The munchkin cat is an unusual and uncommon type of cat breed or type, and one that many people will never have seen in the flesh. Munchkins are distinctive from other types of cats because they have a very unusual physical appearance, due to their abnormally shortened legs. Whilst the rest of a munchkin cat’s body looks like that of any other cat, their general appearance and walking gait are very distinctive, and the shortness of the breed’s legs is caused by a form of partial feline achondroplasia or dwarfism.
This causes an unusual appearance that many people find cute and appealing – but that many other cat lovers find to be disconcerting or inappropriate, not least because this physical trait may be accompanied by a range of health problems too.
The very existence of munchkin cats at all is the cause of a large amount of controversy, and this cat breed isn’t widely recognised as a pedigree cat type, nor one that is desirable or encouraged by most formal breed registries. There is a reasonable amount of backlash and disapproval against munchkin cat breeders as a whole, and a number of important authority bodies within the feline world have clear policies in place stating their negative views of the breed.
So controversial in fact is the munchkin cat breed that there is a possibility that breeding munchkins may soon be outlawed in Scotland as part of new animal welfare legislation that is currently moving through the Scottish parliament – and this has once more served to bring munchkins back into the limelight, and led to a reignition of the discussion about their health and welfare.
If you have your heart set on owning a munchkin kitten or are researching the breed to try and decide if this might be the right choice of cat for you, it is important to get all of the facts and understand the arguments on both side of the divide.
In this article we will provide a comprehensive introduction to the munchkin cat breed, the problems that can arise within the breed, and the objections to the presence of munchkin cats and whether or not they should be bred at all. Read on to learn more.
The munchkin cat type is a regular cat like any other, aside from the fact that they inherit a genetic mutation that results in the development of abnormally short legs, which may be slightly bowed.
The head, body and other features of munchkin cats are all standard sized, and cats of the breed can be found in both longhaired and shorthaired variants, and in a range of different colours.
The first short-legged cats that are considered to have been the fore-runners of the munchkin cat breed were regular domestic moggies with no recorded pedigrees, but the modern munchkin breed has involved a reasonable amount of outcrossing and back-crossing with other cat breeds to maintain its breed lines.
The abnormally shortened legs that are the signature of munchkin cats occur due to the presence of a form of partial achondroplasia, or partial dwarfism. This results in the main part of the cat’s body and other features being of the usual proportions, aside from the legs themselves.
Achondroplasia occurs as the result of a genetic mutation that can occur naturally in many species of animals occasionally, but that is then selectively bred for to reinforce the trait and produce ever-more kittens that share the same physical appearance.
Genetic mutations and hereditary defects that cause noticeable physical changes to the appearance of the norms for any given animal can and do occur in nature from time to time without any external cause. The very first munchkin cats occurred as a result of a mutation of this type appearing within otherwise regular cats, and this trait is not one that was first created or produced by humans by means of selective breeding.
However, maintaining the munchkin cat breed and deliberately breeding cats to produce future generations with the same short legs is something that breeders have undertaken with the aim of ensuring that the dwarfism trait is reproduced in future breed lines.
This means that whilst munchkin cats originally developed on their own, they have only grown in numbers and gained momentum as a result of selective breeding to reinforce and spread the short-legged munchkin trait.
The existence of munchkin cats at all is a very modern development, and as such, their history from their origins right up until the present day is very well documented.
The first cats of the munchkin type known of in the UK can be traced back to the 1940s, when a veterinary surgeon’s report noted the existence of a small colony of abnormally short-legged cats going back four generations, which were apparently completely healthy and suffering no ill effects due to their short-legged status. However, this breed line died out during World War II.
Later naturally occurring incidents of short-legged cats were recorded again in Russia in the 1950s and the USA in the 1970s.
The recent modern history of the breed we now call munchkins can be traced back to 1983, when the cats that founded the modern breed were first recorded.
Two pregnant cats were found by a woman in Louisiana in the USA in 1983, and when one of those two cats delivered her litter, half of the kittens displayed the short-legged trait. One of the short-legged male kittens from within her litter was later bred from too, and it is these two original cats, named Blackberry and Toulouse, which formed the foundations of the modern munchkin breed.
