CAT POPULATION CONTROL VS DISCOVERING NEW BREEDS
Does the need to control the feral population by neutering outweigh the benefits of finding potential new breeds thrown up by chance mutation in the free-breeding population?
Is it more important to allow stray and feral populations to breed freely in the hope of producing new mutations of interest to cat breeders and the cat fancy?
Disclaimer: The information is given in general and is therefore not specific to any single country or locality. It is intended to give a balanced viewpoint to idealistic would be cat breeders and no slight or insult is intended to the dedicated, responsible cat breeders who put feline health and welfare before profit and novelty.
Where do Cat Breeds Come From?
Some new breeds are carefully designed - match cat A with cat B and combine the body shape and color of A with the fur type and head shape of B, breed the offspring for several generations to get a consistent type and you have your new breed. Admittedly my description of mix-and-match is an immense over-simplification of a complex process which occurs over many years, but in essence that is what is happening. Someone hopefully has an ultimate "look" in mind and tries to create that look by carefully choosing and mating foundation cats to introduce chosen qualities into the great design.
Current mix-and-match breeding programs often involve a wildcat species hybridized with a domestic variety to produce wild-looking domestic cats. The breeders are attempting to import the wild look (pattern and conformation) into the domestic cat gene pool. Some wildcats naturally interbreed with free-ranging domestics; some do so occasionally in the wild.
Sometimes cats take things into their own hands, so to speak. It is notoriously hard to keep a randy tom-cat away from a calling queen as the accidental founder of the Burmilla discovered when a Burmese and Chinchilla got it together (thanks to a door accidentally left open). More recently an Ocicat and a British Tipped managed a tryst and the kittens are provoking interest.
At other times a breeder aims for one look and stumbles upon something else entirely - the Ocicat came out of a program to introduce Abyssinian ticking as an option for colorpoint cats. The Australian Mist turned up when a despairing breeder mated her erratically-calling queen to a cat of a different breed, in the hope that the queen might not go off call so quickly the next time round (figuring that maybe a little practice was needed).
Sometimes nature doesn't need any help from humans. She just throws in something a bit different, like a cook experimenting with a new recipe - maybe mutate a gene to bob the tail or curl the hair - and these unassuming cats are spotted. The modern Munchkin just happened to be found in the right place at the right time since a similar mutation had been ignored in the UK some 50 years previously. The Selkirk Rex just happened to turn up in an animal shelter and a vacationing couple just happened to like the look of a bobtailed kitten (though human mismanagement almost led to the American Bobtail dying out before it was properly established).
Nature produces some lovely cats from time to time and no doubt has many more surprises in store for us, but does this mean that free-ranging cats should be left unneutered in the hope that something attractive will come of it? Considering that four out of five feral kittens will not survive their first year (many dying of disease in their first months), most novelties will be lost before ever being noticed. Natural mutation in the free-breeding population is not a good reason to allow kittens to be born, only to die of disease, injury or malnutrition.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to neuter 100% of feral cats, especially as their numbers are swollen by the stray or abandoned unneutered pets of irresponsible owners. However, very occasionally, welcome surprises occur in random-bred cats due to the diverse gene pool. Such surprises are correspondingly unwelcome in purebred cats as it indicates lack of genetic uniformity. Some cat registries fear "pollution of breed lines" and pursue "ethnic cleansing" style policies. For example the appearance of rex-coated Maine Coons was believed a sign of impurity rather than a mutation - a Cornish Rex hidden shamefully somewhere in a pedigree - and the breed society did not wish the breeder to pursue it as a new variety (Maine Waves). Rather than segregate rexed variants into a separate breeding population, cats suspected of carrying the gene were not to be bred in case the gene polluted the Maine Coon breed. In contract when rex-coated Persians appeared (traced back to German Rex outcrosses), these were pursued as a new breed now called the Czech Curly Cat/Bohemia Rex.
