genetic mutation rather than matted fur. Although it is unlikely to have bones in the wings, it may have scar tissue (from stretching) and connective tissue which makes the wing tissue feel firm. Another winged cat from China hit the news in August 2008. Increased instances of winged cats inthe area were attributed to the earthquake. This second cat was described as a tomcat, but was tortie-and-white (making it either a chimera or an XXY cat). The images are suggestive of skin flaps rather than fur mats.
In May 27, 2009 A previously normal cat in Chongqing, China developed "wings" when he was 1 year old. He began growing wing-shaped appendages on either side of his spine. The wings are said to be bony and speculation on the cause includes a mutation, a Siamese twin growing inside the cat or even a genetic change caused by chemicals (teratogns) ingested by the cat's mother while she was pregnant. According to the owners, he isn't inconvenienced by the wings and enjoys the attention he receives because of them.
CANADIAN TWO TAILED CAT
The following possible case involves a tail-like appendage rather than a wing. It hasn’t been possible to handle the cat or confirm the cause. Cam (Skipper Bartlett) sent several photos of a neighbourhood stray that appeared to have 2 tails. It has been seen a few times in August 2007, early in the morning, in Brantford, Ontario (about 100 miles SW of Toronto). The cat’s gender wasn’t known and it was timid, possibly due to harassment by local children, and had a visible skin condition. The second “tail” hung down limply and was non-functional. It may be possible that the cat had a second tail due to a developmental abnormality. It might be an elongated flap of skin attached to the rump rather than to the side or it could be an unusually long section of matted fur.
WHAT CAUSES WINGED CATS?
1. Matted Fur
Longhaired cat starting to develop a wing-like mat.
Persian longhair cat after shaving to remove extensive mats.
The wings on these creatures have several possible causes. Most commonly they are extensive mats of fur which hang from the cat until the whole mat falls away. The large mats hang from the cats' sides in wide, flat sections until the fur holding them in place is moulted away or the mat is pulled away by becoming caught on thorns. When the cat runs, the mats flap about. Many of the reported winged cats were longhairs, hence matted fur accounts for a large proportion of cases. Mats can occur on shorthaired cats as moulted fur adheres to newly grown fur; such mats tend to develop over several moults in the same way that humans grow superglue dreadlocks over many years. The best recorded case of matted fur on a cat is probably "Shaun" the matted silver Persian featured on the UK TV show "Animal Hospital".
Throughout the 1990s, I became accustomed to seeing a winged black-and-white longhaired feral cat called "Dorothy". The wings were extensive mats of felted fur, grime and leaf litter held together with saliva which formed in spring and summer. The largest mats extended from shoulder almost to hip and flapped as she ran. These "wings" were eventually shed naturally and some were found to be the size of a small kitten. When possible, Dorothy was trBeing wild, Dorothy could not be groomed. apped, anaesthetised and dematted as the mats were cumbersome and undoubtedly uncomfortable.
In 2005, my hyperthyroid longhaired cat Cindy developed wing-like mats along her midline. Matted fur is common in hyperthyroid cats due to the faster than normal growth of fur and a tendency not to groom. I removed these with veterinary clippers with no need for sedation. In 1991, her shorthaired predecessor Kitty I had developed similar mats on her hips, also due to hyperthyroid.
Matted fur can occur on any part of a cat, but is most easily noticed on the flanks, especially when the cat is in motion and the mats move up and down in a wing-like manner. Mats are considered not noteworthy by experienced cat owners, but matted cats may be reported as winged cats by observers unfamiliar with the condition. Dorothy's "wings" were regularly mentiond by cat shelter visitors.