As the male cat (Toulouse) was unneutered and permitted to roam, a local population of short-legged cats began to establish itself, which led to further investigation into the presence of this trait by TICA (The International Cat Association).
Veterinary studies on these short-legged cats undertaken by and on behalf of TICA identified the mode of heredity of the short-legged trait, and found that at that time, the short legs did not appear to come accompanied by any other issues that can commonly develop in animals with dwarfism, such as problems with the back and spine.
As a result of this, TICA gave the green light for the munchkin breed to be introduced to the world in 1991, although there was an immediate backlash against this from a number of other cat advocacy organisations and registries, which predicted that if permitted to continue, the breed would begin to exhibit back, hip and leg problems due to their short-legged stature.
In spite of these objections, TICA formally accepted the fledgling munchkin cat breed into its New Breed Development Program in 1994, resulting in the resignation of one of the organisation’s most experienced cat show judges in protest – which really set the tone for the controversy that still surrounds the munchkin breed today, and which has heated up significantly over time.
Despite this, munchkin cats were afforded Champion Status by TICA in 2003 – and began to gain attention and interest from all over the world, including from within the UK.
Munchkin cats or rather, short-legged cats can and do appear spontaneously in nature as a result of naturally occurring genetic mutations, and as is demonstrated by the aforementioned Toulouse and his offspring, this same trait can be spread to subsequent generations of cats if cats are left to breed unchecked.
However, to produce and maintain munchkin breed lines and to ensure the reliable ability to reproduce the munchkin trait in future generations, selective breeding is required.
Selective breeding is a widespread practice used by breeders of pedigree cats and dogs of all types, and at its simplest, it just means deciding which two cats (or other animals) to mate with each other to produce a litter.
Selective breeding is designed to achieve certain goals in the resultant litters – such as introducing or reinforcing a physical trait possessed by one or both parents, like a specific colour, short legs, or another obvious trait. It is also used to breed out less desirable traits to improve the perceived quality of the future breed line.
Undertaken responsibly and with the best interests of the cats first and foremost, selective breeding can be hugely beneficial to individual cats and cat breeds as a whole. Selective breeding can help to ensure that undesirable or harmful traits are bred out over time, and can help to reduce and even eradicate the presence of certain hereditary health conditions from breed lines and breed populations.
To reliably reproduce a physical trait like short legs along with other uniform or apparently desirable traits, munchkin cat breeders need to breed selectively, and selective breeding of munchkins has resulted in the development and spread of the breed both within the UK and further afield, and the uniform appearance of cats of the breed.
The signature short legs of the munchkin cat breed are caused by the inheritance of a genetic mutation, which expresses itself as the short legs that we associate with cats of the breed.
The gene mutation responsible for achondroplasia in munchkin cats is known as the “M” gene, and this is passed on from cats to their offspring by means of autosomal dominant heredity.
Autosomal dominant heredity means that in order for a kitten to inherit the munchkin short legs, they only need to have one parent with the relevant gene. However, this is not a guaranteed way to produce a litter that al has short legs, and many munchkin cat litters contain both short legged kittens and those with normal length limbs.
The heredity of munchkin cats is quite interesting (as well as being controversial in and of itself) because a kitten can in fact only inherit the M gene from one side of their parentage in order to have the short legs – or even to be carried to term and delivered at all.
If two cats with the M gene are mated, this results in the homozygous inheritance of the M gene in some of their conceived embryos, and this gene combination is in fact a lethal one, which means that whilst such embryos form in the womb in the normal manner they are not viable and do not develop further, usually resulting in reabsorption in the womb.
Only kittens that are heterozygous for the M gene – which means that they inherit one copy of the gene (from one parent) but not two (as would happen if they inherited it from both parents) can potentially develop properly, be carried to term, and be born as short-legged kittens.
A litter of kittens that have one munchkin parent and one normal parent may produce both short-legged and long-legged kittens, but if two munchkin cats are mated with each other, any kittens that receive two copies of the M gene (one from each parent) won’t be viable.
