Cat Ultra-Typing – A Breed Too Far?

The dachshund-like Munchkin caused uproar among people concerned that breeders had gone too far for novelty’s sake. In the wild, short-legged cats would not survive unless the mutation proved advantageous e.g. for following prey down burrows, or at least did not hinder the cats’ ability to escape danger.

The wrinkly, bald Sphynx is now accepted in many countries despite initial opposition. The Peke-Faced Persian recently arrived in the U.K.; maybe the Munchkin, already rumored to suffer from back problems, will arrive too. As an ordinary pet-owner, I just have to ask "What on earth are cat-fanciers doing to cats?"

In human-controlled conditions, mutations or traits can be perpetuated for aesthetic or curiosity reasons rather than in the best interests of the cat. This can lead to curious but healthy breeds such as the Japanese Bobtail or to curious breeds with drawbacks if there are lethal genes or other abnormalities e.g. the Manx.

"In the cat fancy, mutation is often spelt NEW BREED" (A Cat of Your Own, 2nd Ed. 1993).

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.

What the Papers Say

The December 11 edition of the British "Sunday Express" newspaper printed the following:

Judges at the 1994 National Cat Show at Olympia were so concerned by the increase in breeding extremely freakish cats that they voted to ban the Over-Typed Persian from competing.

Other previously banned mutant breeds include the Rag Doll, which is so flaccid and passive as a sofa cushion that it cannot protect itself at all; the American Munchkin, which has legs so short it can barely walk, the Peke-faced Persian, whose face is so flat that its eyes and sinuses are deformed and it has to be on antibiotics for life, the Scottish Fold and the American Curl, which have deformed ears, often accompanied by deformed skulls and joints, and the Sphynx which is virtually hairless and so very vulnerable to cold.

All these breeds were developed by intensive inbreeding (offspring back to mother) of spontaneous mutants which once would have been humanely put down at birth but have been propagated in response to a fashion in recent years for extremely bizarre pets.

"It’s a perversion we view with abhorrence" say the RSPCA, and even the Cat Fancy admits that "The whole idea that you can create breeds of cats like a fashion designer designs clothes is terribly cruel". Which is better late than never, considering that one breeder at the 1994 show claimed that "90 per cent of Persians, whether they’re ultras or not, have blocked tear ducts." The RSPCA are also concerned at a new breed, the Bengal, which is a cross between a wild cat and a domestic, and could be dangerous, especially to children."

The account was alarmist and contained a number of inaccuracies and misconceptions about the breeds themselves, but it reflected the concerns over ultra-typing and concerns about ‘novelty breeds’ where the cats’ health could be compromised.

While breeds based on ‘deformities’ aren’t finding favor with the judges, ultra-typing is permitted. The words of the standards must be re-interpreted as the cat moves further and further away from the original type while still adhering to the ‘letter of the law’. Though the Peke-faced Persian is unacceptable, the standard for the ‘normal’ Persian may soon have to be rewritten to keep the nose leather below its eyes. Ultra-types have given a whole new slant on requirements for the nose leather to be placed ‘high’ and it seems that requirements for a ‘short muzzle’ are being interpreted as ‘no muzzle’. It will soon be necessary to define the outer limits of what is acceptable if the cats are not to suffer.

Cat and Ultra Cat

The current trend is to make existing breeds more extreme – producing ‘ultra-type’ cats. If the ‘ultra-type’ finds favor with judges, more breeders start to produce it in order to compete. Standards get revised to accommodate it and the ‘old style’ becomes unfashionable and rarely seen, even though non-exhibitor cat owners may prefer it. Some breeders feel pressurized into conforming to the new look in order to be competitive on the show bench.

"It is the role of judges to penalize exhibits which … show incorrect type due to over-typing. If judges lack the willpower and confidence to pursue this course, eventually a new look is set into place within the breed and the standard altered to incorporate that ‘look’. This is not always in the best interests of the breed." (Letters, National Cat, August 1993)

"A standard which adopts an ‘anything goes’ attitude allows breeders to create more and more extreme specimens with disastrous results for the health of the breed." (Jeff Spall, Letters, Show World, March 1993)

The Siamese once resembled a shorthair with colored points. It was chunkier than the modern fragile-looking Siamese with their ultra-tubular shape, ultra-wedge-shaped face and ultra-slim legs which arose through selective breeding for an extreme foreign shape. Although both types are said to occur naturally, breeders have worked to ‘refine’ the Siamese. According to an American breeder of Traditional Siamese cats, the CFA Siamese breed council actually changed the definition of a Siamese cat so that the original cat can no longer be shown because it does not meet the revised breed standard. The new definition not only encourages, but actually drive the breeders to produce an even more extreme animal than was current when the standard changed.

In America, there have been claims that the breeders of the new-style Siamese recognized that their "look" could only be maintained by, and within, a controlled breeding program, and hence they encouraged the new style in order to capture a market. Breeders of older-style cats claim to have been marginalized as the new-style breeders persuaded cat fancies and cat owners that only the ultra-slim cats were the genuine article. And of course, any breeders disagreeing with this not only lost market share, but also lost access to ultra-typed stud cats.