2. Supernumerary Limbs
A less common cause is that the fur-covered wings are congenital deformities such as vestigial legs (as found in some forms of conjoined twins), useless for any purpose at all, including flying. Conjoined twins occur when a fertilised egg splits incompletely into 2 parts and can result in animals with extra limbs. An extra pair of forelegs dangling from the shoulders but rudimentary could give the impression of wings and might even "paddle" as the cat ran. A taxidermy is shown of a kitten with additional forelimbs in a wing-like position. This kitten had a more severe form of conjoining and could not survive, but there are two recent cases of stray cats with additional forelimbs surviving to adulthood.
3. Elastic Skin
The third explanation is a hereditary deformity of the skin that causes pendulous wing-like folds of skin on the cat's back or shoulders. The cat has little or no control over its "wings" and certainly cannot flap them, fly or swoop down from above! In the 1990s, cryptozoologists and veterinarians realised that an uncommon genetic condition explained several cases of winged cats. "Feline Cutaneous Asthenia" (FCA) causes the skin on the cat's shoulders, back, and haunches to be abnormally elastic. Even stroking the skin can cause it to stretch. It forms pendulous folds or flaps which sometimes contain muscle fibres, enabling them to be moved (as in the Trafford park cat) though they cannot be flapped as they contain no supporting bones or joints.
Cutaneous Asthenia literally means "weak skin" and refers to the fragility of the skin. It is also called "dermatoproxy," "cutis elastica" ("elastic skin") and "hereditary skin fragility". There are similar conditions in humans, dogs, mink, horses, cattle and sheep. In cattle and sheep the term "dermatosparaxis" ("torn skin") is used. In horses a similar condition is called "collagen dysplasia". The human form is called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) and occurs in several different forms. Elastic-skinned people have exhibited themselves at freak shows, demonstrating the condition by stretching handfuls of their hyperextensible skin away from their bodies. Probable human sufferers include Arthur Loose the "Rubber Skinned Man" whose cheeks and jowls hung in pendulous folds 8 inches (20 cm) long and James Morris the original "India Rubber Man" who could pull his elastic skin 18 inches (44 cm) from his body.
The skin is elastic and forms pendulous flaps which may be shed without apparent damage to the cat. These flaps are covered with fur in the normal manner. The skin is easily torn (often with little or no bleeding) at the slightest contact with anything sharp - rough surfaces or even the cat's own claws when scratching or grooming itself. Lacerations can be caused by an injection needle. Tears usually heal rapidly and the skin and may be criss-crossed with scars. In more severe forms, the tears may enlarge and form large wounds. An interesting aspect of this condition is that the flaps of stretched skin may peel or slough off very easily, often without bleeding. This explains some of the cases where wings were suddenly "moulted". Some forms of the condition also affect the blood vessels in the skin, resulting in bruising and large blood blisters. In dogs, a similar condition appears to be linked to looseness in the joints and to abnormalities of the eye (slipped lens or cataracts).
In mammals, the skin comprises two principal layers. The surface (outermost) layer is the epidermis and is relatively thin. Below the epidermis is the dermis which is thicker and contains connective tissue. The dermis provides support and packing as well as containing nerves and blood vessels. The dermis consists largely of fibres made mostly of a protein called collagen. Collagen binds the cells of the dermis together. Mammals with Cutaneous Asthenia have defective collagen in certain areas of the skin, this makes it incapable of functioning effectively as tissue packing. As a result, the is extremely flexible and fragile in the affected areas. Most usually affected areas are the shoulders, back and haunches and the stretching gives the appearance of wings sprouting from these areas. Where the defect occurs in regions containing sufficient musculature so that muscle is included in the flaps of skin, the wings can even be moved slightly. Where the wings don't contain any muscle, they folds simply bounce up and down as the animal runs, giving the impression of flapping.
The term collagen dysplasia is used for these conditions. These comprise a complex group of disorders of the connective-tissue in the skin. Affected tissue has reduced tensile strength, is hyperextensible, smooth or velvety to the touch, and easily torn. They can be caused by decreased production of collagen or production of a faulty collagen. Microscopic examination of skin samples shows reduced dermal connective tissue consisting of shortened and fragmented collagen fibres. Normal fibres may be intermingled with altered fibres. Ultrastructural changes in collagen fibres include disorientation of fibrils within the same bundle, marked spacing differences, and variation in the diameter of transverse sections. The fibrils maintained the transverse striations characteristic of normal collagen.
