Is it right to build a breed on genetic disorders?
No? Well, that’s exactly what we did with the dachshund.
Centuries ago, hunters made a breed out of this canine dwarf mutation because they needed a badger dog and there was no concept of animal welfare to stop them.
Everybody accepts dachshunds today. Dog fanciers work around the inevitable spinal and other skeletal/joint problems accompanying this congenital derformity.
But mention a minature cat breed, and you might find yourself hip deep in a controversy producing more heat than light.
This is not the only contentious issue modern cat breeders face.
What are the main problem areas?
Short answer: Inbreeding, breed development based on deformities, and hereditary diseases in some lines.
Details: The gray wolf likely was domesticated around 20,000 years ago, or even earlier. Ever since then, dogs have been selectively bred for hunting, protection, and other human purposes.
Those Paleolithic dog owners knew nothing about genetics, but it was obvious enough that crossing two dogs with a desirable mutation–fierceness, say, or a good sense of smell–gave you more dogs with that same trait.
It required close inbreeding, though, since there was only the animal with the mutation to start with, plus its parent.
Trial-and-error quickly showed:
- The trait disappeared with breeding unrelated animals together. (Only in the 20th century would people fully understand the genetic reasons behind this.)
- Inbreeding was helpful up to a point, but too much led to health and fertility problems.
These were probably the first humans to figure out, on a practical basis, what Wright and Walters (see source list below) explained to cat lovers in 1980:
By inbreeding moderately and carefully selecting the better-quality offspring, a breeder can hope to fix the good points and lose the bad.
Domestic cats entered the picture around 10,000 years ago. Their natural behavior–mousing–was what we wanted from them, so no intensive feline breeding happened until the cat fancy arrived in the late 19th century.
By then, the animal welfare movement had begun and was flourishing. Cat fanciers were a part of it. They not only wanted the domestic cat to be as perfect as possible but also (in the words of Harrison Weir, “father of the cat fancy”):
. . . hoped that by these shows the too often despised cat will meet with the attention and kind treatment that every dumb animal should have and ought to receive at the hands of humanity.
Their goals, like so much else, were blown apart in the 20th century’s two world wars.
In addition to feline losses from collateral damage, European and British breeders had to release surviving fancy-cats–such pets didn’t get food rations.
In the street, relatively new breed features faded away among the moggies.
After World War 2 ended, cat lovers retrieved what fancy-cat survivors they could find and began to reconstruct the breeds. It took much work–and for some lines, like the Egyptian Mau, a lot of inbreeding–but they succeeded, giving us the wide world of fancy-cats we see today.
Along the way, a few new mutations, like rex coats, were accepted into the fancy. But the world’s major cat registries knew where to draw the line: no miniature cats, for one thing, even though this dwarfism is the feline equivalent of the widely accepted dachshund.
It was (and often still is) considered unethical to develop a cat breed based on a deformity that can lead to the animal’s pain and suffering.
And no hairless cats, either. Wright and Walters noted that
. . . the Sphynx is regarded by many [breeders] as the negation of almost all they admire in the cat.
Some people still feel that way, but the Sphynx and other hair-challenged cat breeds are going mainstream in the 21st century.
Personal taste is one thing. Medical ailments are quite another.
Cats, as well as dogs, have been inbred. Good breeders try to limit inbreeding by using as many different cats as possible and using only those that are as distantly related as possible. This, as well as outcrossing (like the British or American Shorthairs used in Scottish Fold breeding), does help.
Still, intensive selective breeding and inbreeding over the years have concentrated some harmful or potentially harmful genes in several breeds.
The best known example (because, unfortunately, it’s so common) is polycystic kidney disease in Persian cats and breeds derived from Persians, like the Exotic Shorthair.
There are genetic tests for PKD today, so breeders won’t accidentally introduce a gene carrier into their programs. But many other hereditary diseases are harder to detect.
And a congenital problem is sometimes unavoidable since it’s linked to the breed’s defining characteristic.
Take the Manx cat, shown below engaging in very un-cat-like but adorable behavior.
People used to admire this breed for its distinctive “hoppity” gait. Then felinologists discovered that this wasn’t a cute effect of the cat’s extra-long hind legs. It was Manx syndrome.
The gene mutation that produces tailessness in the Manx cat sometimes causes horrible vertebral defects, spinal cord abnormalities, and neurological problems, including the inability to move the hind legs independently of one another. That’s why affected cats must hop.
Breeders can do something about it. They routinely include cats with normal tails in breeding programs and never mate two tailless cats.
The cat fancy has also removed any reference to gait from the Manx breed standard.
After all this, the incidence of Manx syndrome has plummeted.
But such self-policing doesn’t solve all the problems in today’s world. The animal rights movement also has been evolving, too.
