Fancy That: How a Cat Breed Becomes Official
Not long ago, Patti Thomas, a breeder of Virginian Sphynx and Devon Rex cats, realized that two kittens in her possession might represent an entirely new type of cat. Their fur had an unusual, spotty growth pattern with partial hairlessness, especially around the face.
She passed the baton to another breeder, Dr. Johnny Gobble (a veterinarian of 18 years) and his wife Brittney, who — via a separate contact — discovered two more kittens of the same type in another part of the country.
They were onto something.
The unique cats were dubbed “Lykoi” (Greek for “wolf”) and nicknamed “Werecat” because of their uncanny resemblance to werewolves — a contrast to their lovable, social demeanor. (Lykoi do not turn dangerous at night!) Describing the animals, Gobble explains that they have a coat color pattern called “roan”: “The normal coat has white hair intermixed. [It] looks wirelike but is actually very soft and silky. Generally, roan exists in horses, dogs and guinea pigs, but not cats.”
The breeders introduced the male from Thomas’ sibling pair and the female from the other pair and, in September 2011, the first intentionally bred ugly-cute Lykoi kitten was born. It was named Daciana Dream.
Still, despite the fact that there are now 18 breeders working with the felines, the Werecat has yet to be considered an actual breed. It must first be recognized by one of the preeminent cat governing organizations — in this case, The International Cat Association (TICA), established in 1979. That process can be arduous, to say the least.
A Lengthy Process
“It takes a minimum of five years to reach championship status with TICA,” explains Gobble. (Champion status means that a breed has been officially recognized and is permitted to compete in cat shows à la the more well-known Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.) “We have been working for over three years, and we have only 19 cats that meet the [Lykoi] standard we have recorded with TICA. I have spent lots of time and money managing the breeding program, testing for diseases, placing cats that are not our standard [in happy homes] and [maintaining] general care.”
As Gobble can attest, depending on the organization and even the country, breeders have to jump through different — but always multiple — hoops over the course of many years to establish a cat breed. Ultimately, breeders do this simply for the sense of satisfaction, and though they are required to display the cats at shows as part of the breed certification process, they may not compete for championship honors or financial prizes until the cats have been officially recognized.
“It takes a lot of work,” says Joan Miller, chairwoman of the Cat Fanciers’ Association’s Outreach and Education Committee. Miller was on CFA’s board for 25 years and has served as vice president of the organization, which was established in 1906. “The breeders have to travel with their cats, and they can’t accept rewards. It’s fun, but it’s difficult. They do it for the promotion and preservation of the breed. And in the end [when the breed becomes official], there’s a big celebration.”
As it turns out, establishing a feline breed can be as complicated as the enigmatic creatures themselves.
How Do New Breeds Emerge?
It’s not every day that a new breed of cat appears on the scene. There are only two ways that can happen: “A totally new breed can come from a spontaneous mutation like the Lykoi or from deliberate development by man,” explains Bobbie Tullo, TICA’s vice president. “In either case, it takes years of dedication to actually make a breed that is consistent in morphology.”
In the Genes
In the case of the Lykoi, a genetic mutation occurred naturally. “Patti gave us a brother and sister Lykoi and their mother, who was a normal-coated black domestic cat,” recalls Gobble. “My plan was to breed the Lykoi to black domestic cats to determine what the offspring would be.” Two months later, though, someone contacted the breeders about another brother and sister Lykoi. “I now had unrelated lines,” says Gobble. “There have been 12 reported Lykoi natural mutations in the world since we started breeding the cats. [It’s] a natural genetic mutation from the wild domestic cat population, not a breed that has been developed by mixing other breeds of cats. We have determined that the gene is recessive.” A genetic test is being developed for the cats.
Mix and Match
Unlike in the dog world, where hybrids such as Goldendoodles — Golden Retriever–Poodle crosses — are not recognized as purebred, certain hybrid felines like Himalayans, Ocicats or Orientals — from the mating of two or more recognized breeds — are considered legitimate. (Other cat breeds are considered Natural, such as Persians and Siamese.)
Also, whereas a color variation in dogs may not merit recognition, it might with cats. “The reason colors are so important in pedigreed cats is because we don’t have the diversity of appearance from Chihuahuas to Great Danes,” explains Miller. “Cats are distinguished by subtle details like the set of the ears or eye colors or the color of the cat. Orientals, for example, have about 400 wonderful, dramatic patterns and colors and such a sleek coat; it’s as if the color is painted on.”
Certain breeds are also allowed more color variation than others. “It is each registry’s responsibility to review each application to ensure the color is acceptable for that breed,” explains Elaine Gleason, Breed Standards Committee chairwoman and all-breed judge for the Canadian Cat Association (CCA), Canada’s primary organization for registering cat breeds.
