Hybrid Domestic Cats


I’ve discovered something intriguing while researching wild-domestic hybrids. According to the cat fancy, the Bengal leopard cat/domestic cat hybrid is one of the most popular breeds in the world, yet shelters are overwhelmed by abandoned Bengals.

Two very reputable groups, with conflicting statements–what’s going on here?

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We See Ourselves in Cats


I finished this chapter in the upcoming ebook, “50 Facts About Domestic Cats,” today. Hope you like it.


You might have heard how people see companion animals as “little me’s.” The makers of pet food and other products certainly have. Advertising for their multi-billion-dollar industry appeals to our anthropomorphism with everything from human-style pet dinners to animal clothes and jewelry.

This certainly has worked out well for domestic cats, whose round faces, expressive eyes, and size make them adorable substitutions for a human baby–up to a point.

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Said point. (Source)

Today cats are more numerous than their African wildcat ancestor and thrive on every continent except Antarctica.

What you might not know is that philosophers also use cats to illustrate difficult points they want to make. So do people who tell reality-based tall tales.

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Cloning Domestic Cats


Judging from the online sales pitches of companies like ViaGen and Sooam Biotech, more dog owners than cat owners want their pet cloned.

Perhaps that’s because the bond between a human and a domestic cat is so individualized and complex, involving factors that just can’t be reproduced in the lab.

Nevertheless, we cat lovers do wonder how cloning works and if it’s possible for cats.

The animal cloning procedure is straightforward enough but there are a lot of practical problems to overcome, as well as some legal and ethical questions to be considered (though this isn’t part of the intense controversy over potentially cloning human beings).

And yes, domestic cats have been successfully cloned.

CC and Little Nicky

Here is a (very) little background on cloning before we meet these two record-holding kitty clones.

Two different but very common ways that life on Earth reproduces itself are cloning and sex. Each has impressive results.

Whales, for instance, are mammals that took advantage of an empty predator niche in the seas after the marine reptiles disappeared in the K/T extinction. They reproduce sexually, like all mammals, and for a while one whale species–the blue whale–was the largest known living being on the planet.

Whales lost that title when experts discovered some extremely large natural clones out there, including Pando, a colony of identical male aspens in Utah (and possibly the heaviest known living organism), and Oregon’s Humongous Fungus–a serious contender for Earth’s largest life form at roughly 4 square miles (10 km2) in size.

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Get the record books ready when you need a map of this scale to find an individual. (USDA)

Too, down through the centuries horticulturists and farmers have cloned plants. Some European grapes, according to Wikipedia, have been propagated this way for thousands of years. Potatoes and bananas have also changed a lot from their ancestors thanks to this type of cloning.

In the lab, geneticists do molecular and cell cloning on embryos for research or for therapeutic purposes. And yes, that makes me uncomfortable and it is controversial.

Nevertheless, from the mid-1980s on, researchers presented the world with a series of cloning faits accomplis–two sheep cloned from embryonic cells in 1984 and 1995, and the famous Dolly, cloned from somatic cells (non-reproductive cells like those used today), in 1996.

The news made cloning more personal for the public.  Few people outside labs had been very interested in earlier cloning efforts going back to the 1950s. It’s hard for most of us to relate to amphibians and single-celled organisms, but sheep . . . !. Not only do we herd them, enjoy their weird little “baas”, and wear their wool, but also sheep are complex mammals, just like us. Could humans be cloned, too?

The public debate over cloning ethics began with Dolly and it still goes on, shedding much heat and a little light along the way.

In the meantime, Science just kept its head down and forged ahead after Dolly. The next cloned animal to make headlines was a domestic cat.

CC, a tabby and white kitten, was born in late December 2001, but the news was held until 2002, after she had had successfully completed all her shots and her immune system was fully mature.

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CC and her owner in 2003. (Source)

To produce this cloned domestic cat, geneticists put the nucleus of one cat cell into a denucleated egg cell. After cell division began the way it would in a normally fertilized egg, the embryo was implanted into a surrogate mother cat, who brought the cloned kitten to term.

Besides being the first cloned pet, later in life CC also became the first clone to give birth.

In 2003, Nicky, an elderly Maine Coon fancy-cat in Texas, died. His owner paid a new company, Genetic Savings and Clone, $50,000 to clone him. Little Nicky, the first commercially cloned pet, was born in 2004. He was not the next clone after CC, as this company had already cloned four other cats.