Variety is unwelcome in purebreds and these days, barring chance mutation, purebred lines rarely produce oddities. Nature, however, has no such prejudices against variety. In my area of Britain, nature regularly gives us healthy blue-eyed cats (silver tabbies and gingers with no white on them as well as blue-eyed bicolors) though so far no-one has bred these. Recently nature produced a stunning blue-eyed blue-cream and white cat with additional, randomly placed black splotches and a black-fading-to-grey "mask" like that of a blue-pointed Snowshoe. And in the last several years we've had a spate of curl-tailed cats whose tails either curl round tightly like a pig's tail or lay flat along the cats back!
Many of these cats are turning up in the free-breeding feral population and only the lucky ones make it into rehoming shelters where they can be socialised and rehomed. They make beautiful pets, but to us the most important thing is to keep the cat population humanely controlled. The chance of seeing a lovely new variation on a basic theme is outweighed by the number of stray and feral cats and their kittens which die due to disease or starvation. Our policy is to neuter all strays and ferals, even the blue-eyed or curl-tailed 'oddities'.
Else where in the world it is joked that mutations is spelt 'new breed' hence the blue-eyed Ojos Azules and the curl-tailed Ringtailed Sing-a-Ling. My local cat shelter neutered a deformed cat to prevent the spread of the deformity - a deformity which is now bred for in the infamous Twisty Kat; the cat world's answer to a thalidomide deformity. I was informed by a breeder working with one mutation that judges had only ever seen two or three examples of a particular mutation in their entire careers and she did not believe that I saw one or two examples of the same mutation each year! Of course the judges rarely encountered the mutation - they work with purebred cats which lack genetic variety. Breeders will not present a mutated cat on the showbench - it is not competitive. On the other hand, I work with random-bred and feral cats who have many of the genes which have been bred out of pedigree lines.
Some breeds have their roots in working cat populations, unneutered pet cats or cat shelters, for example the York Chocolate and the (Dalles) LaPerm. The rare York Chocolate began when some farm cats produced offspring of consistent type and with distinctive colors. The Selkirk Rex turned up at an animal shelter and the first Munchkins were found as strays underneath a truck. The LaPerm was a mutant born to outdoor cats. In general the deliberate breeding of working cats is should be discouraged as there are plenty of ferals which can be relocated to farms and barns.
"Just in Case" is not a Good Argument
The chance of encountering a viable (breed-worthy) mutation is so remote that this is no reason to say "I don't want to neuter my cats, just in case." If you're tempted to leave your pets or working cats unneutered for this reason, remember that many, if not most, mutations never make it as breeds because they have genetic problems (Ojos Azules), they are not different enough from what is already out there or there just isn't enough interest.
If the progeny are healthy enough, distinctive enough and enough people are interested in them that a new breed seems a worthwhile proposition, get in touch with genetics experts (the list is a good place to start though not everyone is happy about working cats breeding) and feline organizations to ensure that you have something distinctive, interesting and viable. The progeny should not be allowed to grow up into barn cats if they are to become the basis of a breed - they need to be socialized in order that controlled matings can take place and so that they can be homed to other breeders interested in the new variety. The parent cats also need to be confined in some way or you will lose your foundation stock. In essence they cease to be barn cats. This is a situation where you can't have the same cats being free-ranging barn-cats and being breed-foundation cats.
Developing a New Breed
Developing a new breed in this way is a major undertaking. First of all you will need to do some research. Although cats are not 'products' in the way that a candy bar or soap powder is a product, you need to find out if there is a niche for your proposed breed.
Why do I want to develop this as a breed?
If it's because of money, forget it. Cat breeders spend far more on their cats' health, welfare and accommodation than they recoup from sales of kittens. The early stages of breed development are especially expensive because so many kittens must be homed as pets because they don't have the look you want. The only people who breed cats for money are backyard breeders who breed in bulk, in poor conditions and with little or no regard for the cats' health or for maintaining pedigree records; or the breeders who supply kittens and cats for laboratories who are not cat-lovers by any normal definition of the word since they are selling their product into certain - and probably painful - death. Much of the latter's income will be spent on security against anti-vivisectionists.
