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The Sphynx cat (not to be confused with the sphinx, which was a mythical beast!) is a very distinctive, relatively new breed, distinguished by its apparent lack of fur, although the skin is covered in an almost invisible fine down which makes the skin feel like a warm chamois leather. Like many other modern breeds, the Sphynx originated unexpectedly from a litter of kittens of totally different appearance, and in this case, a hairless male kitten (aptly given the name of 'Prune' as hairless cats tend to have wrinkles!) was born to a black and white domestic shorthair in Toronto, Canada, in 1966. As his owner was rather intrigued by the hairlessness, Prune was mated back to his mother as soon as he was old enough, which resulted in a litter of full-coated and hairless kittens, some of the latter being exported to Europe.
Although hairless cats had appeared in many countries since the beginning of the twentieth century, nobody had ever pursued a breeding programme with them before. Although none of today's Sphynx are known to be directly descended from Prune, two young hairless cats called Punkie and Paloma were imported to Holland from Toronto in the 1970s by a Dutch breeder, Hugo Herenandez, and formed the basis of the Sphynx lines that we know today. The first Sphynx to arrive in the UK came from Holland in 1988, and was a four-year old female called Tulip. She lived to the grand old age of 15, and was a pioneer towards getting full recognition for the breed in Britain, as at first there were concerns about the breed not being able to cope with the British climate. Devon Rex were originally used for out crossing with the Sphynx in order to increase the very limited gene pool (and this influence can be clearly seen in the shape of the head), but this is now not permitted as it was found to cause health problems, and the only acceptable outcross in this country is the Russian Blue and the Domestic Shorthair.
The Sphynx may be bred in any combination of the usual colours and patterns, and the skin is the colour that the fur would be in other breeds, sometimes showing a slightly warmer tone as the pink of the skin shows through. They don't usually have whiskers, although occasional sparse, crinkly whiskers may be seen, and they have very prominent cheekbones and whisker pads - wrinkled skin tends to appear around the muzzle, ears and shoulders, although this is more noticeable in kittens. The head is wedge-shaped, with large, slightly slanting eyes, which can be any colour. The body should be quite sturdy, with a nicely rounded abdomen (the Sphynx is deceptively heavy for its size) and a very long tapering tail. Despite their hairlessness, the Sphynx is often still unsuitable for people with an allergy to cats, as it isn't the hair that causes the reaction (as is commonly thought) but it is a protein found mainly in the saliva and sebaceous glands that triggers the problem.
The Sphynx is a highly intelligent and affectionate breed, extremely vocal and chatty, and they enjoy a good chinwag with their owners. They love to be part of a family and get on well with children and dogs, and whereas they are very happy to share their home with other cats, they get on best with other Sphynx - and there are certain breeds, such as Siamese, that they are very loathe to tolerate! They are probably not suitable for anyone with a very busy lifestyle, as they need a lot of company and attention, and love to play, often retrieving toys that are thrown for them. They adore being picked up and cuddled, seeming far less aloof than many other breeds, and they should not be kept on their own.
Sphynx are primarily indoor cats as, without any hair, they are often very sensitive to excessive sun which can cause sunburn, and in the most extreme cases, can lead to skin cancer. At the other end of the spectrum they do not have natural reserves to protect them from the cold, either, so whereas they can be allowed out in the garden for short periods, they should not be left unattended. The Sphynx can sometimes be susceptible to a disease of the heart muscle called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, which can be diagnosed by an ultrasound scan if there is any concern. They can also have a sensitive digestive system, which may be triggered off by situations such as medication, a change in diet or even a new home. In common with all other cats, the Sphynx should of course have annual boosters against flu and enteritis, together with one against feline leukaemia if the cat goes outdoors at all.
Amazingly for a cat without any fur, the Sphynx actually requires regular grooming! Because there are no hairs to protect the ears from attracting impurities, these should be cleaned very regularly with a damp cloth to prevent a build-up of dirt and excessive wax in the ear. The eyes may also attract debris in the corners without eyelashes to repel it, and the area surrounding the claws should also be checked. And again due to the lack of hair, there tends to be a build up of body oils on the skin, which can be kept at bay by bathing the cat in warm water (using an anti-fungal shampoo and a sponge!) once a week. If you get your Sphynx used to this routine as soon as they arrive in your household, and try to make a game of it, they will soon enjoy the extra attention. Care must be taken to dry the Sphynx properly after their bath so that they do not get cold. Do not be put off by the extra cleaning routine which will not take much time, and your Sphynx will reward you many times over with its love and devotion. They sometimes eat slightly more than a conventional cat as the body has to work a bit harder to keep warm without any hair, but they are not fussy eaters and will enjoy most good quality proprietary cat foods.