FCA remains an uncommon and little-studied condition. There are still only a few cases recorded in veterinary publications although awareness of, and interest in, this condition appears to be growing, particularly as researchers gain greater knowledge of genetics and gene-mapping. A recessive autosomal (non-sex linked) variant FCA has been discovered in Siamese cats and in breeds with Siamese ancestry; in the homozygous state it is apparently lethal (i.e. kittens inheriting 2 copies of the dominant FCA gene do not survive). Because many different genes are involved in putting together of proteins and of skin, there may well be several different genes which cause outwardly identical symptoms. Modern genetic techniques might now allow feline geneticists to work out how many different types of FCA there are.
The recessive form of FCA causes a deficiency in the enzyme "procollagen terminal peptidase". This deficiency causes the collagen fibres to be unable to form a normal tubular shape and to be misshapen and twisted instead. The dominant version of FCA causes the fibre bundles to be disorganised and appears to be lethal in the homozygous state (i.e. embryos inheriting 2 copies of the dominant FCA gene die in utero).
VETERINARY REPORTS OF WINGED CATS
In 1970, Peter Pitchie, a vet in Kent, England, received a 5 month old female tabby cat for spaying. When he attempted to inject an anaesthetic, the cat's skin immediately split. When he shaved the cat's flank for the spaying incision (flank spaying is used in the UK) the skin split again. Further splits occurred when he tried to sew up the first two. He eventually sutured all the splits using a round-bodied needle and despite their dramatic formation they all healed in a straightforward manner.
In 1974, a 4 year-old tom cat, known by the owner to have "fragile skin", was taken to Cornell University's New York State Veterinary College Small Animal Clinic. Dr DV Scott noted that its skin was exceptionally thin and velvety in texture. This velvety texture is typical of the condition in cats. The skin was hyperextensible (extremely stretchy) with a criss-cross network of fine white scars where previous tears had healed. When some fur was clipped from one foreleg so that the vet could take a blood sample, the skin immediately peeled away. This peeling was seen to occur whenever the slightest pressure was applied anywhere to the cat's skin. Investigation showed that the collagen fibres in the cat's skin were abnormal. The fibres were fragmented, irregular and disoriented, with very few normal fibres present
In 1975, an adult female cat examined by W.F. Butler of Bristol University's Anatomy Department was found to have very fragile skin on its body. Studies showed it to have abnormally low levels of collagen in the skin of its lower back. At this time, the genetic nature of skin hyperextensibility and fragility in the cat, and its link to reports of winged cats, was not known.
In 1977, Drs Donald F. Patterson and Ronald R. Minor of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine studied a young shorthaired grey tomcat. The cat severely lacerated its skin simply by scratching itself. The skin was found to be delicate and tore easily. It was also extraordinarily elastic and when the fur on the cat's back was gently lifted, it could be extended to a distance above the backbone equal to about 22% of the cat's entire body length! The two vets wrote a paper on the subject and photographs of the cat with the skin gently stretched showed a classic winged cat, identical to those in reported sightings. Because of the difficulties in caring for a cat with an incurable skin fragility problem, the cat's owner donated her pet to the veterinary school. It was mated to 4 long-haired female cats and several of the offspring inherited the condition. Those matings demonstrated that Feline Cutaneous Asthenia was inherited as an autosomal dominant trait. It is not linked to the gender of the kittens (haemophilia in humans is an example of a sex-linked trait) so males and females are equally likely to inherit the trait. All of the affected kittens showed packing defects in their dermis collagen.