Concerns about animal welfare have led to inter-registry disagreements as well as outside criticism that sometimes shakes the cat fancy to its core.
All this fuss–over cats?
Short answer: Cats inspire strong emotions. But the basic issue is complex and, while compelling, almost impossible to resolve–how much human control over the lives of animals for our own benefit is acceptable?
Details: The quotes below make this the longest chapter in the book, but there is no other objective way to convey to people outside the cat fancy even a very general sense of how controversial cat breeding is today. (Again, early dog breeders didn’t have to think about any of this.)
Here are some random but relevant quotes selected from the sources used for this chapter:
- 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.
— Sarah Hartwell, in “Novelty Breeds and Ultra-Cats: A Breed Too Far?” messybeast.com/ultracat.htm (Last accessed November 17, 2018)
- Our mission is to “preserve and promote the pedigreed breeds of cats and to enhance the well-being of ALL cats”. . . Even if there were no pedigreed cats left in the United States this would not change the numbers of cats relinquished to shelters by their owners or the reasons why cats are homeless on the streets . . . Few pedigreed cats ever end up either on the streets or in a shelter . . . Condemning purposeful breeding of pets is put forth as a way to save cats’ and dogs’ lives but in effect this is aimed at changing public opinion by those who believe it is actually a form of “exploitation” for animals to be kept as pets at all. Some feel the first step toward eliminating pet keeping is to convince the public that all breeding is equal to displacing a shelter animal’s chance for adoption. The next step is to force the sterilization of all cats and dogs . . . The general public is unaware that some “humane” organizations and animal rights advocates have a goal to eliminate thousands of years of mutual benefits from dog or cat-human interaction. Stopping all breeding of pedigreed cats/purebred dogs has consequences that most people would soundly reject if they really thought about it. But in this age of informational over-stimulation a simple sound bite idea like “buy one – kill one” is attractive to both lawmakers and some of the public. Complex problems do not have easy answers but long explanations or factual papers fail to work in a society that likes sound bites, text messaging and “Twitter” comments.
— The Cat Fanciers’ Association, in “Who Will Defend the Breeders?”, http://cfa.org/Portals/0/documents/legislative/whowilldefend.pdf (Last accessed November 17, 2018)
- If you are not willing or able to have the prescribed pre-breeding genetic tests performed, then you should find a different hobby or profession. Dogs and cats are living beings. It is not ethical to forgo the obligation of genetic testing.
— Jerold Bell, in “Ethical breeding in the age of genetic testing,” Tufts’ Canine and Feline Breeding and Genetics Conference, 2009, https://www.vin.com/apputil/content/defaultadv1.aspx?pId=11294&id=4101311
- . . . [W]hile many mutations can be quite benign, serious ethical concerns arise when animals are specifically bred for aesthetic traits that are painful or debilitating.
— Catie Leary, in “The ethics of cuteness: A closer look at 12 trendy cat mutations,” https://www.mnn.com/family/pets/blogs/ethics-cuteness-closer-look-12-trendy-cat-mutations (Last accessed November 17, 2018)
- The fundamental flaw with the way western cat breeders’ have dealt with Natural Breeds is this. Rather than maintaining the natural look and health of the Natural Breed, they seek to “improve” it . . . Breeders have taken healthy Natural Breeds, and through selective breeding programs, changed them into Man Made breeds that cannot survive in the wild and may eventually become extinct . . . Simply put, breeds derived from Natural Breeds need to shift from improvement to preservation.
— The International Maew Boran Association, in “Breed Preservation Plan,” http://www.timba.org/breed-preservation-plan.html (Last accessed November 18, 2018)
- Responsible breeders try to eliminate abnormalities . . . 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.
— Sarah Hartwell, in “Novelty Breeds and Ultra-Cats: A Breed Too Far?” messybeast.com/ultracat.htm (Last accessed November 17, 2018)
- The following breeds of cat are not recognised by the GCCF:
Scottish Fold: There is no intention to recognise this breed because the gene which produces the folded ears also causes skeletal abnormalities, producing stiffness of the limbs and tail which increases with age. This is especially true when two fold-eared cats are bred together but it has been shown that cats with only one gene for folded ears also suffer from abnormal stiffness. Under these circumstances it has never been recognised and we strongly advise members of the public not to try to acquire cats of this breed.
Other Folded or Curled Ear Varieties: No recognition has been given to any other folded or curled ear variety as it is possible that such varieties suffer from similar defects to the Scottish Fold.
Polydactyl Cats: No recognition will be granted to any polydactyl breed or any polydactyl variety of any existing breed. This structural mutation confers no welfare benefit on a cat and in some cases additional toes can be prone to damage and claws growing on additional toes may not be worn down and could cause damage to the cat.