The mating of two munchkin cats causes three possibilities for the resultant kittens that are conceived: 25% of the conceived kittens will inherit both copies of the M gene and won’t be carried to term, 25% will be born with normal, long legs, and 50% will be born as short-legged munchkin cats.
Translating this into terms of the actual live-born kittens and discounting the embryos that were unviable early on in gestation, this means that two thirds of the litter will have short legs, and a third of them normal or long legs.
Munchkin cat health and wellness is a very hot topic in cat circles, both amongst those that own or breed munchkin cats and those that object to the very principles of doing so.
As we mentioned towards the start of this article, when the munchkin breed first began to gain recognition in the 1990s, the munchkin gene mutation was not thought to result in any heath problems or harmful conformation defects at the time.
However, since then, a range of well documented health issues in munchkin cats have developed and been associated with the breed’s short-legged stature, which anyone who is interested in munchkin cats or that is thinking of buying one needs to know about.
As the breed has developed and grown in numbers over a relatively short space of time, correlations between the munchkin cat’s short legs and a number of associated health problems have been documented within the breed as a whole.
The first of these is called lordosis, and this is a conformation defect that results in an excessive curvature of the cat’s spine that can affect the cat’s mobility and gait and potentially cause pain too.
The second health issue associated with the munchkin cat breed is called pectus excavatum, which means “hollowed chest,” and this causes the chest to sink in. This results in an odd appearance for affected cats, and can also affect the functions of the heart itself.
Issues of this type can cause a range of problems for affected cats, and can have a significant impact upon both their quality of life and longevity.
The potential risk of spine and back problems in munchkin cats as a result of the length of their backs in proportion to their legs is something else that puts the breed under the spotlight, as these traits are commonly associated with spinal defects in dog breeds that exhibit a form of achondroplasia, like the Dachshund. However, at the time of writing (February 2019) no formal or proven correlation between munchkin cats and spine and back problems has been identified.
As well as the potential for harmful conformation defects that can accompany the munchkin’s short legs, those very short legs themselves are worth mentioning in their own right in terms of the impact that they have on the cats that exhibit them.
Whilst simply having overly short legs does not cause pain or problems for the cats unless accompanied by a health condition that is inherited along with a short stature, it does limit the ways in which the cat can move. A cat with abnormally short legs cannot jump and climb as effectively as a normal cat, nor run as fast.
Technically this does not pose a problem for the average domestic munchkin whose home is designed to accommodate them and that is appropriately protected from threats from outside; however, it does inhibit the cat’s ability to defend itself and escape from threats and predators they may face in the outside world.
This means that munchkin cats are often kept as indoor-only cats, or only provided with limited and supervised access to the outside world.
Another point worth noting in terms of munchkin health relates to the genetics of munchkin trait’s heredity, and the fact that embryos that are homozygous (those that inherit two copies of the munchkin gene) are not carried to term or delivered as live young. This type of gene that results in mortality in utero is referred to as a lethal gene, resulting in spontaneous abortion of the unviable foetuses.
Whilst this all happens before the remaining live members of the litter are born, deliberate selective breeding with a lethal gene in order to produce apparently desirable traits in other kittens is widely frowned upon and considered to be ethically immoral in general, and such a trait is rarely seen and even less widely accepted within other cat breeds and types.
The presence of this lethal gene also means that munchkin cats often have small litter sizes, as there is the potential for 25% of the conceived embryos to fail to make it to term and live delivery.
The very existence of munchkin cats at all is one that is very polarising, and there is no firm consensus among cat lovers and cat breed organisations regarding the breed’s ongoing viability and desirability. There is a lot of controversy around munchkin cats in general, and it is wise for anyone who is thinking of buying a munchkin kitten or even breeding munchkin cats to learn more about the objections to doing so.
We’ll cover the basic points that cause controversy surrounding the munchkin cat breed below.
The signature of the munchkin cat breed and what made munchkins different from any other cat when the breed was first developed was of course their short legs, caused by a variant of partial achondroplasia. Selective breeding to produce, maintain and spread an unusual physical trait when this trait does nothing to benefit the cats that possess it (or cats as a whole) is a process that is widely frowned upon.