There is an additional (undated, possible 1999) veterinary report of a 6 month old non-pedigree tom cat which was taken to the Veterinary Hospital of FMVZ (Universidade Estadual Paulista [UNESP], Botucatu) with two skin wounds on the right hand side of its body. The skin in the affected areas, and the skin on the cat's back, was hyperextensible, smooth and easily torn by just a small amount of pressure. The cat also had signs of rickets, dehydration, pneumonia and breathlessness and died despite treatment. Skin samples were examined under the microscope and revealed abnormally low levels of connective tissue. The collagen fibres were abnormally short or were fragmented. There were some normal fibres mixed in with the abnormal fibres. A more detailed examination of the individual collagen fibres showed that the fibrils (strands, a bit like the strands in a piece of rope) were irregularly sized and irregularly spaced. If you visualise an abnormal fibre as a frayed section of rope and the normal fibre as a new section of rope, you get an idea of why the abnormal ones tear more easily.
Winged cats have been recorded since the 1800s. FCA has been documented since the 1970s. Until the 1990s, no-one had made the connection between the two in spite of the 1977 photo in Drs Patterson's and Minor's veterinary paper. This is not entirely surprising. Cryptozoologists may not have access to, or interest in, veterinary journals about medical or hereditary conditions. Veterinarians are more interested in the creatures they are likely to treat than in reports of mythical beasts which appear mainly in "fringe" magazines. None of the winged cats recorded in those magazines had been documented in the veterinary literature. None of the recorded veterinary cases of had been featured in publications about strange phenomena. Karl Shuker, a cryptozoologist with an interest in medical anomalies, freakish individuals and genetic conditions made the link in 1994. He continues to collect reports of winged cats as do others with an interest in medical curiosities, cat care and geline genetics.
It is usually easy to recognise this condition, due to a young cat suffering excessive and unexplained skin damage or damaging itself through scratching or through play-fighting (or real fighting) with other cats.
LIVING WITH FELINE CUTANEOUS ASTHENIA
In early reports of winged cats, they were frequently exhibited as freaks to make money. If the "wings" are due to matted hair. they will eventually be shed - and expert examination will detect the cause and debunk the winged cat as a neglected cat (with possible cruelty/neglect charges for the owner). If the cause of the wings is FCA, an owner is faced with caring for a cat with all the normal feline behaviours, but with abnormally fragile skin. This means high veterinary bills for treating cuts and tears. Routine treatments such as neutering, microchipping or vaccination are hazardous. Even wearing a collar or walking harness could cause lacerations. The lacerations provide an entry point for bacterial, viral and fungal infections. Although the life expectancy appears to be normal, many affected animals are euthanised due the extensive and expensive care and attention that will be required throughout its life or the problem of infection.
If you are a breeder, the affected cat must not be bred or it will pass on the trait. If neither of the parents has the condition then it is probably due to recessive (hidden) genes and both parents and all of their offspring are potential carriers - none of them should be bred because the trait will probably resurface several generations later.
If own a cat with FCA, you will need to modify its lifestyle and environment to minimise the damage its fragile skin suffers. Cats with FCA can live a full life if the owner is careful and not squeamish about dealing with the inevitable lacerations and possible infections. Activities likely to cause mild trauma must be avoided; this includes playing with other cats, climbing trees, going through undergrowth or any activity which could bring it into contact with rough surfaces or sharp objects. You will need to remove or pad (with foam) any rough or sharp corners and objects in your home, possibly confining your cat to certain areas which can be made safe for it. Its resting places must be well-padded.
If your cat suffers the form of the condition where tears enlarge or skin folds tear away, prompt veterinary attention is necessary to suture or glue any small wounds before they enlarge or become infected. Skin glues or liquid bandages (or spray-on skin) are expensive but avoid stitches. The vet must also treat any other skin conditions, including skin parasites, which may cause your cat to scratch. Flea control is essential as flea bites will cause the cat to scratch.