Still, cloning dogs was “the Holy Grail of commercial animal cloning.” (Oransky) Genetic Savings and Clone had actually been set up to clone a dog named Missy, and while the company furthered research into dog cloning, which is much more challenging than cats, it closed in 2006 without ever having produced a “Little Missy.”

That was about a year after Snuppy, the first cloned dog, was born in South Korea.

Today ViaGen is the only US company in the pet cloning business. Their first dog clone–Nubia–was born in 2016, and since then ViaGen has produced almost a hundred puppies and kittens.

Is pet cloning safe?

There is no easy answer to this question.

Certainly CC did fine, and while Little Nicky seems to have disappeared from the online news after his birth, I haven’t seen this historic cat’s death announcement anywhere or any news about possible health problems.

Dolly the Sheep lived about half as long as a sheep born the normal way. Some said it was because of her cloning; others said it was natural. Apparently that is still under discussion.

Recent studies from Japan show that clones can live as long as the rest of their species if they make it through birth and the first two postnatal months. That’s a big “if,” though. Fetal and neonatal mortality is high.

And then there are all those egg donors, embryos, and surrogate mothers.  That’s a lot of surgery.

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 one–CC’s–was a success. (Hartwell)

Does the definition of “safe” include all of the embryos and the lab cats who underwent procedures?

And then there is the more modern meaning of safe–secure. These days you can either preserve some of your pet’s tissue or clone it. Either way, your vet sends the company a tissue sample, which they either store in a freezer or clone.

On ViaGen’s FAQ, the company assures prospective customers that it will not use that tissue for anything other than cloning the pet.

There is no reason to doubt them–it’s good business practice.

But you do have to take their word for it. Regulation of the pet cloning industry is in its early stages, just like data privacy issues were when companies like Facebook were brand new.

Agencies and legislators are still working through the ramifications of cloning livestock for food. Nothing seems to be in place to stop unscrupulous people, if any are out there yet, from using your pet’s tissues for their own purposes, as well as yours.

This is a huge topic, of course.  Here are some examples of what’s being discussed about pet cloning online:

  • The ASPCA wants a moratorium
  • Veterinarians continue to discuss the controversial procedure
  • Science writers are looking into it (here and here, for example
  • Business pitches keep coming–again, most of the attention in pet cloning focuses on dogs
  • 500 new animals are reportedly cloned each day in a South Korean lab
  • China is building the world’s largest animal cloning lab

It’s enough to make you just want to huddle down under a blanket with your OG pet, far away from the world and all its confusion and complications.

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You just know somebody’s tapping their fingers or waving a toy at the other end of that throw! (Sam Howzit CC BY 2.0)

Here’s some reassuring news: they can’t clone an animal’s personality. That’s something built from shared experiences. So you and your pet cat are way ahead of Science.

Enjoy all the time you have together, for it is irreplaceable. It will also stay with you and support you when the time comes for parting, whether you choose to then go the cloning route or to say goodbye and move on.


Featured image: The Clone Wars. Piutus, CC BY 2.0.



Sources and more information:

Bennett, O., and Amini, K. 2010. Research Briefing: Animal Cloning. UK Parliament, House of Commons Library. PDF download https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN05798/SN05798.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwjY-9fSt7jaAhXE5lQKHc5QAEMQFjAGegQIAxAB&usg=AOvVaw1sDjHbK5M2YZh9hA_zSXkc Last accessed April 13, 2018.

Braun, D. 2002. Scientists successfully clone cat. National Geographic News. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/02/0214_021402copycat.html Last accessed April 13, 2018.

Campbell, K. H. S.; Fisher, P.; Chen, W. C.; Choi, I.; and others. 2007. Somatic cell nuclear transfer: past, present and future perspectives. (Abstract only) Theriogenology, 68: S214-S231.

Edwards, J. L.; Schrick, F. N.; McCracken, M. D.; Van Amstel, S. R.; and others. 2003. Cloning adult farm animals: a review of the possibilities and problems associated with somatic cell nuclear transfer. American Journal of Reproductive Immunology, 50(2): 113-123.

Gurdon, J. B., and Byrne, J. A. 2003. The first half-century of nuclear transplantation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(14): 8048-8052.

Hartwell, S. n.d. The pros and cons of cloning (and other reproductive technology techniques). messybeast.com/clonecat.htm#clonekitten Last accessed April 16, 2018.

Jewgenow, K.; Braun, B. C.; Dehnhard, M.; Zahmel, J.; and Goeritz, F. 2017. Research on reproduction is essential for captive breeding of endangered carnivore species. Reproduction in Domestic Animals, 52(S2): 18-23.

