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The Munchkin is one of the most controversial and extraordinary breeds to emerge in recent years and is characterised by very short legs in comparison with a fairly typical size body for a domestic cat. It was developed in the USA during the 1990s, and is in effect a dwarf species of cat, bred in both longhaired and shorthaired varieties. The name derives from the natives of the fictional Munchkin country in the Wizard of Oz, by L Frank Baum, where they are described as being somewhat short in stature. In the 1939 film, the parts of the Munchkins were played by short adults, and as a result of the film, the word 'munchkin' has come to mean small humans or anything cute of diminutive stature. The gene responsible for the short legs has been compared to that found in varieties of short-legged dogs, such as the basset, the dachshund and the Welsh Corgi, but it is still early days for this new breed of cat to know for sure what the long term impact will be. However, the Munchkin is rarely seen in the UK as the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF) refuses to recognise the breed because of health concerns, considering it to be unacceptable because they are based on an abnormal structure or development, and therefore they cannot be shown at GCCF shows.
The Munchkin originated as a mutation in the way that many new breeds do, this time in a litter born in Louisiana in 1983. As breeders worked with the mutation, out-crossing to domestic non pedigree varieties of cat, opinion became divided, and at times quite heated, about the wisdom of popularising this new dwarf breed, as there was concern that the short legs would put pressure on the spine. However, in 1995 the International Cat Association (TICA) granted the Munchkin 'new breed' status in 1995, with Championship status following in 2003, although the TICA standard specifically bans any other pedigree breeds as outcrosses, for fear of introducing dwarf varieties of established breeds. However, even TICA was divided over the issue, and it is reported that one veteran show judge had Munchkin supporters threatening to burn down her house, and she resigned in protest, calling the breed 'an affront to breeders with ethics'.
The TICA breed standard states that this is a cat of moderation, with the head neither excessively rounded nor angular somewhere between an almost equilateral triangle and a modified wedge. Like many other breeds deriving from a mutant gene, coat colour and pattern is less important than shape, and in the Munchkin, all recognised colours and patterns (including pointed, like the Siamese coat colour) are allowed, with walnut-shaped eyes in a corresponding colour. The legs, although very short, are well muscled and straight, although the paws are slightly turned out. The tail is set high to balance the short legs, and is medium-thick, tapering to a rounded tip. The short-haired variety has a medium-plush coat while the long-haired version has a semi-long silky coat. The Munchkin does not breed 'true' i.e. Munchkins mated to Munchkins do not necessarily produce these short-legged cats, due to their ancestry of the standard non pedigree domestic cat, although it is apparent straightaway when a litter of kittens is born which are Munchkins and which aren't.
The Munchkin is generally said to be a sweet-natured, people-oriented breed, very playful and outgoing with great intelligence and responding well to being handled, and they don't let their shorter legs hinder them from doing things that other cats do, apart from maybe leaping on and off the highest shelves - which may make them more suitable for a small home with limited space. They have endearing personal traits and are described as the natural comedians of the cat world, and are said to sometimes resemble a squirrel in their posture as they love to sit on their haunches with their front paws held up, all contributing to the image of this breed as a natural clown. They thrive on human attention and need company, and get on particularly well with children. They will also welcome another cat for companionship, and are generally said to get on very well with a family dog.
Many breeders are concerned that although the flexible feline spine may protect the Munchkin from the back and hip problems of dwarf breeds of dog, many other dwarfed species in the animal kingdom are prone to arthritis, and dwarfed cats may not escape this. Dr. Solveig Pflueger, the chairperson of TICA's genetics committee and advisor to the Board of Directors, has conducted studies on the Munchkin cats to determine the genetic health of the breed and concluded that they are happy, healthy cats. In the very early days of the breed, several American breeders had their oldest Munchkins X-rayed for signs of joint or bone problems and no problems were found.
In common with other cats, they need annual vaccination boosters against the common feline ailments of flu and enteritis, as well as against Feline Leukaemia if they go outdoors.
The Munchkin is not known to be a fussy eater and will eat most good quality proprietary brands of cat food, but will also enjoy treats of cooked chicken, ham and grated cheese. However, cows' milk will probably give them a stomach upset, and a bowl of water should always be available. The shorthaired variety needs very little grooming apart from stroking and gentle brushing to remove loose hairs, although the longer haired version will need regular brushing and combing to prevent the build up of knots and tangles.