Many cat lovers, though, hanker after the old-style Siamese. A number of American breeders refused to adopt the modern, slim line Siamese and the traditional ‘Applehead’ Siamese is now making a comeback alongside the elongated ‘Classic’ Siamese in America. That pet owners express a preference for the Traditional Siamese is a matter of polite tension between Traditional and new-style breeders. Allegedly the presence of the Traditional Siamese in a CFA show’s household pet class can virtually stop all new-style Siamese sales at that show and, for a time after, in that show’s geographic area as the cat-loving public look for old-style Siamese cats. In Britain, Colorpoint British Shorthairs and Tonkinese are finding favor among those who prefer the old style Siamese and as a result of public interest, there are now breeders working with the Traditional Siamese.

Drawings and stuffed specimens show that the original Persian was similar to the Angora. Persians have changed greatly and are still changing today; the trend being towards the American ‘Piggy’ (Ultra-type) style. These have nose breaks so high that their nostrils are almost between their tear-shaped eyes and their mouths do not seem to close fully.

Some breeders are alarmed by this trend; it can cause problems with undershot jaws. Not all societies accept ultra-type cats. Maybe they will eventually have to accept them due to pressure of numbers. Personally, I find the ‘punched-in look’ unattractive and prefer the ‘Doll-faced’ Persian, with its round eyes and more of a muzzle. They have beautiful sweet expressions and I hope that they don’t lose out as judges get more used to seeing Ultra-types.

The American Red/Red Tabby Persian was taken to extremes with the ‘Peke-faced’ Persian. Peke-faceds occur spontaneously in litters and were established as a breed despite reservations about their health. According to a columnist in the American ‘CATS MAGAZINE’, they are dying out; the squashed and wrinkled muzzle being accompanied by a high palate, causing suckling problems in the kittens and high kitten mortality (as high as 50%). Peke-Faced kittens often need to be delivered by caesarian.

Adult Peke-faceds often have breathing difficulties and constricted tear ducts with tears trickling constantly down their cheeks. When I saw them on TV, I cried too. The glorious longhaired, heavy-boned, sweet-faced Persian, like those my grandmother kept, had been sacrificed on the altar of novelty.

Cats are not as diverse in size as dogs, the smallest is probably the Singapura and the largest the Maine Coon or Ragdoll. There have been attempts at breeding miniature cats in America where the ‘Mei Toi’ was advertised as the ‘first genetically miniature cat, mature at 4-5 lb’ though I’ve seen nothing more on the breed. Mei Toi Munchkins are now being advertised in their place.

In 1996 I was contacted by a Persian breeder whose 14 lb stud tom was consistently siring miniature kittens, apparently as a result of a spontaneous mutation of the germ cell. The trait appeared to be dominant but the stud cat was normal size, suggesting a mutation to his sperm-producing cells. There were concerns that miniature cats might carry recessive genes for normal size and might sire normal-sized kittens on miniature females with disastrous results. Several test breedings were done under the guidance of vets and a geneticist and the miniature Persians have so far proved to be healthy and vigorous. 76% of the kittens sired by that particular stud were miniatures, with two degrees of miniaturization: Toy Persians mature at approximately 5 lbs; Teacup Persians mature at approximately 3-4 lbs.

Many cat lovers consider that breeds carrying wild blood demonstrate yet another novelty-value extreme. Hybridization for curiosity’s sake is not new – plenty of zoos have exhibited Tigons and Leopons and domestic/wildcat hybrids were bred as far back as the 1800s.

Only recently have hybrids been the basis for new breeds. Bengals combine a wild appearance with a docile temperament and find favor with people who might otherwise have bought an exotic wildcat kitten obtained by killing the mother. The Bengal’s wild heritage, though part of the novelty value, does not seem to have created any health problems.

Bred for Looks

When wandering round cat shows I have seen beautiful specimens with the warning "will not handle" on their pens. When breeding for superlative looks, there is a danger of ignoring temperament. The result – stunning cats which judges dread handling. A Burmese breeder of my acquaintance refers to her cats as ‘feline Rottweilers, but they look superb’. Never mind that judges go pale when approaching them.

At the cat rescue shelter we once dealt with a stunning Silver Classic Tabby Shorthair whose temperament was so atrocious that he had to be homed as a farm cat – hardly a fitting position for what should have been a show-stopping cat or attractive pet.

I admire breeders and breed societies who put an emphasis on temperament. Both the Spotted Mist and the Bengal are bred with temperament as well as appearance in mind but neither exhibit extremes of placidity found in IRCA Ragdolls. I was particularly impressed to read that "there is nothing extreme about the Spotted Mist" in its breed standard. If only moderation was a keyword in other breed standards and enforced on the show bench.

No doubt as a non-exhibitor I just don’t understand the breeders’ reasons for creating ultra-cats which I find unattractive, but it makes me very sad wondering where it will all end.