Keefer, C. L. 2015. Artificial cloning of domestic animals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(29): 8874-8878.

Lagutina, I.; Fulka, H.; Lazzari, G.; and Galli, C. 2013. Interspecies somatic cell nuclear transfer: advancements and problems. Cellular Reprogramming (Formerly “Cloning and Stem Cells”), 15(5): 374-384.

Mott, M. 2004. Cat cloning offered to pet owners. National Geographic News. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/03/0324_040324_catclones.html Last accessed April 13, 2018.

Oransky, I. 2005. Cloning for profit: cloned kittens are cute, but how profitable are animal cloning companies?. The Scientist. 19(2): 41-44.

Prothero, D. R.  2006.  After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals.  Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. Retrieved from  https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=Qh82IW-HHWAC

Rose, K. D.  2006.  The Beginning of the Age of Mammals. Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Shin, T.; Kraemer, D.; Pryor, J.; Liu, L.; and others. 2002. Cell biology: a cat cloned by nuclear transplantation. Nature, 415(6874): 859.

Stubbs, E. C. 2011. Why are cloned cats not Identical: Implications for pet cloning and public perception. Biosciences Undergraduate Research at Nottingham, University of Nottingham, School of Bioscences. PDF download: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/biosciences/documents/burn/2011/why-are-cloned-cats-not-identical–emma-stubbs.pdf Last accessed April 13, 2018.

United States Mission to the European Union. 2018. Animal cloning. Foreign Agriculature Service, US Department of Agriculture. http://www.usda-eu.org/topics/animal-cloning/ Last accessed April 13, 2018.

Viagen Pets FAQ. n.d. https://viagenpets.com/faq/

Wikipedia. 2018. Pet cloning. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pet_cloning Last accessed April 13, 2018.

Cats in the Lab


Uh, no, not this adorable assistance with human technology. We’re looking at animal testing today. Relax, it’s not as horrifying as you might think.

Leafing through old research papers can get really grisly when you read about some of the tests they performed on animals, including cats, to get their results.

Today, not so much.

It’s not the 1950s any more. Bad things still happen, sadly, but nowadays it results in big headlines and bad publicity more often than not. Government, media, the private sector, and fellow scientists are all watching.

The biggest recent animal-welfare story comes from the United States, where on February 3, 2017, the USDA removed warning letters, inspection reports, and other documents from a public database that included every commercial animal business in the country, including zoos and research centers. Information for some 8,000 facilities disappeared from public view.

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Where’d it go? (Sagyle at Pixabay)

No one knows where it went.

The reason given for the removal of these records was privacy concerns, although the reports were edited for individual security and privacy purposes before going online.

Theoretically, the missing USDA inspection and abuse reports could still be obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but this process takes at least several months.

And often the information provided was heavily redacted. The National Geographic Society, for example–not known for its extreme positions on animal rights–got 1,771 completely blank pages in response to their FOIA request, which the Society put online.

The USDA says it can’t release information that is associated with ongoing lawsuits (and many were filed after the February 2017 federal move, in addition to ongoing animal-abuse cases using the formerly public information).

On April 9, 2018, some recent inspection reports–not those taken down in 2017 but a selection dating from March 2018 onward–appeared in the public database again. This only happened after Congress, while preparing to vote on the agency’s annual funding, pointed out that:

USDA’s actions to date do not meet the requirements in H. Rpt. 115-232 that the online searchable database should allow analysis and comparison of data and include all inspection reports, annual reports, and other documents related to enforcement of animal welfare laws. USDA is directed to comply with these requirements and is reminded that as part of its oversight responsibilities, Congress has the right to make any inquiry it wishes into litigation in which USDA is involved. USDA is directed to respond to any such inquiries fully.

It remains to be seen what will happen next.

In the meantime, zoos, research organizations, and others with an animal-related business, as well as anyone in a US jurisdiction that requires animal breeders and other sellers to show a clean USDA record, are all in the dark.

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And shady deals go down in dark sometimes (though few probably involve Mayor McCheese). (Karl Palutke. CC BY-SA 2.0)

Meanwhile, in the sort of gentle “ahem” that sometimes wafts across the Atlantic during such US controversies, the Guardian posted an April 6, 2018, essay by a British researcher. It points out how well animal welfare legislation is working out in the UK.

