Copyright 2013. The Thai Cat Center. All rights reserved.
By Dr. Douglas Schar
The world is home to a handful of naturally occurring cat breeds. These breeds developed in a specific geographic location and possess unique appearances and personalities. Like many populations of animals, the Natural Breeds of cats are at risk of disappearing. The premise of this article is that these Natural Breeds deserve to be preserved. Like livestock heritage breeds; chickens, turkey’s, and cows included, the Natural Breed of cat are worthy of a preservation effort.
This article aims to lay out one plan for the preservation of the Natural Breed of cats.
In the domestic cat world, there are two types of breeds, Natural and Man Made. In order to proceed, an understanding of the two and their distinctions are critical.
A Natural Breed of cat can be defined as breeds of cats that developed without human intervention in a specific geographic region. Natural breeds have a unique physical appearance, and, some theorize that the unique look of the Natural Breeds developed for adaptive reasons. As an example, the Turkish Angora developed a long coat to survive the cold winters of Mountainous Turkey; the Thai cats developed short coats and lighter coat colors to survive the brutal heat of Thailand. Thus, the physical features that make a Natural Breed unique, be it coat length or coat color helped the cat survive in its native land.
The breeds developed through natural selection, the strongest, healthiest cats lived to breed and the weaker cats did not. What makes a Natural Breed natural is it developed “naturally” in every sense of the word. And, as the Natural Breeds have survived in their respective locales for thousands of years, how they bred in those locations is relevant. Significantly, in their native lands, Natural Breeds select their own mates.
On the other hand, Man- Made breeds developed through carefully controlled breeding programs designed by a breeder or breeders. Breeders select a certain trait or collection of traits, and breed to achieve that desired physical appearance. As an example, the American Persian is a Man Made breed. Persian breeders selectively bred to develop a cat with a flat, bull dog- like face. They started with a cat with a normal length nose, and, by selecting cats with shorter and shorter noses, for 100 years, they created a cat that features a flat face. Man Made breeds are designed. They are designed to have a certain “look” and the designers are men, hence the term Man Made breed.
Significantly, the look selected by breeders may be maladaptive, that is to say, the “look” is at the expense of the cats’ ability to survive. The American Persian is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Persian breeders decided they liked the “look” of a flat- faced cat. Along with this look, came health problems. American Persians have such a flat face they have difficulty breathing, they cannot clean their own eyes or groom their own coats, and have genetic heart defects. Their coat is so long they cannot survive without human intervention.
Suffice it to say, Man-Made breeds have their mates selected for them by Man. Survival of the fittest does not come into play in the man made breed, breeding program. In fact, Man Made breeds are often bred in a manner contrary to the nature of the cat.
Natural Breeds are old, some have been in existence since the time of the Egyptians, Man-Made breeds are new; they have only existed for 100 years.
According to the major pedigree cat associations (Cat Fanciers Association, The International Cat Association, World Cat Fancy, and The Governing Counsel of the Cat Fancy) the following breeds are considered Natural Breeds: Abyssinian, American Burmese, American Shorthair, Birman, British Shorthair, Chartreux, Dragon Li, Egyptian Mau, Japanese Bobtail, Korat, Maine Coon, Manx, Norwegian Forest, Persian, Russian Blue, Siamese, Turkish Angora, Turkish Van, Siberian, and Sokoke.
Though these breeds entered the western cat world as Naturally occurring breeds of cats, under the supervision of cat breeders, they are no longer Natural Breeds. Breeders in the west have undertaken a 100 year campaign to “improve” the Natural Breeds, and, they are now very “improved”. They have been so improved that the “western” version of the Natural Breed, and the Natural Breed, bear little resemblance to one another. One only has to look at Burmese cats from Thailand, and their Western counterparts, to see this point.
In addition to changing the Natural Breeds physical appearance, western breeders have also changed their health. The Thai Burmese cat is a naturally occurring breed found in and around Thailand. They are healthy cats. If they are not, they do not survive. Survival of the fittest ensures that the Thai Burmese cats remain healthy group of abnormally affectionate cats.
American Burmese, on the other hand, have been subjected to a rigorous “look” oriented breeding program. When breeders breed for a look, they unwittingly also bred for ride along health problems. In other words, the look they bred for carried with it health defects. As an example, American Burmese now carry lethal facial defect genes, have trouble breathing, and suffer from debilitating eye, heart, and immune system defects. In addition, they have decreased litter size and vitality.
Many American Burmese breeders keep a pharmacy of antibiotics on hand to keep their kittens alive; their immune function is so poor many cannot survive infancy without breeder or medical intervention.
The Thai Burmese cat has a nose and no problem breathing. The American Burmese is classed by the airlines as a short faced cat, along with bulldogs, Pekinese dogs, Persian cats, and Himalayan cats. The airlines feel that their breathing apparatus is too fragile to withstand air travel and will not fly an American Burmese cat.