Cats with foreshortened limbs: There is no intention to recognise Munchkins or any other dwarf breed.
— The Governing Council of the Cat Fancy, in “The GCCF says Health and Welfare Come First,” https://www.gccfcats.org/Health-Welfare (Last accessed November 17, 2018)
- If judges like the cats breeders show and award them . . . exhibitors are generally happy. However, if a breeder or small group of breeders find the cats they show do not win, they have the choice of either to try showing under different judges . . . or to try to breed cats of the type that a particular judge or group of judges appears to prefer and reward. This can then encourage selection for cats of a more extreme type . . . The dangers of exaggeration are the production of genetic as well as general health and welfare issues.
— Gregory, A.; Crow, S.; and Dean, H. 2014. “Showing cats,” in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds Turner, D. C., and Bateson, P. New York: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=m-NRAgAAQBAJ
- Responsible breeders are individuals who have focused their efforts on one or a select few breeds and through breeding, historical research and ongoing study, mentoring relationships, club memberships, showing, raising and training of these breeds have become experts in their health, heritable defects, temperament and behavior. Responsible breeders are well suited to educate and screen potential buyers/adopters and provide follow-up support after purchase or adoption. Responsible breeders take lifetime responsibility for the animals they have bred.
— From the ASPCA Position Statement on Criteria for Responsible Breeding, https://www.aspca.org/about-us/aspca-policy-and-position-statements/position-statement-criteria-responsible-breeding (Last accessed November 17, 2018)
- In humans . . . considerable research efforts are devoted to finding a cure . . . Yet these animals are being deliberately bred to preserve, and even accentuate, the same disabling characteristics.
— James Serpell. 2002. Anthropomorphism and Anthropomorphic Selection—Beyond the” Cute Response”. Society and Animals. 10(4): 437-454.
- People who breed dogs and cats profit at animals’ expense. There is no such thing as a “responsible” breeder, because for every puppy or kitten who is produced by any breeder, an animal awaiting adoption at an animal shelter loses his or her chance at finding a home—and will be euthanized. Breeders kill shelter animals’ chance to have a life.
— PETA, in “Breeders,” https://www.peta.org/issues/animal-companion-issues/pet-trade/breeders/ (Last accessed November 17, 2018)
Like it or not, we do have the tools to mold cats and other living beings in almost any way imaginable. Until very recently, practicality was the only measure of whether the end result justified the means. Now, we must also take the animal’s welfare into account.
This is good, but it’s also a very challenging. We may have some of the tools of a god, but we lack a god’s omniscience and therefore cannot wield those tools very well. When will this ever change?
Edited November 23, 2018
Featured image: Nguyen Hoangnam, CC BY-SA 2.0
Sources: In addition to those given in the quotes above,
Bell, J. S. 2016. Top 5 Genetic Diseases of Cats. Clinician’s Brief, 74-76, 62.
Handwerk, B. 2018. How accurate is Alpha’s theory of dog domestication? https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-wolves-really-became-dogs-180970014/ Last accessed November 17, 2018.
Hartwell, S. 2007. Twelve myths of designer cat breeders. messybeast.com/designer-cats.htm Last accessed November 17, 2018.
Hartwell, S. n.d. Tailless cats. http://messybeast.com/bobtail-cats-manx.html Last accessed January 18, 2018.
Lyons, L. 2015. DNA mutations of the cat: The good, the bad, and the ugly. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 17(3):203-219.
Robinson, R., and Pedersen, N. C. 1991. Normal genetics, genetic disorders, developmental anomalies and breeding programs, in Feline Husbandry: Diseases and Management in the Multicat Environment, ed., N. C. Pedersen, 61-128. Goleta: American Veterinary Publications. https://www2.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/ccah/cats/feline-husbandry-book.cfm
Rochlitz, I. 2013. Feline welfare issues, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds Turner, D. C., and Bateson, P., 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=m-NRAgAAQBAJ
Walls, D. 2015. Animal rights movement. web.sonoma.edu/users/w/wallsd/animal-rights-movement.shtml Last accessed November 17, 2018.
Wastlhuber, J. 1991. History of domestic cats and cat breeds, in Feline Husbandry: Diseases and Management in the Multicat Environment, 1-59. Goleta: American Veterinary Publications. https://www2.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/ccah/cats/feline-husbandry-book.cfm
Weir, H. 1889. Our Cats and All About Them. Their Varieties, Habits, and Management; and for Show. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.
Wikipedia. 2018. Dachshund. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dachshund Last accessed November 17, 2018.
Wright, M., and Walters, S. 1980. The Book of the Cat. New York: Summit Books.