If it's because of fame then forget it. Very few breeders become famous though a good many become infamous. Some have become infamous - famous for entirely the wrong reasons.
If it's because you feel the cats are distinctive and attractive then you have a better chance. However, whatever it is that makes the cats attractive must not detract from their health. There is a world of difference between breeding short-legged healthy cats such as Munchkins, which can walk, run and climb like a long-legged cat, and breeding deformed cats with mobility problems such as Twisty Kats (the feline equivalent of thalidomide sufferers).
Are the cats distinct from any other breed around and will they attract interest because of their distinctiveness?
In marketing terms, if the cats are too similar to an existing breed, they will not 'compete' in terms of gaining fans or enthusiasts.
The Munchkin and the Selkirk were distinct enough to be winners in this respect, the York Chocolate is currently less successful and numerous potential breeds simply didn't have what it takes to attract a sufficient following (or they had too many problems due to inbreeding). I don't know what the figures are, but no doubt out of every few 'interesting' surprises, only one ever gets close to becoming a breed. And with so many diverse breeds in existence, it is harder and harder to find cats distinctive enough to have the potential to become a breed.
Are my regional cat registries/governing bodies supportive or opposed to my intended breed?
One of the reasons for breeding purebreds is to compete against other purebreds at cat shows. Generally, the cat which is closest to matching its breed standard gets the most points. What if no registering body is willing to accept your breed? This may be because they believe the basis of the breed to be unsound e.g. genetic problems or deformities. Your proposed breed standard may not be distinctive enough or it may be too radical (e.g. involves a deformity or hybridization with wildcat species).
Some breeders have continued in spite of cat fancy opposition. Some have succeeded (e.g. Ann Baker's trademarked Ragdoll cats), many others will have sunk without trace. The cat registries may have good reasons for not supporting your breeding program; the breed simply may not be viable. Of all the mutations which occur in cat kind, only a very small proportion will "make it". And if yours fails, what are you going to do with all the cats you have already bred?
If this sounds disheartening, remember - those governing bodies have seen it all before and they must balance feline welfare against feline novelty and breeder egos. They are also concerned about pet overpopulation and the number of purebreds euthanized at cat shelters.
Do I have enough cats to avoid excessive inbreeding?
Inbreeding is a two-edged sword (The Pros and Cons of Inbreeding). On the one hand it 'fixes' the mutation by breeding closely related cats together. On the other hand it loses the genetic diversity by breeding out genes which might have conferred disease resistance. It also allows damaging genes (those causing hereditary conditions or deformities) to spread through the inbred population - a veritable time-bomb for later on. Over the generations, inbred cats lose vigour, produce small litters, have high kitten mortality and may be prone to certain conditions or lack resistance to certain ailments. Inbreeding almost lost us the American Bobtail which, for a time, became weedy specimens due to trying to fix too many traits at once.
Inbreeding cannot be avoided when founding a breed, but there must be outcrosses to cats of similar type (build, eye colour etc) to inject a dose of healthy unrelated genes into the gene pool. Only when there are enough cats of the new breed can outcrossing be safely stopped. The outcrosses may well introduce undesirable characteristics which must be bred out over time, but ultimately the influx of fresh genes keeps the new breed healthy.
Can you (and your friends) afford to keep a large enough number of cats to keep inbreeding to necessary minimum? Can you find homes for all those which don't meet the standard? If you have to give up, what will happen to all the cats you have caused to be born?
Can I segregate my breeding cats from my working cats?
You cannot risk your foundation cats being lost, injured, run over by cars or eaten by predators. If this happened you would lose the valuable genes and traits you wish to propagate. You can't risk them breeding with other free-ranging cats because of the danger of feline diseases; deadly feline diseases are spread by fights, scratches and bites, all of which can occur when cats mate. Also, you need to keep track of who mates with whom otherwise the genes may be diluted or even lost among the general cat population in your area.