This scenario can be found with many of the Natural Breeds registered with the Western Pedigree cat associations. What was once natural is now not so natural. What was once a naturally healthy breed of cat is no longer a healthy breed of cat. What was once natural is now not so natural.
The simplest answer is that western breeders tried to “improve” the natural breeds rather than maintain them. As a result, they inadvertently created health issues within their breed.
Western breeders, by and large, breed for appearance. More specifically, many breed to achieve the popular, winning “look” of the day, whatever that might be, to win cat shows. There are still some breeders who breed for health over appearance but even they are experiencing problems within their lines because of the limited gene pool.
Sticking with the example of the American Burmese, the current “look” that wins cat shows is a cat with an extremely short nose. This style is considered “extreme” in that the features of the face are rounded in all directions without projections. This gives the cat a flatter, more Persian-like appearance. And, in response, American Burmese breeders work to intentionally shorten the nose of the cats they breed. The American Burmese now has a face unlike that of the Thai cats from which they originated.
The phenomena of Western breeders of Natural Breeds, breeding for a “look” that departs from the look of the Natural Breed, can be seen, to a greater or lesser degree, with all the Natural Breeds.
The fundamental flaw with the way western cat breeders’ have dealt with Natural Breeds is this. Rather than maintaining the natural look and health of the Natural Breed, they seek to “improve” it. In almost every case, these improvements have been at the expense of health. When appearance takes a precedence over health, the consequences can be disastrous. Some natural breeds in the west may become extinct because they can’t survive without human interventions. One needs to look no further than the American Bulldog that can no longer reproduce naturally. The breed is maintained solely by artificial insemination.
Breeders have taken healthy Natural Breeds, and through selective breeding programs, changed them into Man Made breeds that cannot survive in the wild and may eventually become extinct.
Simply put, breeds derived from Natural Breeds need to shift from improvement to preservation. The Burmese cats in Thailand are just as healthy and viable as they were 100 years ago. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for their Burmese and Siamese brethren living in America. The Natural Breed breeder must become a student of the Natural Breed in their country of origin. They must use their breeding efforts to maintain the health and look of the Natural Breed. Natural breed breeders can learn how to keep their natural breed alive and well, outside its natural terrain by studying how they stay well in their natural terrain.
The object of this article is to set out a breed management plan for Natural Breeds that results in long term survival for the natural breeds. This is a different process used in maintaining a Man Made breed. It draws from multiple scientific sources and aims to create guidance for breeders of Natural Breeds.
To begin with, the modern age and technology make preserving Natural Breed more possible than ever before.
Breeders can be greatly assisted by the scientific community in their aim to preserve a Natural Breed.
Zoology, a science that has concerned itself with the preservation of species of animals, outside their natural environment, has much to offer. They have been keeping small populations of endangered species alive for a long time and know something about how it should be done.
Genetics, a rapidly developing science can contribute greatly to a preservation effort. As an example, we now know that a cat that appears to be a Korat, in fact, can be genetically one of 7 different cats. When this genetic diversity is maintained, as it is in Thailand, the cats stay healthy. When this genetic diversity is reduced, genetic diseases appear. Genetics can help us understand the nature of the Natural Breed and guide our breeding practices.
Animal behavioral science has made strides in tacking down the way cats survive in their natural environments. Knowing how CATS keep their population healthy is of great use to the Natural Breed preservationist. As an example, such research reveals cats do not practice incest. We can learn from this.
Like never before, resources and knowledge are available to the breeder who wishes to preserve a Natural Breed.
In Zoology, populations of animals are kept healthy with the use of a Species Survival Master Plan. The SSMP is a breeding plan created by a zoo professional with the guidance of a group of other professionals. The Master Plan establishes breeding goals that will achieve maximum genetic diversity for the breed and therefore its long- term survival. We find the following useful quote regarding a Species Survival Plan comes from the The Gorilla Species Survival Plan.
“The primary goals of an SSP are to treat an entire population of animals as a single unit and promote cooperation among holding institutions to ensure the long term survival of the species in captivity. A minority of SSP populations support wild populations through reintroduction programs, but the majority of SSP programs exist solely to create a sustainable captive population to advance the mission of zoos for many years to come. Holistic SSP programs extend beyond captive management to encompass scientific research, conservation, and education programs that support populations in zoos and in the wild.”
The basic zoological concept of a Species Survival Plan can been modified for the preservation of the Natural Breed of Cat as the same principles apply.
Like in zoology, a scientific committee should be established whose exclusive objective is to create and maintain an effective Breed Survival Plan. Breeders should be forced to comply with the scientific committee, for the benefit of the breed as a whole.