Declawing of all four paws should be considered on medical grounds - since the cat must live indoors, it may also be safer without claws. If declawing is anathema to you, then rubber claw-caps such as SoftPaws might work. In order to prevent self-mutilation and to protect the skin against environmental dangers, the cat might have to wear clothes - either baby clothes or a specially tailored suit made of stretchy swimsuit fabric and with seams on the outside to prevent abrasions.
You cannot scruff a cat with FCA as the scruff may tear away completely. You must also watch out for joint luxation (slipping joints, such as hip dysplasia) which often occurs as part of the syndrome. Because the body has to do so much more healing of what would be minor scratches in other cats, the affected cat will probably need vitamin supplements to promote skin growth, anti-inflammatory drugs to combat certain skin conditions and antibiotic treatments.
TAXIDERMY FAKE WINGED CATS
In the 21st century, better grooming and better medical care can prevent "wings" from forming in the first place. Apart from areas where superstition is rife, afflicted cats are more likely to go to a veterinary clinic for treatment than be exhibited. The likelihood that the wings will be shed or surgically repaired makes genuine stuffed and mounted winged cats unlikely. The skin fragility related to cutaneous asthenia presents a problem to taxidermists though there is one report of a allegedly genuine winged cat taxidermy mount.
Taxidermy fakes, known as "grifts" or "gaffs" (both words which mean "to swindle or deceive") , are made by combining parts from different creatures. Some were made to entertain the public while others were passed off to collectors as "genuine" creatures (usually mythical creatures). Many have appeared in sideshows and curio cabinets. A common example is the "mermaid" made from a monkey upper body attached to the body and tail of a large fish. Such was the trade in these fakes, that the first genuine platypus specimens were dismissed as fakes. A few people still make taxidermy fakes as a form of art. Winged cats and kittens can be made using a cat's or kitten's body and the wings of a suitably sized and similarly coloured bird. Although the idea is distasteful to many cat-lovers, I checked with a British taxidermist who confirmed (with respect to non-food animals) that he only uses bodies of animals which have died, or been put to sleep, due to age, illness or accident; this is to ensure that animals are not killed simply for the sake of "art". Not all "artists" are so scrupulous.
A collection of bizarre stuffed animals including a flying cat purportedly discovered by a Victorian adventurer were auctioned at Duke's auction house, Dorchester, England in April 2010. They were billed in the 19th century as having been brought to the UK by fictional adventurer Professor Copperthwaite and were exhibited at the Brading Experience musuem on the Isle of Wight alongside conventional creatures. The museum closed due to lack of visitors. The flying cat is a young white cat with brown markings fitted with the wings of a barn owl. The other taxidermy fakes include a furry fish, unicorn, woolly pig and yeti.
There have been a few cases of people attaching birds' wings to living cats using wire or string, but these are generally quickly removed by the cat!
WINGED CATS THROUGH THE AGES
Regardless of the medical causes, winged cats have caught the public imagination over the years.
Brad Perry related this tail of winged cats to me in Spring 2007. So far, I haven't been able to verify it. The Syrax, or winged cat, was first described to Brad by his elderly grandmother, Corine (Young) Perry in 1954 and had evidently been transmitted orally within the family. According to her, in nature there were many monsters and mistakes. The winged Cat was one such aberration that was thought to be a familiar of adept Wiccans and was used to spy on the encroaching Christian hordes migrating from France and Italy (the period from about 300 AD to 790 AD). In 1901, Corine Young and her husband (21 years her senior) were married as Lutherans although she also seemed to know much of the "old ways" - herbalism and myths and stories related to Wicca.
There is even a tale of a winged big cat known as the Cat-a-Mountain. The explorer Marco Polo reported the existence of a large predatory cat in the Far East with the body of a leopard but a strange skin that stretched out when it hunted, enabling it to fly in the pursuit of its prey. It is highly unlikely that a lion or similarly sized cat could survive with the FCA condition so the Cat-a-Mountain is most likely an imagined hybrid a big cat and a large bat or a big cat and a flying squirrel (which has flaps of skin enabling it to glide). Later authors used the term to describe a wild cat and by the seventeenth century it had been abbreviated to Catamount and was used as a synonym for the American Mountain Lion (Cougar, Puma).