Confining pet cats may be relatively easy, apart from the fact that the stud cats spray pungent urine and oestrus queens generally call loudly and often. Confining feral cats or semi-wild working cats is a whole different matter and will probably require you to have a purpose built cattery or run. They may not breed well in confinement since stressed females may kill (and eat) their offspring. These cats are no longer working cats, they must be protected, vaccinated and nurtured if they are to produce healthy offspring. You must supervise and record all matings.
Cat breeding is a full-time undertaking. Many cat breeders do not take vacations since they do not trust anyone else to care for their breeding stock.
Unless you can keep the foundation cats separate from the other working cats, either inside your home or in a purpose built cattery, you are unlikely to be taken seriously by breed registries or other breeders. At worst you will be judged a backyard breeder despite your best intentions and such labels are hard to shed.
What do I know about cat genetics? Am I good at keeping records?
You'll need to know enough so you can set up suitable matings. You'll need to work out how the characteristic you are breeding for is passed from cat to cat. Otherwise you risk losing it. You also need to know if it is associated with any harmful characteristics. A breeding program is an exercise in genetics - that's why pedigree cats can trace their ancestors back many generations. Should anything unexpected pop up in a litter, its origin can often be traced to a cats great-great-great-grandparent. The progeny of that ancestral cat potentially all carry the characteristic.
Nature may provide the raw material through haphazard matings, but to breed the trait consistently in larger numbers requires good record keeping (who is related to whom, who carries the trait and who doesn't) and basic knowledge about the ways in which traits are inherited and modified. Record keeping must be meticulous and stand up to the same sort of scrutiny that financial auditors give to company accounts.
Neutering Your Working Cats
Maybe it isn't such a good idea to let your working cats breed freely. The chances of finding a breed-worthy mutation are extremely low; the efforts involved in developing and maintaining a breed are high and involve time, financial outlay, confinement of the breeding cats and the support of a registering body. What may look cute in a couple of kittens born to your barn cat simply may not breed true or the rest of the cat-breeding world may not be interested. You may have to settle for some unique (and neutered) pets, rather than an entire breed and the mother cat will certainly be better off spayed since constant kittening shortens her life-span and reduces her effectiveness as a working cat.
Unless you genuinely intend to work on turning your working cats into a breed and you have the space, time, money and dedication for that venture, it is in their best interests to have them neutered. If the cats are mostly wild, you may need the expertise or advice of a feral cat group. You should consider asking your vet to 'ear-tip' or 'ear-tag' neutered working cats to ensure that they are not picked up and euthanized by someone else, and to ensure that anyone seeing them knows that they are maintained and cared for, albeit as outdoor cats.
In some countries it is inevitable that many ferals will end up in the food chain as prey to a larger predator. The approach of some humane societies is to euthanize, rather than neuter, ferals in order to "save them from their predicament". Many other similarly sized wild animals (and the semi-tame wildlife living in close proximity to humans) also end up in the food chain, but we would not think "save them from their outdoor predicament" otherwise we would have no wildlife at all, save for that kept safely behind bars in zoos. Feral cats are part of nature, just like their wild ancestors (F lybica et al).
We can keep our pet cats are safe and protected from natural and man-made outdoor hazards, but in the case of outdoor cats they are part of the natural order. Neutering makes their lives more bearable by reducing overpopulation - so that there is more food to go round, so that fewer kittens are born only to die a short while later, so that the adults don't become worn out through endless breeding. However, we must accept that they have adapted (or re-adapted, since cats are evolved from wild creatures domesticated by us) to become part of the natural order from which our house-cats are now almost completely separated.
A caring owner of working cats doesn't value them for the possibility of encountering a breed-worthy mutation, s/he values them for what they are as individuals and their role around the farm, barnyard or stables. As part of valuing those cats, s/he must attend to their welfare: feeding or supplementary feeding, water, shelter and population control through preventative measures (birth control) rather than destructive measures.