This is a chapter in my first domestic-cat eBook (click on a store icon to see the description). The information is current as of 2019, but in this field, developments happen quickly, so be sure to check the most up-to-date information, too.
Cloning house cats is possible, but it’s expensive and controversial.
The bond between people and domestic cats is so individualized and complex. It involves factors that just can’t be reproduced in the lab.
Yet we all wonder how cloning works, what cloned animals are like, and why the price of cloning is so high.
Have any cats been cloned yet?
Short answer: Yes, and commercial cat cloning is now a thing.
Details: Clones are asexually produced but genetically identical copies of living beings.
It all sounds very futuristic, but down through the centuries horticulturists and farmers have routinely cloned plants.
Work on animals began in the 1950s. Two different types of cells can be used, from either an embryo or from the body.
In the 1980s, researchers presented the world first with two sheep cloned from embryonic cells and then, in 1996, with the famous Dolly–a sheep cloned from body cells, which are easier to use.
The next clone to make headlines was a domestic cat.
A tabby-and-white cloned kitten named CC was born in late December 2001, but the news was held until 2002, after she had successfully completed all her shots and her immune system was fully mature. Besides being the first cloned pet, CC went on to become the first clone to give birth.
Four other cat clones later, in 2003, an elderly Maine Coon fancy-cat in Texas named Nicky died. His owner reportedly paid a new company, Genetic Savings and Clone, $50,000, and Little Nicky, the first commercially cloned pet, was born in 2004.
Genetics Savings and Clone is no longer in business, but a company in Texas that clones livestock will clone your cat for $25,000 (these price quotes from the website are current at the time of writing); dogs cost $50,000. If you’re not sure but want to hedge, they’ll store a pet’s tissue for $1,600 with a guarantee of future clonability or $500 without the guarantee.
Reportedly the company has cloned about a hundred pets.
The world’s other top cloning company is in South Korea. They produced the first dog clone, and per their website, now charge $100,000 per animal. (They claim to have cloned some 800 pets.)
How does cloning work?
Short answer: After culturing body cells from a cat’s biopsy tissue, geneticists put the nucleus from one of these cells into a enucleated egg cell. If all goes well, cell division begins and this new embryo is implanted into a surrogate mother cat, who brings the cloned kitten to term. Prenatal and neonatal mortality is high, but if the kitten survives the first critical weeks after birth, its health and potential lifespan will be typical of any other house cat.
Details: Cloning Fluffy starts with your vet taking a tissue sample, preferably while the cat is in the office for shots or some other routine procedure. It will recover nicely from this biopsy within a day or two.
The sample can also be collected up to three days after a cat’s death, if its body has been kept cool (but not frozen). Ideally, though, the sample should come from a living animal.
Let’s assume that, at your request, the vet sends the biopsy sample to ViaGen Pets–the Texas company mentioned above.
According to the process ViaGen describes on its website, the geneticists first culture those body cells to make sure they can be cloned. This takes about four weeks.
The scientists then place one of Fluffy’s body-cell nuclei, containing all of the cat’s genetic information, into another cat’s egg cell, after removing that cell’s original nucleus.
This fusion triggers cell division and an embryo forms, just as it would from an egg fertilized sexually. The only difference is that all of its genes come from a single parent: Fluffy.
The embryo is then placed in a surrogate mother. She goes through pregnancy as usual and the kitten is born, nursed, and weaned just like any other kitten.
New Fluffy looks just like your former pet, but the jury is still out on whether its personality will be the same.
No one yet knows how much of an animal’s behavior comes from genetics and how much from life experiences and/or something else not transferable through genes (technically, something that is “epigenetic”).
That’s a concern for pet owners, but perhaps the biggest controversy in cloning is the number of other cats it takes to make a single success possible.
CC, for example, was the sole survivor of 188 cloning attempts, with 87 embryos eventually implanted into 8 surrogate mothers. Only 2 pregnancies happened; of these, only the one that produced CC was a success.
This failure rate is a major factor in the high price of pet cloning.
There are other costs, too. Because of the number of surgeries and pregnancies it involves, and the suffering these entail in even the most humane lab conditions, many animal welfare groups discourage pet cloning, and the ASPCA wants a moratorium on it.
However, regulation of the animal cloning industry is still in its infancy and, at the moment, seems to be focusing only on the cloning of livestock for food.
Animal cloning issues are beyond the scope of this book. Of course, most pet owners will look into it thoroughly before deciding what’s best in their own particular case.
With or without modern technology, it’s hard to cope with the fact that pets aren’t immortal. We all wish they were.
However you choose to handle that inevitable parting, the memories of mutual friendship and shared good times will always be there to warm your heart.
Featured image: AAfke at Pixabay, public domain.
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