Cat Keeping in the US and UK Compared

The Persian and the Siamese are the most popular breeds both sides of the Atlantic, but after that, national pride takes over with the British Shorthair coming third over here and the Maine Coon looking set to oust the Abyssinian from third place in the US.

For many elderly or disabled persons a cat is their family. In the US, many landlords are now required by law to allow people moving into sheltered accommodation to keep a single indoor cat as long as they are capable of looking after it. This is a very positive move for people moving into sheltered housing.

Despite a high rate of neutering, the US has cat overpopulation problems. Although there are ‘no-kill shelters’ for cats, 80% of cats presented to shelters never find new homes. Cats over 5 years old are hard to re-home and cats over 10 years old stand little chance of being adopted. Pure economics means that many of these are euthanized. Many animal pounds are legally obliged to sell this surplus of un-homed animals to research laboratories.

The overpopulation problem includes 26 million feral cats. Attempts at wholesale eradication failed and several American groups have been set up along the lines of Cat Action Trust to control the feral population through neutering. The first such group, Alley Cat Allies, is now a national organization providing information to humane societies and individuals involved in TTVAR (Trap-Test-Vaccinate-Alter-Return) Projects.

Indoors or Out?

90% of British cats have free access to outdoors. According to surveys, about a quarter of American cats are able to go outdoors. The main reasons for confining a cat indoors is fear of diseases such as rabies, dangerous wildlife, road accidents and cat theft.

This indoor lifestyle is reflected in other statistics. In Britain un-neutered toms are more acceptable as pets than they are in the US. An un-castrated tom makes for a pungent indoor-only pet! Conversely, un-spayed females are more common as pets in the States than in Britain; since indoor-only females don’t risk unplanned pregnancies.

As a consequence of the indoor lifestyle, litter trays are big business. 70% of American cat owners buy commercial litter compared to less than 30% of British cat owners. Litters range from ‘scoopable’ and ‘multicat formula’ to ‘reusable’ and litter advertising is far more prominent in American magazines than in British ones.

American cat owners can choose between functional plastic litter trays, disposable biodegradable litter trays, ‘flushing’ Kitty Privvies, two-story kitty privies which prevent litter from being tracked all over the house or even products to train Kitty to use the toilet and eliminate the need for a litter tray altogether.

The Declawing Debate

The subject of declawing is the cause of much disagreement between cat lovers. This operation is more-or-less routine in many parts of the States and is often the first course of action for a destructive cat. Many other cats end up at humane shelters for the crime of clawing the furniture. Since so few cats get new homes, Kitty may well be better off with a home but no claws than with claws but no home.

A survey in the magazine CAT FANCY found that 31% of respondents had their cats de-clawed, some because the cats refused to use scratching posts while others seemed unwilling to try training their cats. One respondent summed up her reasons for declawing her cat:

"Declaw the cat so you don’t have to set any boundaries. A cat already hears enough noise in its life."

69% of respondents were against declawing on humane grounds, because it reduced the cats ability to defend itself or because cats can be trained not destroy household furnishings. Many stated that their cats’ well-being was more important than the furnishings so the picture is perhaps not as black as it is painted.

There are alternatives to declawing, one is to sever the ligaments which allow the claws to be extended for scratching; the other is to glue caps over the claws so that attempts to scratch don’t actually cause any damage. These caps must be replaced by a veterinarian every time the claws get long enough to need clipping.

In Britain, very few cats are de-clawed except on medical grounds. Some cats belonging to families on American airbases are de-clawed, making them difficult to re-home if the need arises as relatively few British owners are geared to keeping an indoor-only cat.

Wild species such as Margays and Ocelots are sometimes kept as pets and may be de-fanged as well as de-clawed.

Beautiful Cats

American Cat Magazines frequently carry advertisements for ‘hats, jackets and accessories for the fashionable feline’ and ‘feline finery’. You can get bomber jackets for cats, baseball caps and even fancy Victorian lace collars. Of course, an indoor cat won’t be able to drag its finery through the nearest hedge. Apart from the occasional indignity of being dressed up in doll’s clothes by children, British cats don’t currently have any fashions designed specifically for their feline forms.