The winged cats of myth and legend were often demonic creatures with "feathered" wings and liable to swoop down on humans. Cats were all too often associated with the devil hence there were evil bat-winged cats in superstition. Below is a detail from a Kircher engraving (1667) depicting a curious mix of cat's head, bat's wings and human torso. The later picture, by Grandville in the 19th Century is an anthropomorphic image of cats in the forms of angel, demon and humanised cat. It is the angelic image which seems to have persisted into modern times, while the image of bat-winged demonic cats has been consigned to history.
As cats moved into the home and became our companions, the popular image of winged cats also began to change (as illustrated by Grandville). Most modern winged cats are either cute and fuzzy storybook creatures (Pegapuss); feline analogues of angels or fairy-like creatures.
"Flittens" by Greenwich Workshop
"Almost Purr-fect Angels" by Bradford Edition
In the 1980s and 1990s, a popular range of fantasy novels depicted shy owl-winged cats which were the pets of wizards and which were a magical hybrid of cat and owl. The winged cat motif remains common in fantasy role-play games. Figurines, Christmas tree decorations and pendants of winged angel cats have become popular. Angel kitty figurines are especially popular among bereaved cat owners and feature cats with feathered wings in much the same style as human angels.
Examples of modern winged cats (2000s) can be found in Greenwich Workshop's range of winged kitten figurines called "flittens" (flying kittens) which were whimsical kitten-fairies with colourful butterfly wings and Bradford Editions' "Almost Purr-fect Angels".
The rise in popularity of pet cats has led not only to medical diagnoses and better understanding of the mysterious winged cat condition, but also to a change in the way fictional winged cats are portrayed.
HUMAN CUTANEOUS ASTHENIA
There are a number of cases of human cutaneous asthenia described in medical texts. The following is adapted from "Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine" written in 1896 by George M Gould & Walter L Pyle.
"Abnormal Elasticity of the Skin. In some instances the skin is affixed so loosely to the underlying tissues and is possessed of so great elasticity that it can be stretched almost to the same extent as India rubber. There have been individuals who could take the skin of the forehead and pull it down over the nose, or raise the skin of the neck over the mouth. They also occasionally have an associate muscular development in the subcutaneous tissues similar to the panniculus adiposus of quadrupeds, giving them preternatural motile power over the skin. The man recently exhibited under the title of the “Elastic-Skin Man” was an example of this anomaly. The first of this class of exhibitionists was seen in Buda-Pesth some years since and possessed great elasticity in the skin of his whole body; even his nose could be stretched. [The bearded man] represents a photograph of an exhibitionist named Felix Wehrle, who besides having the power to stretch his skin could readily bend his fingers backward and forward. The photograph was taken in January, 1888.
In these congenital cases there is loose attachment of the skin without hypertrophy, to which the term dermatolysis is restricted by Croeker, Job van Meekren, the celebrated Dutch physician of the seventeenth century, states that in 1657 a Spaniard, Georgius Albes, is reported to have been able to draw the skin of the left pectoral region to the left ear, or the skin under the face over the chin to the vertex. The skin over the knee could be extended half a yard, and when it retracted to its normal position it was not in folds. Seiffert examined a case of this nature in a young man of nineteen, and, contrary to Kopp’s supposition, found that in some skin from over the left second rib the elastic fibres were quite normal, but there was transformation of the connective tissue of the dermis into an unformed tissue like a myxoma, with total disappearance of the connective-tissue bundles. Laxity of the skin after distention is often seen in multipara, both in the breasts and in the abdominal walls, and also from obesity, but in all such cases the skin falls in folds, and does not have a normal appearance like that of the true 'elastic-skin man'.”