The short legs of munchkin cats serve no evolutionary purpose, and deliberately spreading and maintaining a genetic mutation of this type in future generations of cats is something that many cat lovers, vets and experts stand against on principle.
When you factor in the limitations of short legs in terms of the cat’s ability to lead a normal life and the potential for health issues that accompany the short-legged gene mutation, breeding specifically to produce short-legged cats becomes even more contentious.
As we mentioned earlier on, inheritance of the munchkin gene comes with an increased risk of munchkin cats inheriting conditions like lordosis of the spine and pectus excavatum of the chest, both of which can have a serious and significant impact on the health and quality of life of cats that inherit them.
The additional potential risks of spine and back problems that have yet to be firmly correlated with the munchkin cat’s short legs are another point to note. Whilst there is no formally documented evidence of genetic problems like these within munchkin cats at present, you also need to bear in mind that the munchkin is a very young cat breed, and it takes years or decades before the full implications of new cat breeds and their specific traits can be analysed in a meaningful way.
Other types of animals that exhibit similar forms of partial achondroplasia like Dachshund dogs are known to suffer from an increased likelihood of back and spine problems, and problems such as these are widely associated with achondroplasia in many different animal species.
When we talked about munchkin cat genetics and health, we mentioned the gene lethality that occurs in munchkin embryos that inherit two copies of the munchkin gene. This results in said embryos being miscarried early on, and embryos that carry two copies of the M gene are never carried to term.
Knowingly breeding cats with a lethal gene mutation that causes miscarriage of a percentage of the conceived kittens is considered by many to be immoral and unethical, and yet this practice is still widely undertaken in order to increase the odds of a higher number of kittens in each litter inheriting the short munchkin legs.
The limitations of having abnormally short legs is another cause for concern amongst people who disapprove of the munchkin cat breed. Munchkin cats that are properly cared for by well informed owners who ensure that their home and lifestyle are suitable for their cat tend to live full, happy lives, and adapt to their surroundings, playing, running around and generally doing everything that a normal cat does.
However, abnormally short legs are a huge evolutionary disadvantage in nature, and munchkin cats are much more vulnerable outside of the home when it comes to being able to protect themselves and escape harm.
This raises the ethical question of whether we should really be breeding animals that would not thrive in the wild, and that may not even remain viable if left to fend for themselves in nature.
Selective breeding undertaken by responsible cat breeders is ultimately designed to improve the health and quality of breed lines, and individual cats within it. Whether or not deliberately breeding to achieve short-legged cats constitutes improvement depends on who you ask!
The key trait of the munchkin breed is of course its short legs, and so achieving this trait and reproducing it reliably is seen as breed advancement and improvement by those who support it.
The flipside of the argument ties back in to whether or not it is ethical or responsible to deliberately breed short-legged cats at all, and so opponents argue that this trait cannot be classed as an improvement or desirable quality, regardless of how it is achieved.
Caring for a munchkin cat requires their owners to accommodate for the limitations of the breed’s short legs, and ensure that they can move around their home comfortably, exhibit normal cat behaviours, and lead a full, happy life. It also means taking steps to keep the cat safe from harm.
How this translates in practice can vary; most healthy munchkin cats can and do run, jump, climb and play, but they may not be as agile or capable as cats with longer legs. This mean the cat’s home needs to be set up to accommodate them, and access to the outside world needs to be considered and managed carefully.
Selective breeding of munchkin cats needs to be undertaken responsibly and with care, to minimise the risk of munchkin cats inheriting health problems along with their short legs. Breeding cats with known or potential health problems is of course frowned upon by responsible breeders, but as is the case for all cat breeds, some breeders are only in the business to make a quick buck.
Irresponsible breeders don’t pay any mind to the health of their breeding stock, or the implications of breeding two cats that both carry the M gene with each other.
There is a balance to be found between maximising the number of short-legged kittens that can be born in any given litter, and introducing two copies of the M gene to raise the number of short-legged kittens in a litter results in gene lethality in kittens that inherit two copies of it. However, some irresponsible breeders continue to breed munchkins that both carry the M gene and so, results in gene lethality in some of the embryos, in order to increase the number of short-legged kittens in the eventual litter.