1. Breed Natural Breeds the way they are bred in their natural domain.
Natural breeds, in their home environments, are incredibly healthy cats. Through natural selection, only the strongest survive. When you see a cat, alive on the streets of Thailand, you know it has overcome great odds to even be there. Natural breeds, in their native lands, are healthy cats.
Thus, natural breeds would be better served if they were bred they way they are bred in their native regions. After all, these natural breeds have existed in those countries for thousands of years. If the goal is to steward a natural breed, outside its native land, for the long term survival of that breed, it would be wise to learn from success.
The breeder of the Natural Breed studies how the Natural Breed, breeds in its native domain, and whenever possible replicates that process.
2. Import Breeding Stock from Natural Habitat
Whenever possible, breeding stock from the Natural Breeds natural habitat should be imported and used in breeding programs. Not only is using imported stock permissible, it is advisable. The best way to keep a Natural Breed true to its original form is to use imported cats.
3. Preservation not Improvement
The goal of the breeder of a Natural Breed is to preserve the Natural Breed, not improve it. The object of the breeding program is to preserve the Natural Breed, and that includes the natural look of the breed, and, its health. The cats arriving from Africa or Asia, have a definite look and they have health. The breeders’ job is to maintain both.
What has been discovered, over the last 100 years of cat breeding in the west, is that when cat breeders select for a particular look, health defects can ride along with that particular look. Breeders did not intend to create cats with these health problems, these health problems just rode along with the aesthetic change.
The breeder should study the natural look of the Natural Breed and the breeding program should be oriented to preserving this look.
4. Breed to Maintain Genetic Diversity
In Thailand, the term Korat is a phenotypic description. That means it refers to the appearance of the cat. A Korat in Thailand is a blue grey cat with eyes that range from gold to green. “Korat” is not a genetic description it is a physical description. Modern scientific research has revealed that a Thai “Korat” can have any one of the following genotypes or genetic make-ups:
BB CC dd
BB Ccs dd
BB Ccb dd
Bb CC dd
Bb Ccs dd
Bb Ccb dd
BB cbcb dd
If you run genetic tests on a Korats in Thailand, you will find a korat has the genetic formula that looks like this. B(x) C(x) dd. All Thai Korats have a similar appearance, but genetically they are incredibly diverse. Korats in Thailand are healthy cats and this may be due to the fact they are genetically diverse. Korats in Thailand are genetically diverse and should be bred to maintain this diversity outside of Thailand.
Natural cat breeders embrace the genetic diversity of the natural breed and seek to maintain that natural diversity.
5. Avoid incestuous breeding.
The danger of incestuous breeding is well documented. In people and cats, it is asking for trouble. Avoiding incestuous breeding is just sound breeding policy, regardless of what animal you are dealing with. But, there may be more to it than that in the case of cats.
In “The Cats of Lamu”, Jack Couffer spent endless hours observing a Natural Breed of cats living on a small island off the coast of Kenya. His observations about how this group of cats breeds are very relevant to the natural cat breeder. The cats of Lamu are geographically isolated cats. Being an island, there is no new genetic material coming into the cat population. But, despite a relatively small number of cats, and a corresponding small amount of genetic material, Jack Couffer, observed the cats of Lamu are healthy cats.
Thus, how the cats of Lamu breed, is relevant to breeders working with Natural Breeds of cats outside their natural range. Like the cats of Lamu, we deal with a limited gene pool. Couffer observed that cats within a family group, go outside the family group, to mate. In other words, when given a choice, this Natural Breed does not practice incest. And, this may explain why the cats of Lamu, isolated for thousands of years, are still healthy cats.
Natural Breeds of cats, select their own mates. Obviously this is not possible when someone is breeding cats outside the Natural Breeds natural terrain. The breeder will be making mate selections for the cat in question. But, the breeder can bear in mind, that Natural Breeds, in their natural terrain, would go outside their family circle, to select a mate. Thus incestuous breeding is to be avoided. In addition, close in breeding is to be avoided.
6. Avoid Unnatural Intervention
Natural breeds, in their home range, are subject to natural selection. What that means is, kittens that are unable to survive their environment, die. The breeder of a natural breed does not rely upon unnatural intervention to keep kittens alive. A clean home, rich nutrition, and a stress free environment, is more than the natural breed cat would get in its home range.
In reality, it may be impossible for a breeder to let a kitten die, when antibiotics could be used to save it. At a minimum, Natural Breed breeders do not use kittens that were sustained with unnatural interventions, in their breeding program. They would not have lived to breed in their natural range, and they should not be used to breed outside it.
7. Genetic diversity must be shared
In the past, cat breeders have created problems for breeds by becoming proprietary with the population of cats they maintained. They refer to the cats in their care as “their line” and refuse to share the genetic material they possess with others.
In a Natural Breed breeding program, self- interest must be eradicated and replaced with concern for the greater good of the breed. In zoological terms, the entire population is scene as a whole, and, genetic material is shared to keep the whole healthy.