Thinking back to my early days as a researcher, it is inconceivable . . . that any university would allow cameras into their animal units to film. This shows the culture change that is under way, but there is still work to be done. It is only by being more open with the public that we can show them the high welfare standards and the care that all research animals receive. In this way, I hope we can build trust in the organisations, and the scientists, engaged in animal research.

We all do want to believe that lab animals are treated well. Extremists who use threats, violence, or extravagant claims set this humane goal back by undermining trust in public institutions.

That trust has been shaken by the recent loss of transparency in the US, but researchers in the UK must follow some of the toughest animal-welfare laws in the world.

According to the RSPCA, scientists need need three licenses in order to use animals in their work: one for their establishment, a personal one for each individual who handles the animal, and a project license that is only granted if it can be proved that the project benefits people more than it harms the animals used in testing.

The “three R’s” for animal research are also promoted internationally:

  • Replacement of animal testing with other methods
  • Reduction of the number of animals tested
  • Refinement of tests to avoid life-long animal suffering

In India, a fourth “R”–rehabilitation–is added.

So how are cats faring in the midst of all this fuss?

The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) has a good page about cats in US research today (Here is a working link to those “Cats in Biomedical Research” notes).

The good news is that use of cats in the lab has plummeted in the US since the 1970s, when 74,000 cats were used in 1974. That number dropped, per ORI, to a little over 26,000 in 1997.

This was after the mid-1980s shift in public opinion, as well as passage of laws in several countries around the same time that made using cats in neurological research, once a common practice, much more costly in terms of both time and money. (National Research Council)

In 2016, according to the USDA’s last annual report (via Wikipedia), the lab cat population was down to 19,000. And in the UK that same year, the number of procedures on lab cats dropped almost 10%.

Maintaining openness is probably the biggest challenge for animal welfare in research labs. In some respects, scientists and government inhabit the same world–one that laypeople seldom see. This in itself isn’t bad: who wants to attend all those hearings in DC or London and show up at the lab every day to watch tests?

Human nature is the problem. Government officials and technologists get used to their work. Animal testing isn’t intended to be cruel. The testers and those who monitor them just get into a business-as-usual frame of mind that leads to horrors time and time again.

As G. K. Chesterton pointed out a century ago (in a very different context), the presence, via access by online databases, news documentaries, etc., of outsiders who aren’t numbed by familiarity and can spot inhumane practice instantly is the best way to prevent a lot of suffering and grief all around.


Featured image: Veronica Belmont. CC BY 2.0.



Sources:

Badyal, D. K., and Desai, C. 2014. Animal use in pharmacology education and research: The changing scenario. Indian Journal of Pharmacology, 46(3), 257.

Daly, N. 2017. U. S. animal abuse records deleted–what we stand to lose. National Geographic, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/02/wildlife-watch-usda-animal-welfare-trump-records/ Last accessed April 10, 2018.

Daly, N., and Bale, R. 2017. We asked the government why animal welfare records disappeared. They sent 1,700 blacked-out pages. National Geographic. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/05/usda-animal-welfare-records-foia-black-out-first-release/ Last accessed April 11, 2018.

National Research Council. 2012. International animal research regulations: impact on neuroscience research: workshop summary. National Academies Press. PDF download https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/n/nap13322/pdf/ Last accessed April 11, 2018.

Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). n.d. Reports and resources. https://science.rspca.org.uk/sciencegroup/researchanimals/reportsandresources Last accessed April 10, 2018.

Speaking of Research. n.d. UK Animal Research Statistics. https://speakingofresearch.com/facts/uk-statistics/ Last accessed April 11, 2018.

United States House of Representatives, Bills This Week. 2018. Division A – Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriation Act 2018. Congressional Directives. PDF download: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://docs.house.gov/billsthisweek/20180319/DIV%2520A%2520AG%2520SOM%2520FY18%2520OMNI.OCR.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwj8-rCugLPaAhUL658KHW0TCvgQFjABegQIBxAB&usg=AOvVaw30lLEN-35gfGw0aUv8LNdp Last accessed April 11, 2018.

Wadman, M. 2017. Activists battle U. S. government in court over making animal welfare reports public. Science Magazine. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/activists-battle-us-government-court-over-making-animal-welfare-reports-public Last accessed April 10, 2018.

Wadman, M. 2018. Update: After Congress complains, USDA restores animal welfare reports. Science Magazine. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/03/congress-orders-usda-restore-transparency-completeness-animal-welfare-reports Last accessed April 10, 2018.


