Saturday, February 18, 2017

Caturday: What About Purebred Cats?

We all know that dog breeds were developed to perform specific tasks, and refined from there into the purebreds we know today, but...what's up with purebred cats? As far as we know, cats basically domesticated themselves, and selective breeding of cats is a much more recent phenomenon than selective breeding of dogs. Europeans bringing deliberately-bred dogs with them largely wiped out indigenous dog populations in the areas they colonized over the past several hundred years, so in North America at least, the vast majority of dogs are some sort of combination of purebreds.
Louie Armstrong, my mother's Persian cat.

Purebred Cats are Rare

Purebred cats, on the other hand, were never widespread or ubiquitous enough to replace indigenous populations. Indigenous breeds would develop due to geographic isolation, and settlers and traders would bring cats from home with them to new places, but these indigenous breeds were not nearly as distinctive or refined as dog breeds. 

What I'm trying to say here is, your fluffy striped random-bred cat looks like a Maine Coon because the founder of the breed chose random fluffy striped cats to develop their breed, not because your cat is all or part purebred. There aren't tons of purebred Maine Coons running around knocking up random female cats, those traits are just common in the general feline population. (There's even a DNA test if you think I'm wrong!) Your solid gray shorthair cat is not a purebred Russian Blue, the Russian Blue breed was developed from random blue cats. 

That's how cat breeds happen. Either a breed-developer decides on a set of traits and selects for those traits among a certain population of random-bred cats, as is the case for most "natural breeds", or the breed-developer finds one cat with a unique mutation and develops a breed around that mutation. The Cornish Rex, American Curl, American Wirehair, German Rex, LaPerm, Scottish Fold, and Munchkin breeds were all developed from a single cat with a unique mutation. These are all very distinctive-looking cats, while most of the "natural breeds" look a whole lot like random-bred cats you'll find in any shelter. Take a look at Wikipedia's list of cat breeds, there's a good chance you'll find a breed that resembles your random-bred cat. 

Cat Personality is Genetic

So why would anyone bother paying big bucks for a purebred American Shorthair or Norwegian Forest Cat if they just look like a regular cat? Why buy a cat when there are zillions of homeless ones dying in shelters, and neighbors giving away free kittens all over the place? The answer has everything to do with behavior. A large chunk of a cat's personality is determined by the genes they inherit from their parents. Early handling and socialization can make a big difference between a comfortable cat and a stressed cat when people are around, but it's not going to turn your feral-born kitten into a social butterfly. 

My family has raised two kittens with feral parentage from a very early age and both are extremely aloof. Meanwhile, The Hellions and their siblings are incredibly gregarious, bordering on overly friendly with strangers. Adopting or rescuing a cat is awesome, but it's also a total crapshoot. Will your brand new kitten grow up to be a purr-happy lapcat? Or will they take up permanent residence under the bed? You can hedge your bets by adopting an adult cat, but the temperament they express at the shelter or in a foster home may not be the temperament you see when you bring them home.


Aside from physical aesthetics, the purpose of buying a purebred cat is to get a predictable temperament. Most cat breeds have been developed in the last 60 years, but that's six decades of breeding for temperament. Unless it's in the breed standard, seriously aloof cats don't make the cut when it comes time to choose who gets to pass along their genes. Just like dogs, purebred cats have predictable traits. Why are so many social media star cats purebreds? It's partly because of their distinctive looks, and partly because they have winning personalities.

Years ago, my mother was given a Persian cat by her neighbor. She absolutely adored that cat, and was heartbroken when he disappeared. In researching the breed, I found that most of the little idiosyncrasies and personality quirks she loved about that cat were common to the breed in general. We found a breeder and got her a Persian kitten a few months later, and little Louie filled the void in a way that none of our random-bred cats could. His similarities to his predecessor were no accident, but the deliberate result of careful breeding.

There are tons of homeless cats out there, and I think cat rescue is absolutely awesome. Most people don't need or want a purebred cat, and every spring there is a huge surplus of kittens to love. However, if personality and temperament are important enough, a purebred cat may be worth the cost. Want to geek out about the genetics of cat breeds? Check out this awesome study!

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