Breeding of pedigreed cats is relatively recent; the first pedigreed cat show was held in 1871. Since that time, there has been active selection for desirable traits (e.g., attributes associated with hair coat, facial conformation, eye colour and shape, body size and conformation, tail length and conformation, ear shape, etc.) to establish cat breeds. The number of new cat ‘breeds’ continues to increase through crossbreeding existing breeds or perpetuating new mutations.
Sadly, some cat breeds have become handicapped by selection for traits that appeal to our anthropomorphic perceptions without regard to related health concerns. This has resulted in an increasing number of breed-related disorders and diseases, putting untold numbers of cats at risk of pain and suffering.
Over time, some conformational traits have become ‘normalized’ in the eyes of owners, breeders, veterinarians and veterinary team member, and related animal health professionals so that potential health consequences are not recognized or are not considered important. Normalization of the abnormal occurs as the prevalence of the trait increases and it becomes accepted as typical for the breed. It can also be driven by positive depictions of cats with abnormal conformation in advertising and social media.
Traditionally, brachycephalic breeds have ranked in the top ten most popular cat breeds based on registration statistics. For example, in 2017 the Cat Fanciers’ Association most popular breed was the Exotic for the fourth year in a row. The Persian was the fourth most popular cat breed.
Breed registries often reward extreme conformations. For example, four of the top ten winning cats in the Cat Fanciers’ Assoc for 2018 belonged to belonged to breeds with conformation abnormalities (Persian, Exotic, Scottish Fold, Manx). In 2018, four of the top 10 winning cats in The International Cat Association belonged to breeds with conformation abnormalities (Persian, Scottish Fold, Manx).
Research into the health consequences of breed conformation in cats has lagged that in the dog, although the last few years has seen an increase in research on brachycephaly. This conformation is known to be associated with:
- Brachycephalic airway syndrome (stenotic nares, elongated soft palate)
- Exposure keratitis, corneal ulceration, chronic epiphora
- Dental, mandibular, and maxillary abnormalities leading to malocclusion, malpositioning, and dental disease
- Cerebellar crowding, herniation through the foramen magnum
- Dystocia and increased neonatal mortality
- Excessive facial skin folds leading to dermatitis
The Way Forward
Owners and breeders have a duty of care as expressed in the Five Freedoms, one of which is freedom from pain, injury, and disease. Veterinarians and other animal health professionals should be aware of breed-related health problems in order to help educate breeders, owners, and the general public.
Cat registries should scrutinize the health of breeds and consider refusing registration to breeds based on conformational abnormalities that contribute to poor health and changing breed standards to promote less extreme conformations.
Veterinary, welfare, and breed groups can raise awareness about the pain and suffering caused by extreme conformations, such as the #HealthOverLooks campaign in the UK for dogs, cats, and rabbits.
Veterinary organizations should adopt position statements on the breeding of animals with extreme conformation. It should be considered an important health and welfare issue.
Veterinary organizations and companies should avoid using cats with extreme conformations in promotional materials and advertising.
Veterinary organizations can consider a campaign to contact advertisers that use brachycephalic animals in advertising to alert them to the associated pain and suffering. For example, the British Veterinary Association has established guidelines for pets in advertising to influence companies to refrain from using brachycephalic pets.
1. International Cat Care: brachycephaly in Persians and related breeds: https://icatcare.org/advice/cat-health/brachycephalic.
2. International Cat Care/British Veterinary Assoc #HealthOverLooks campaign: https://icatcare.org/news/icatcare-and-bva-unite-urge-cat-lovers-avoid-breeds-designed-have-extreme-or-unusual-features.
3. British Veterinary Association: Pets in Advertising Guidelines: https://www.bva.co.uk/workplace-guidance/ethical-guidance/advertising-guidelines/.
4. Vets Against Brachycephalism: http://vetsagainstbrachycephalism.com/.
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