The Cat Fancy – the term used to describe showing and breeding pedigreed cats – began some time at the end of the 19th century with very few established cat breeds. Even as late as the 1950s there were no more than ten cat breeds. Fast forward to 2014: Walk into a national cat show and you’ll be seeing dozens of cat breeds with very distinct looks. While some breeds such as the Siamese, the Persian and the Birman have been around for over a century, many of these breeds are very new and rare.
How do new breeds come into being?
Currently, there are four ways to create brand new cat breed –
Finding a rare naturally-established breed
The term “new” in the case of these breeds refers to their status in the registries. They may in fact be “old breeds” in every other sense of the word. Breeders begin by importing cats of that breed into the US and Europe to establish a breeding program. They then work to establish a breed standard and create a stable and healthy gene pool. In fact, this is how the Siamese and Persian cats started. A very recent example is the Khao Manee.
Nurturing a rare random genetic mutation
Genetic mutations happen all the time in nature. A mutation can create a unique change in a cat’s physique or character and could serve as the basis for developing a new breed. The mutant cat becomes the first in the line of a new breed, as the breeder or breeders strive to retain the unique mutation while working towards establishing a wide-enough genetic pool. The Scottish Fold is an example of this process, as are the American Wirehair and the Sphynx. Far more rare, the Donskoy is a fairly recent example.
Breeding for a Desired New Look
In this case, a breeder or a group of breeders decide on a desired look and work toward creating it. They begin with a certain established breed, then select the cats with a specific look, in an effort to amplify the effect in future generations. To some extent, this is done in every breeding program, but it can also be done to create virtually a new breed of cats. Comparing modern Siamese cats with the traditional “apple-head” or traditional Siamese cats of the past shows just how different a look can be achieved this way.
This is not a common method to create new breeds though. The new look is considered to be the new standard of the same breed in most associations.
Crossing known breeds
Here too, breeders first come up with the vision for a new breed, different from the ones which already exist. They then work towards achieving this look by deliberately crossing specific breeds. Crossings are usually allowed in the initial stages of the breed creation process. Later on, they are gradually limited until there is a stable genetic pool for the new breed.
Crossing breeds is much faster than breeding for specific characteristics within a breed, but it can be a risky business, as feline geneticist Prof. Leslie Lyons noted in a recent interview for TheCatsite.com. Breeders can accidentally introduce negative genetic traits into the new gene pool created by “mixing up” existing breeds. For example, we know today that every such new breed which was created using Persian cats is at risk for carrying the gene for PKD (Polycystic Kidney Disease).
The popular Himalayan began as a cross between Siamese cats and Persian cats, to achieve longhair colorpointed cats. Napoleons and Minskins serve as more recent examples.
Creating a New Breed Ethically – It’s Not That Easy!
Creating a breed takes a lot more than raising parents of several breeds, letting them mate and selling the kittens. No matter which of the methods is used, creating a new breed ethically takes a lot of work. It is usually a group effort involving several catteries. The breeders have a clear vision and plan and they often work with geneticists in an effort to achieve a certain look. They actively breed towards it rather than arbitrarily mixing and matching cats.
Extra care is taken to weed out health issues as well, and crossing with other breeds is done with great care. The aim is to create a large enough genetic pool so as to avoid hereditary health problems, while at the same time making progress towards an established breed look.
Of the larger cat registries, TICA has two special categories for these experimental cat breeds. These breeds begin as “Preliminary New Breeds” and can later on be promoted to the “Advanced New Breeds” category.
What the Future Holds: Designer Cats?
Genetic engineering could very well be used in the future to create new breeds of cats. In theory, Mr. Green Genes, the glow-in-the-dark cat, could have been the first cat in a line of fluorescent kitties. Just like the first Ragdoll or Donskoy, he has a unique genetic variation that can be inherited by his offsprings. The difference is, Mr. Green Genes’ mutation was not random. It was deliberately created by scientists to successfully test a technique of gene therapy.
However, at this point, lab-generated breeds developed using genetic engineering belong to the realm of science fiction. Creating such a cat is an expensive and time-consuming process. “It takes a lot of work, support for personnel and cats. It is not an efficient process… Transgenics should be made for a strong scientific reason such as fixing an inherited disease,” Professor Lyons explained. Until that changes, breeders will keep using more traditional ways to create new cat breeds.
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