The Five Feline Freedoms

Most of us cat owners fall in the middle of a spectrum that has “crazy cat lady/man” at one extreme and cruelty at the other. Still, the love we have for our cat(s) makes us wonder sometimes if we’re doing everything possible to give Kitty the best possible life.

Some animal welfare experts have us covered. They say that every cat has five basic “freedoms.” These also apply to every other household pet.

Freedom from thirst, hunger, and malnutrition

Cats are really easy to take care of: just some kibbles or wet food daily, and fresh water.

What’s more complicated is the nutrition part.

Cats are hypercarnivores, meaning at least 70% of their food must be protein. Also, they can’t synthesize certain vitamins and amino acids and need to get these from their food.

Things can get a little controversial. The vet is your best source of information about cat nutrition. Make the most of this resource by reading up on the basics before the visit.

Freedom from discomfort

This one can be challenging. Cats purr when they’re happy, but they also sometimes purr when they hurt.

And when they have a problem, cats are more likely than dogs to just tough it out quietly, instead of doing something blatantly unusual that might catch your notice.

Probably the best thing here is to look carefully for problems while you’re interacting with your kitty, either physical things like extra-long claws that might be irritating the toes or personality changes (hiding, not grooming, etc.)

And, of course, regular checkups at the vet’s are a good way to catch problems early.

Freedom from pain, injury, and disease

Again, your cat is a stoic, so it may not show pain. And when it is suffering, do you know what are the right treatments?

Drugs for humans, such as ibuprofen, can poison cats. Always check with the vet before medicating a cat (catnip doesn’t count).

Freedom from injury covers a lot of ground. For some people, it means keeping the cat indoors; others believe that lack of natural exercise outdoors is harmful.

All cats need a safe home environment, including the usual safety precautions as well as things such as “cat-proofing” the place, using safe toys that don’t cause choking or contain poison, and protection from unwitting dangers like small children, large dogs, and people and things that come in from outside.

Freedom from disease means vaccinations and regular checkups. This is especially important if your cat(s) go outdoors.

A less well-known health problem comes from genetics. This is not only birth defects but also breed-specific issues like kidney disease or physical deformities. Today tests are available to detect some of these diseases, so they can be treated.

Freedom to express normal behavior

Scratching is normal cat behavior, which leads into the declawing controversy, which I’m not getting into here.

What you might not know is that biologists aren’t sure exactly what “normal” is for house cats.

Even if they knew more about the behavior of Fluffy’s ancestor, the African/Near Eastern wildcat, it wouldn’t tell them much about the domestic cat, which has been living with us for thousands of years.

So this feline freedom is still open ended.

Freedom from fear and stress

Loud noise, heavy traffic indoors and out in the street, emotional or physical violence, lack of food and/or water, aggressive animals or people – these are just some of the frightening things that a cat shouldn’t have to deal with.

Stress is harder to identify. It could be something low-key but long-term, like an overfull litter box or even lack of cover in a completely open room. Cats love cleanliness and privacy.

As a final note, these are just a few thoughts I had today after learning of the “five freedoms.” You can probably come up with more.

Most of us already provide all of these basics out of love. Love is also why we wonder what else we can do for our cat. The “five freedoms” point us in some directions for going this extra distance.

“Thank you.”


Images:
Featured: Kitten exploring, by Jonasjovaisis on Pixabay.

Hand petting cat: AdinaVoicu on Pixabay.


Sources:
Bernstein, P. L., and Friedmann, E. 2014. Social behaviour of domestic cats in the human home, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds Turner, D. C., and Bateson, P., 71-80. New York: Cambridge University Press.

The Rally Cat

This past August, a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game was interrupted when an adorable young cat ran out on the field.

Of course there was instant replay.

Moments after the game resumed, the Cardinal batter made a game-winning grand slam.  This little kitty therefore became the St. Louis Rally Cat forever.

It went to the nonprofit St. Louis Feral Cat Outreach, where it was treated and, of course, had no problem with adoption requests.

The Cards would like to adopt it, but the shelter is going carefully, of course.  This delay has caused misunderstandings, apparently.

Fifty to a hundred years ago, a stray cat like this would have been given to a huge organization as a matter of course, and that may or may not have worked out for the cat as well as the organization.  Nobody would really care after the hoopla quieted down.

But it’s the 21st century now, and hopefully this pet adoption will resolve for everybody’s welfare – the cat’s, the Card’s, and the fans.

Go! Cards!

 

PS:  The young man who carried the cat off the field – and didn’t choke when the going got rough – was treated for his injuries and is fine.