Establishing a new color or pattern can be faster than establishing an entirely new breed. For example, TICA’s New Trait process takes only two to four years. (Breeds that have already been accepted by other established organizations — like the current example of one from Cyprus called Aphrodite Giant — can also be expedited.)
How Does a Breed Get Recognized?
“Every association worldwide follows different rules. However, most are similar,” says Gleason. “The usual requirements [revolve around] the number of breeders involved in the application, the rationale for the breed with substantiated documentation about pedigree and genetics and the exhibition [for view only, but not competition] of the new breed or color at a predetermined number of cat shows.”
The process can take anywhere from three to 20 years, depending on the organization.
Every cat fanciers’ organization aims to confirm genetic health, viability and the creation of a uniform standard for each breed. Usually, the first step for breeders is registering a new breed’s temporary name and a description or “standard” each cat must meet to qualify. After some time has passed (a year for TICA) and a certain number of litters have been registered, an in-house genetics committee reviews and researches the validity and traits of the breed.
Health is a real concern. “When a breed applies for the recognition of its name, we research to ensure that it complies with our breeding policy, that it is genetically sound and healthy and that it is a distinct breed capable of breeding true,” says Steve Crow, chairman of the United Kingdom’s Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF, established in 1910), chair of the Genetics Committee, a judge of 22 breeds, and a breeder of Burmese and Asian cats for more than 30 years. For instance, there are certain breeds — like the Munchkin, with foreshortened limbs, and the Scottish Fold, with a genetic mutation that can lead to calcification of the joints — that the GCCF refuses to consider because of “serious health and breeding problems.”
Even after acceptance to the registration stage, a championship designation is usually a ways off. After a waiting period and once a certain number of breeders and cats are registered, breeders can apply for some type of probationary new breed status. After that, the new cats must be displayed at a designated number of official shows, so that the community learns of them; they still cannot compete for titles.
By the time breeders can even apply for championship status, the cat breed must be substantial. For TICA, for example, at least 200 adult cats must be registered. And that’s just the beginning. The process is so arduous that TICA offers a mentoring program for people who are new to the cat fancy world.
Then, finally, the competitions begin!
Each organization has its own methods for establishing a breed. In fact, a World Cat Congress was established 20 years ago to promote cooperation among associations and discourage, well, cattiness.
For instance, one main distinction between TICA and CFA relates to what cats they’ll each consider. “Because of our genetic-based registry, TICA is more accepting of color variations and hair lengths within breeds and more open to accepting breeds already recognized in other worldwide registries and in developing healthy new breeds,” explains Tullo. One of TICA’s claims to fame is that the organization first registered and recognized the Bengal.
CFA, on the other hand, tends to avoid wildcat hybrids (which are a controversial topic, as CFA feels they don’t always make good pets and can wind up in shelters) and sticks to the breed categories of Natural, Hybrid, Established and Mutant. “CFA is set apart because of their high standards,” says Miller. “We are very careful when we take in new colors and breeds.”
Still, though the organizations may approach the cat community differently, they all pride themselves on a strong ethical core and fair judging.
How Many Breeds Are There?
How many breeds there are depends on whom you ask: The newer TICA recognizes 55 breeds for competition (the last three added were the Savannah, Kurilian Bobtail and Chausie) and has 10 pending, while the more than 100-year-old CFA counts only 43 breeds, with one pending.
Thus far, the CCA has recognized 49 cat breeds, including the most recent (in 2013), the Kurilian Bobtail, Savannah and Ragamuffin. The Chantilly (or Tiffany), Donskoy and Sokoke (a native classic tabby cat from Kenya) are working toward recognition.
Meanwhile, the GCCF recognizes 39 breeds, including some different hair lengths and patterns within breeds, with three more in process (the Sokoke, Suffolk and Khao Manee).
Why Make It Official?
When it comes to establishing a breed, many breeders are driven by love of the cats and the desire to show the world what they’ve discovered. And there are serious accolades to be had. But also, when it comes to the Lykoi, Gobbles feels legitimacy is important. “Working with the registry ensures that we have a purebred cat with ancestors that can be monitored,” he explains. “The monitoring helps to prevent accidental inbreeding. Finally, showing the cats will get us recognition in many places around the world and make the public more aware of our new breed.”
Gobbles and his fellow breeders hope to have Lykoi kittens available to the public in 2016. Until then, they’re being placed with breeders and people who show cats to help the recognition process along.
So keep your eye out for the Werecat. Especially during a full moon.
More on Vetstreet.com: