This is another of those old posts that I had to rewrite into a book chapter. Hope you like it!
Fancy-cats are the beautifully groomed felines you’ll see at a show. The other 80% of the world’s cats are unpedigreed (but equally beautiful) moggies.
Once upon a time, there weren’t any fancy-cats. And most moggies were striped tabbies. Today’s fancy-cats are sometimes tabbies, but fanciers prefer to build a cat breed on some unique feature.
Like floppy ears.
This works for the Scottish Fold–Internet celebrity cat Maru’s breed.
It’s a good example of the pleasures and perils that happen when you turn a moggy into one of the most popular breeds in the cat fancy.
What are cat breeds?
Short answer: For many centuries, people across the world collected moggies whose appearance attracted them. When the cat fancy arrived in the Victorian era, it brought these enthusiasts together. They formalized the various looks into pedigreed breeds.
Details: Any dog in the street might be a mutt, with quite a mixture of canine purebreds in its background. That’s because humans have bred dogs for various purposes since mid-Neolithic times, while mongrels happened on their own.
Cats have followed a completely different path, with street cats eventually ending up as prize-winners.
Intensive breeding in Bastet’s temples certainly helped domesticate cats, but Ancient Egyptians weren’t interested in changing their appearance. No purebred lines emerged, and those early domestic cats kept their African wildcat ancestor’s tabby stripes.
Geneticists say that, starting around the 8th century BC, contraband cats from the Land of the Pharaohs began to spread around the Mediterranean.
Appearance probably had nothing to do with it. Their value to people was that symbolic link to a very rich and powerful land.
But as time passed, occasional gene mutations changed some cats enough to draw attention from collectors. Some of the oldest such mutations are long hair, solid colors, orange/red fur (which always shows some tabby patterning for genetic reasons), white fur, and spotting.
People protected these cats, giving them and any kittens with the new look better treatment than the rest of the local feline population got. Cats with certain looks became associated with certain places, and then economics, politics, and other human activities really kicked in.
This process is how many of the oldest fancy-breeds originated.
- Several centuries ago, longhaired moggies from Asia Minor were very popular among Europe’s aristrocrats and royalty. These elite pets eventually became fancy-cats like the Persian and Turkish Angora.
- The long-hair gene and other feline mutations traveled up river trade networks into Siberia and Scandinavia, and eventually crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Hardy northerners appreciated the size and powerful build of these rugged moggies, as well as their shaggy, waterproof fur. Today, such features define breeds like the Siberian and Norwegian Forest Cat.
- Modern Thailand was once called Siam. For most of its history, you needed royal connections if you wanted a pointed cat. But on Siam’s Korat plateau, if you got married or earned someone’s high esteem, then you might be given one of the shimmering bluish-gray cats from Phimai Temple. Modern Western breeds descended from those highly prized Thai moggies include the Siamese and Korat.
And so it went. Unique feline looks were encouraged and thrived in various parts of the world. The cat fancy eventually brought them all together, starting in late Victorian times.
Today, there are many international and national cat registries, as well as breed clubs. Some registries limit their membership to breeders; others also accept individual members.
Besides sponsoring and organizing shows, the registries keep track of individual feline pedigrees and decide which breeds to recognize. The system is set up to benefit both cats and breeders, but breed recognition can be quite contentious.
What is the Scottish Fold?
Short answer: An owl-like fancy-cat with droopy ears. Scottish Folds are usually among the top ten breeds in the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA), but some registries won’t recognize them, citing health concerns. Many experienced breeders say they have successfully overcome those problems. The controversy is ongoing.
Details: While fancy-cats come from moggies, it’s unusual for them all to be descended from one cat, and one whose name we know. This is the case with Scottish Folds.
In 1961, a shepherd/cat fancier in Perthshire, Scotland, saw a white moggy with folded ears on a neighbor’s farm. Her name was Susie, and her mother had had normal ears. Susie’s father was unknown.
Within two years, she had two lop-eared kittens, and the neighbor gave one to the shepherd and his wife, who named her Snooks and got busy developing a new breed. In 1966, they registered the Scottish Fold breed.
Every Scottish Fold today is descended from Snooks and Susie.
The gene causing those droopy ears was never identified, though breeding tests showed that it was dominant (meaning that it could occur with just one lop-eared parent) but incomplete (some kittens in every litter have normal ears).
In 1970, a geneticist brought three Folds back to America with him, but his investigations weren’t promising and the cats were adopted as house pets. One went to a cat breeder, who pushed for and got the CFA’s recognition of Scottish Folds, with championship status granted to the breed in 1978.
Back in Britain, cat breeders were discovering that some Scottish Folds with thick, stiff tails also had problems with their legs. The breeders kept this to a minimum by not using these cats in their programs and outcrossing Fold lines with pedigreed shorthairs.
However, the UK’s Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF) stopped registering Scottish Folds in the early 1970s, first because of hearing and ear problems (which proved not to be breed related) and then because of a very specific breed problem causing overgrowth of joint cartilage.
Research has linked this crippling condition to the mutation that causes droopy ears. According to these experts and the British Veterinary Association, every cat with folded ears will eventually suffer.
Breeders in the US and elsewhere disagree, arguing from many years of experience that this is not inevitable as long as careful breeding is practiced.
It’s hard for those of us outside the fancy to take a stand, one way or the other. Both sides have strong arguments. Perhaps the development of better genetic testing will help, together with the growing popularity of Scottish Fold “straights” (cats like Maru, without droopy ears).
Every fancy-cat does begin with a moggy, but for some breeds, like the Scottish Fold, the road is quite bumpy.
Featured image: StarFlames at Pixabay. Public domain
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