There are many DNA tests for dog breeds, but cats? Not so much.
This isn’t anti-feline discrimination.
It has taken us thousands of years and lots of selective breeding to turn gray wolves into chihuahuas. But fanciers have been focusing on cats only since the 1870s.
There just hasn’t been enough time to develop DNA changes that register on today’s testing.
Geneticists are off to a good start, though–they’ve identified multiple feline races. But along the way, they have also uncovered evidence that intensive breeding has erased the genetic heritage of some fancy-cats.
House cats have races?
Short answer: It involves molecular markers in their genes, not fur color or length. Because of the way domestic cats first spread across the world, they now show differences that can be traced back to Asia, the Mediterranean region, Western Europe, or Africa.
More specifically, geneticsts have found eight original populations (a/k/a races):
- Egypt (of course)
- Eastern Mediterranean
- Western Europe
- Arabian Sea
- Southern Asia
- Eastern Asia
Details: The early history of domestic cats is strictly an Old-World story. This particular group of small kitties is not native to the Americas.
In the Old World, after the last ice age had ended, some African wildcats began the long journey into domestication alongside people in the Fertile Crescent, which includes much of what we call the Middle East today.
A few millennia later, thousands upon thousands of domestic cats were living in private homes and temple catteries along the banks of the Nile River. Some of the glory of Ancient Egypt rubbed off on these pets, and they became must-have status symbols for the international elite.
As early as 1700 BC, pharaohs outlawed cat exporting, and even sent officials out to retrieve smuggled felines. Nevertheless, geneticists say, Egyptian cat lineages spread around the eastern Mediterranean, starting around the 8th century BC. By the 5th century AD, they were fairly common here and in Asia Minor.
Back then, the equivalent of our Internet was a network of trade routes. It ran on plodding beasts of burden and harnessed the restless wind on rivers from the Black Sea in the south to the Baltic in the north, as well as across the sea–not just the Mediterranean, but also the Arabian and Red seas, as well as the Indian Ocean.
While much slower than what we’re used to, this land-based and maritime Silk Road network connected many parts of the known world and carried huge amounts of “data” in the form of people and their material or intellectual treasures.
Of course there were cats, just as there are on today’s Internet, but no one documented their presence. What little we know about their travels is based on a combination of logic and genetic testing.
For instance, Buddhist temples often have cats, so common sense suggests that early Buddhist missionaries brought cats along–to protect sacred texts from rodent damage–when they left India and headed north and east into Asia.
Genetic studies show that cats first reached Asia soon after leaving Egypt. Once there, they were isolated not only from western cats but also from each other, so that more than one Asian cat race developed (the Eastern and Southern Asian lines).
In the West, Roman soldiers had feline mascots, named military units after cats, and painted feline emblems on their shields. It’s safe to assume that cats traveled with the legions throughout the Roman Empire.
And genetic testing does show that Egyptian cat lineages became more common in Roman-dominated regions, including Byzantium’s sphere, between the 5th and 13th centuries.
The Silk Road was a route for cats all across vast Eurasia and down the northeast coast of Africa, but many things could interrupt a journey. Some cats ended up in isolated regions where they developed in unique ways.
Their DNA markers gradually changed, and from them came the eight feline races.
Most modern fancy-cats still share genetic markers with local random-bred cats. But intensive selective breeding has severely weakened or even cut the links between a few fancy-breeds and their ancestors.
Does this mean some fancy-breeds are going extinct?
Short answer: No. All domestic cats belong to one species, which is thriving both in the show ring and in the broader world of moggies. What has happened is that a few breeds have switched race.
Details: To make a kitten, besides sweetness, softness, and snuggles, you will need 19 pairs of cat chromosomes.
These come from mom and dad, who each contribute 19 single chromosomes that pair up at fertilization. And for centuries, human beings have been manipulating this very complex process to get kittens with a certain look.
Most of that was trial and error, but today’s scientists study genetics at the molecular level. They have identified DNA markers, unique to cats, that work just like breed-identifying markers in dogs.
Discovery of the eight feline races came out of this research. The markers also confirm that most fancy-breeds indeed were founded with local cats.
But Persian markers don’t match up with moggies in Iran or the Eastern Mediterranean. Persian cats are part of the Western European race!
It’s not a case of mislabeling. Historic records show that these beautiful longhairs came from Asia Minor, though not everyone agrees that those early cats were very different from the Turkish Angora (which today does match up with its local roots).
Distinctions were drawn between the two breeds, though. In fact, it turned into a popularity contest, and the Persians won. Such intensive selective breeding is probably why the breed now has European genetic markers.
Another affected fancy-cat is the Japanese Bobtail.
Some geneticists still call this an Asian cat, but its DNA markers show a very strong Western European influence. This is likely because the breed was developed in North America after being founded on bobtailed cats from Japan.
Geneticists say that the Egyptian Mau is also at risk.
Perhaps inbreeding is the problem here. The Mau did originate in Egypt, where many street cats still carry genetic characteristics seen in Ancient Egyptian cat mummies, but it was almost wiped out in World War II.
Cat lovers started over after the war, but it required much inbreeding. A second line of Maus eventually was discovered in India, which widened the gene pool. Today some registries also accept the carefully vetted descendants of Egyptian and Arabian moggies.
Both the Japanese Bobtail and Egyptian Mau could benefit from bringing in more non-pedigreed cats this way. Perhaps it would work with Persian cats, too.
But for now, DNA ancestry testing lists all three as Western European cat breeds.
Featured image: TastefulTN, CC BY-SA 2.0
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