Some indoor cats in America get a monthly bath despite never having the chance to get dirty. A regular bath in distilled water apparently removes some of the allergens from a cat’s coat. This is beneficial to owners who suffer from asthma, but don’t want to give up their cat. Apart from show cats who need to look their best, few British cat-owners bathe their cats. The only time I have ever bathed one of my cats is when she rolled in cold bonfire ashes.

In summertime, longhaired cats in the hottest regions may be clipped. A nearly nude cat with fluffy bootees and fluffy head may look hilarious but at least it won’t overheat.

The Quest for Novelty

Some British cat fanciers believe that the quest for novelty may have gone too far in the States with the Munchkin and the Sphynx and with attempts to breed genetically miniature cats. Persians come in several varieties depending on whether you like a cat with a punched-in look or one with working tear ducts. Siamese cats also come in two varieties as the ‘traditional’ chunkier Siamese of yesteryear is making a comeback.

Many British cat lovers are not aware that there are two types of Ragdoll cat with a minor spat going on in the classified ads section of cat magazines and litigation over which of the two Ragdoll ‘breeds’ is the genuine one despite the fact that they all stem from the same foundation cats. It doesn’t help that neither party will admit to the existence of the other party. It’s a case of ‘will the real Ragdoll please step forward?’

In the red corner we have the large, laid-back, but not excessively floppy ‘genuine Ragdoll’, developed by breakaway breeders and now seen in the UK ("perfectly normal and not in the least limp", Pat Turner, Show World Jan 1993). In the blue corner we have the IRCA variety developed by Ann Baker who claims that her non-aggressive, genetically engineered, floppy-when-held (and even when thrown) cats are the true Ragdolls, the others being an entirely different breed of over bred or half-bred look-alikes sold to an unsuspecting public. In 1992, the following is quoted from a quarter-page advertisement which appeared among breeder ads in a cat magazine:

"Ann Baker, the originator of that genial, huggable breed of house cat called ‘Ragdoll Cats’ says fraudulent versions of her special feline are on the market. A problem arose when an early franchise purchaser tried to take over the breed. Now there are two entirely different cats on the market with the same name, she says. Only those that qualify for registration through IRCA are authentic Ragdolls."

Also from IRCA are the ‘Honey Bear’ and ‘Miracle’ and ‘a new breed coming up’. The Honey Bear (claimed to be ‘the world’s sweetest cat’) has a ‘childlike personality’, while the emerald-eyed Miracle is a ‘highly upgraded’ Ragdoll in a variety of colors and a choice of long or short hair. IRCA breeds became ‘legal breeds the day they were trademarked’ thus avoiding the inconvenience of Provisional status. Remember, ‘IRCA registers only Cherubims, means Angels non-fighting cats’.

In the US, they existed in parallel and didn’t mix; IRCA Ragdolls weren’t registered with other associations while ‘phoney Ragdolls’ weren’t registerable with IRCA, but were registerable just about everywhere else – "registerable Ragdolls" gloated the ads. Since this article was originally written, Ann Baker has taken her idiosyncratic view of genetics to the great cattery in the sky. Her feline legacy lives on. IRCA Ragdolls went ‘legit’ with cat registries as "RagaMuffins". They have the essential Ragdoll characteristics in a wider range of colors and patterns. IRCA Honey Bears are advertised only occasionally.

The quest for the wild-looking cat (or ‘Living Room Leopard’) has not ended with the California Spangle, Egyptian Mau, Ocicat or Bengal. The American Lynx is a Bobcat hybrid with a wild appearance and tame temperament. Another Bobcat hybrid, the American Bobtail is frequently found in colour-pointed varieties as Bobcat males apparently prefer Siamese queens, although some authorities suggest that the Bobtail originated from a mating between a Himalayan and a short-tailed moggy. Some authorities suggest that it is a Manx-like mutation (tail mutations are surprisingly common in cats) and during 1993, breeder advertisements changed from ‘Bobcat-hybrids’ to ‘Bobcat-look-alikes’.

Despite a high-profile launch, the California Spangled remains uncommon. The Bengal is one of a handful of cats developed using a wild cat species from which the desired pattern was ‘imported’. Other hybrids include the Savannah, Chausie, Eurochaus and possibly the PixieBob, a bobtailed, polydactylous cat with possible Bobcat ancestry. The Bombay resembles a miniature black panther, but is a Burmese in a black coat.