Many kitten buyers who fall for the charms of munchkin cats don’t realise that those short legs can lead to health problems in certain cats, and are unprepared for the realities of caring for and accommodating for a munchkin cat’s needs.
Not doing enough research prior to making a purchase is a common mistake made by people seeking to buy kittens of any type, but when it comes to munchkins, all too many first-time owners simply don’t do enough research first.
Breeders who sell munchkin kittens have a level of responsibility to ensure that kitten buyers understand the breed and are kept appraised of its challenges and potential health problems, but not all breeders take this responsibility seriously.
Again, unscrupulous munchkin breeders may even go out of their way to mask or gloss over any potential issues that might compromise their chances of selling a kitten.
Munchkin cats are often advertised as being rare or unusual, or may be described in such a way a to make them sound as if they are highly desirable and something special. This in turn may result in artificially inflated prices for munchkin kittens for sale, and the marketing of such cats to uninformed buyers who are ready to fall for the marketing spiel.
This is just an overview or snapshot of the main causes for concern within the munchkin breed and the wider controversy surrounding it, but anyone considering buying a munchkin kitten should take these things into account before committing to a purchase.
Munchkin cats are currently totally legal to own, breed, buy and sell in the UK, even when they are bred using questionable practices that may result in health issues in the subsequent kittens.
However, many animal welfare organisations lobby to raise awareness of the potential issues with so-called designer pets like munchkin cats, and to encourage kitten buyers to think twice about purchasing a cat of this type, including the SSPCA (the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and International Cat Care.
The BVA (British Veterinary Association) also operates a wider campaign to raise awareness of and discourage potential buyers from making an uninformed choice about purchasing pets with physical deformities or hereditary health issues caused by specific physical traits.
As a result of such lobbying and public backlash against specific types of exaggerations within pedigree cat and dog breeds, the Scottish government recently undertook a consultation on the breeding of so-called “designer” cats and dogs, and intends to tighten up the regulations surrounding them in the next year as a result of this.
The consultation’s conclusions led the Scottish government to commit to outlawing the breeding of dogs, cats and rabbits that are bred using harmful practices or that have a hereditary predisposition for health problems, and the munchkin cat breed was one of several specifically mentioned within the associated reports.
This means that the legal status of munchkin cats in Scotland and the ability of breeders to breed and sell kittens of this type is likely to change very soon – although exactly how this will be applied in practice has yet to be seen.
Currently, there are no plans or consultations ongoing within other parts of the UK specific to the munchkin cat breed or encompassing munchkins specifically within their remit.
The GCCF or Governing Council of the Cat Fancy is the UK’s governing body for the registration and improvement of pedigree cats and cat breeds. This is the authority organisation in the UK for all things relating to pedigree cats, including affiliated cat shows, health monitoring and improvement, and much more.
The GCCF has never recognised nor acknowledged the munchkin cat as a pedigree cat breed, and strongly discourages the breeding and selling of cats of this type.
The GCCF’s policy on munchkin cats has remained in place since the breed first began to gain attention in the UK in 1991, and was established in consultation with the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA).
This means that there is no GCCF breed registry for munchkin cats, and they cannot be registered as pedigree cats with the GCCF, nor enjoy any of the benefits that come with registration.
Not many breed societies and cat breed registries accept munchkin cats within their registries either, and the breed is not accepted by the Federation Internationale Feline, nor the Cat Fanciers’ Association.
Whilst the GCCF does not recognise or offer registration to munchkin cats, there are a few international breed registries that do accept and offer registration to eligible cats of the breed. These include TICA (The International Cat Association), and various country-specific registries outside of the UK too.
This means that a munchkin cat for sale might have pedigree papers from TICA (or potentially, another country’s individual breed registry organisation) and that breeders can register eligible munchkin kittens with TICA instead of the GCCF.
Most formally organised cat shows within the UK are operated by or affiliated with the GCCF, which means that only cats that are registered with the GCCF are eligible to compete within their shows.
