You have probably heard of X-Men, whether in comic books or the movies. But what you might not know is that mutants are living among us right now. No, these mutants are not in human form, nor are they in Ninja Turtle form. These mutants are in the form of felines. Some mutated to the point of no longer resembling our precious purring pets, but something out of a comic book themselves.
You have seen them many times. One of them is the USA’s most popular purebred cat. You probably have seen one and not known that it was a mutant.
Simply put, a mutant is “a sudden departure from the parent type in one or more heritable characteristics, caused by a change in a gene or a chromosome; an individual, species, or the like, resulting from such a departure.” This definition is courtesy of dictionary.com.
Within any biological organism, mutations can and do occur naturally. The moral question comes in when people find these mutations “cute” and actually breed to heighten them. Selective breeding has been responsible for many mutations that are not only unnatural, they are downright unhealthy.
In the cat world, mutations are all around us. Below are some of the most common:
- The popular Persian is a mutation that has been, through the years, deliberately bred for exaggeration of features. Persians are said to have roots that go back as far as 1684 BC. But back then, their “claim to fame” was their gorgeous long coats and gentle demeanor. The long coat of the Persian in and of itself is a “mutation” in that it does not occur naturally within a wild setting. No one knows for sure when the first long-haired cat showed up, but Persians are one of the first documented long-hair breeds. The Traditional (or Doll Face) Persian cats had faces with less exaggerated features. Today, however, the facial mutations seen in the breed, and encouraged by cat breeding organizations, are making for a cat with a variety of health issues. The nose of the flat-faced Persian is virtually between the cat’s eyes, causing enhanced breathing difficulties and runny eyes, amongst other health-related issues caused by overly selective, line and in-breeding. The Himilayan cat has basically unergone the same selective mutational structure.
- In-breeding and line breeding are necessary to develop mutations and there’s none so obvious as the Sphynx cat. Once upon a time in 1966 in Toronto, a hairless kitten named Prune was born. The kitten was mated with its mother and that union produced one more hairless kitten. Later on, other naked kittens were found and voila! The Sphynx was developed. However, problems ensued. The gene pool was very sparse and many first-attempt kittens died! Many of the females suffered convulsions. Prune’s last 2 descendants (brother and sister) were sent to Holland in the 70s. However, the male had no interest in breeding and the one litter that was conceived from him passed away. Prune’s last surviving descendant was mated in 1978 and 1980 with another unrelated hairless kitten, also found in Toronto. The one female who managed to conceive lost her litter as well. It seemed the Sphynx mutation didn’t want to go on, but humans are a stubborn breed. The last remaining Prune descendent had been neutered so that ended Prune’s line. Only hairless females remained, so breeders bred them to Devon Rex males who had sparse amounts of fur. In the mid 1970’s two hairless barn cats were born in MN and they play an important role in the history of the Sphynx breed. Other hairless mutations were born in various areas of the USA and breeding with Devon Rex’s halted due to severe health issues. Health problems are not a huge problem in the Sphynx, but the lack of fur (they do have a fuzz) means plenty of baths as the oils build up on their skin (also causing acne), and keeping them warm is a must. You might recall my Examiner story about the Sphynx kitten that froze to death at an airport here in Connecticut.
- Scottish Fold. As the name states, the Scottish Fold cat has folded ears (from a dominant-gene mutation) and hails from bonnie Scotland. The tale begins at a farm when a cat named Susie was found near Coupar Angus in Perthshire SCotland in 1961 (the ’60s seemed to be a great decade for mutants). Susie had an unusual fold in the cartilage of her ears and when she had kittens, 2 of them also had the folded ears of their mother. A farmer named William Ross took one of the kittens and subsequently registered the breed with the GCCF (Governing Council of the Cat Fancy). From there, with the help of a geneticist, more and more of these kittens were produced. A true human-made genetic mutant. Susie, who was unfortunate enough to have an owner who allowed her outdoors, was killed by a car. However, all Scottish Folds to date can be traced back to Susie. Health-wise, Scottish Folds should not be bred to one another; the result of such an undiluted mutation can cause (1 in 4) bone deformities in offspring. As such, Folded cats are generally bred to straight-eared cats.
- American Curl. The result of a spontaneous mutation, the American Curl hails from California and appears to be the opposite image of the Scottish Fold. Instead of folding forward, the ears fold backwards. One of the “newer” breeds of cat, the American Curl breed developed when 2 stray kittens, both long hair, one black and one white, were discovered in 1981. One disappeared, so the other was bred and the American Curl was born (seriously, though, if you found an unusual kitten with an interesting mutation, would you let it outside??). In 1983 the American Curl hit the show world and in 1987 was given championship status with The International Cat Association (TICA). An interesting fact about the American Curl is kittens are born with straight ears that don’t start to curl until about 10 days old.
- The Munchkin is the result of a naturally occuring genetic mutation that causes the cats to have unusually short legs. The gene that causes this has been compared to the same gene responsible for the Basset Hound, Dachshund and Welsh Corgi dog breeds. A large and important varation, however, is the lack of spinal problems in the Munchkin that is associated with the dog breeds mentioned. The exact origin of the Munchkin is unknown as short-legged cats have been sighted all over the world.The first documented Munchkin in the United States was in 1964 but that cat did not reproduce, so the breed didn’t make another documented appearance until 1983. Today’s Munchkins descend from this cat. The breed was accepted into the New Breed Development Program by TICA in 1994. Many tests have been done to determine the overall health of the Munchkin cat, and besides a few rare cases of bone disorders (that can be found in other breeds as well), Munchkins are happy and healthy cats that can run and jump as if they had normal-sized legs.
So, in short (no pun intended towards the Munchkin), should mutations be encouraged? Should geneticists be messing with the natural order and creating cats that nature would reject? Should humans be allowed to cross-breed and back-breed and line-breed with the sole purpose of developing a mutation so severe it produces mutants with health issues? And should people buy into these mutations? The answers are as varied as the cats themselves