Breeder Advertisements

I’m fascinated by American Breed Adverts. Nowhere are mutations established as breeds faster and with greater enthusiasm than in the US. Curled ears? You got it! Stumpy legs? You got it! Hybridized to resemble a wild species? You got it! Cats are no longer ‘bred’, they are ‘genetically engineered’. Devon Rexes and Sphynxes are ‘guaranteed hypoallergenic’ and several breeds are ‘guaranteed against genetic or physical defect’ although the guarantee is for one year only, after which the cat is free to mutate if it so desires. The breeder offering ‘lifetime guarantees’ obviously has more confidence in her cats’ genetic stability!

Like Coca-Cola™, many American cat breeds come in two flavors – original and ‘new improved’. American Persians come in two varieties, three if you count the increasingly uncommon Peke-Faced. ‘Doll-faced’ Persians have noses while extreme-type ‘Piggy’ Persians have high nose-breaks and their nostrils between their eyes. According to a columnist in the American ‘CATS MAGAZINE’, the Peke-Faced (‘an interesting study in anatomy’) has nearly died out; the squashed and wrinkled muzzle leading to high mortality rates in the kittens.

The Burmese comes in ‘traditional’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘European’ styles; the contemporary Burmese having a more rounded head, shorter muzzle, large, soulful eyes and a tendency to suffer from third-eyelid problems. The Siamese also comes in two styles, with the chunkier ‘Appleheaded’ or ‘Traditional’ Siamese making a comeback beside its tubular ‘Classic’ counterpart. For a while it looked as though the ‘Wild Abyssinian’ would mark another return to the ‘old-style’, having the barred markings which breeders have diligently eliminated from the smaller modern Abyssinian.

A modern cat with delusions of great age is the bald, wrinkly Sphynx (‘all purr and no fur’, ‘no grooming expenses, no fleas and no hairy furniture’): ‘from the scrolls of antiquity, the world’s most hairless cat’ runs the ad, despite the breed’s relatively recent origins. The hairless cat from the scrolls of antiquity, the Mexican Hairless, is in no position to contest the claim, having become extinct some time ago.

Since American cats live permanently indoors, there is a quest for a space-saving cat for space-age man. The Mei Toi has been advertised as the ‘first genetically miniature cat, mature at 4-5 lb’. I’ve seen references to ‘Little Americans’ and ‘Mini-Himalayans’, but no further details so perhaps the domestic cat is too sensible to allow itself to be miniaturized for our convenience. So far, the closest breeders have gotten is the Munchkin whose ‘low center of gravity gives it superb cornering abilities’.

The plush, curly-coated Selkirk Rex is ‘the Cat in Sheep’s clothing’ while the Cornish Rex is as ‘soft as sand-washed silk’. Longhaired Rexes have appeared, but didn’t catch on – busy people want easy-care cats, so the ‘York Chocolate’ (also available in Lavender) boasted a ‘silky, easy-care’ coat. Cats, as well as owners, need wash-and-wear hair hence the lines of IRCA cats which ‘resemble Persians’ but with ‘plush non-matting fur’.

The ‘North American Tiffany (Non-Burmese)’ is a ‘chocoholic’s delight’ – do you cuddle it or lick it? The ‘earesistable’ or ‘devilish’ American Curl looks permanently windswept with ears that curve gently backwards. The Scottish Fold is ‘as colorful as the kilts of Scotland’, though I haven’t yet seen one in Hunting Stuart or Black Watch pattern.

You just can’t judge a breed by its name. The longhaired Scottish Fold is called Highland Fold in America, but Coupari in Britain on the grounds that it didn’t come from the Highlands. But then, the Balinese didn’t come from Bali and the Nebelung doesn’t come from Germany despite its German name, nor is it from Russia despite its claim to ‘recreate the turn-of-the-century Russian Blue longhair. I rather doubt that the Chinese Harlequin originated in China where cats tend to appear on the menu rather than on the show bench. The Singapura may or may not have come from Singapore. Its fortunes took a dive when it was reported that its ‘discoverer’ took some Abyssinian-type cats out to Singapore with her; however, recent imports and the slogan ‘The Love Cat of Singapore’ could revive interest. In any case, its authenticity got a boost when Singapore adopted it as a tourist mascot. Naturally, the Siberian is ‘from Russia with love’.

Compared to the colorful descriptions in the American advertisements, British ads seem positively restrained … and perhaps a little boring?