This effectively means that most formal cat shows forbid entries for munchkin cats, as they are not recognised as a pedigree breed and cannot be registered as such.
However, for fun, local cat shows or if you happen to live in an area where other breed registries that accept munchkins run cat shows, your munchkin cat may be eligible to compete if they are eligible for registry with the organisation running the show, or if the show is an informal, unaffiliated one.
Munchkin cats are fairly uncommon within the UK as a whole, and there are a number of reasons for why you may never have seen one in the flesh.
First of all, munchkin cats are often kept as indoor-only cats or supervised closely when outside, so even if there is a munchkin living nearby, you may never even know about them. Additionally, not a lot of people breed munchkin cats due to the potential problems that can arise with their health, and concerns over wider public opinion about such breeding practices.
At the time of writing (February 2019) there were a total of 1,267 cats offered for sale in the UK via Pets4Homes, and just three of them were munchkins, which indicates the general rarity of the breed as a whole within the UK.
This means that if you are interested in buying a munchkin kitten, you may have to wait a long time for a suitable kitten to become available and potentially, join a waiting list with a breeder to reserve a kitten from a future litter.
Unless you are quite lucky in terms of where the breeder is located, you might also have to travel quite some distance to view the litter and collect your kitten to take them home.
Cats that are rare, unusual or otherwise hard to come by often command high sale prices as a result of this, as demand usually far outstrips supply, even when it comes to controversial and contentious cat breeds like the munchkin.
The prices of different individual munchkin kittens for sale often has a high degree of variance to it, and so it is hard to determine with any accuracy what sort of figure you might expect to pay to buy a munchkin.
Towards the lower end of the price scale, munchkin kittens can cost as little as around £450-£600, but at the higher end of the spectrum you might find yourself paying £1,000 or even more. Exactly what criteria a cat breeder uses to determine the asking price for their kittens can be very variable, so if you see a kitten for sale that is a lot cheaper or more costly than the norm, find out why this is.
Munchkin kittens at apparently bargain prices may be cheaper than others due to the presence of health issues, so ensure that you don’t rush into the purchase of an apparently cheap kitten and find yourself facing a lifetime of expensive veterinary bills as a result.
As well as factoring in how much you wish to spend to buy a munchkin kitten in the first place, you should also take into account the much larger costs of caring for them for the entire duration of their life.
This means not only things like food, flea and worming treatments and standard veterinary care, but also the cost of insuring your cat and/or being able to budget for unforeseen veterinary costs if your cat does ultimately prove to have any health issues.
Munchkin cats and kittens have a lot of cute-appeal and many cat lovers have a secret or not-so-secret soft spot for these unusual cats, which also have lovely personalities and are a pleasure to have around.
However, before you commit to buying a munchkin kitten, you should do plenty of research into the problems that can accompany cats of the breed in terms of their health and quality of life, and also, the special care requirements of looking after a cat with very short legs.
You should also question the ethical position of choosing to buy a breed of cat that is widely considered by a range of formal cat breed organisations, animal welfare organisations and veterinary professionals to be problematic or contentious.
The potential health issues and accommodating for the limitations of short legs is only the beginning – even if the cat you buy is themselves perfectly healthy, the practice of breeding munchkin cats in general is one that is considered to be harmful to the wider health and welfare of cats as a whole, and by buying a kitten of the breed, you contribute to demand for cats of this type.
Some munchkin litters are still bred by crossing munchkin with munchkin, which results in the spontaneous abortion of 25% of the conceived foetuses, and breeding cats possessing a lethal gene in this way is widely considered to be harmful and immoral – after all, if the gene’s traits were viable for life and meant to spread and reproduce, they would not cause the in-utero death of a significant proportion of embryos.
Even when undertaken carefully, breeding munchkin cats comes with an inherent risk of health issues such as lordosis and pectus excavatum, and conditions like these are on the rise within the breed as a whole, and becoming more widely established within lots of unrelated breed lines.
Ultimately, whether or not you should buy a munchkin kitten is up to you, but if you are determined to own a cat simply on the basis of their looks, you should question your reasons for doing so, and perhaps reconsider whether or not this is a good criteria to base your final selection upon.
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