Most cat owners are at least peripherally aware of the BBC documentary, ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’ that aired in August 2008. The documentary, which was several years in the making, caused massive upheaval across the pedigree dog world, and resulted in large-scale public outcry at the ultimate exposure of the fate of many pedigree dogs in the UK, and the unsafe and unethical breed standards that The Kennel Club and many pedigree dog breeders supported and encouraged.Few people could deny the facts and supporting evidence that the programme used to make their case, and despite initial vehement denials by The Kennel Club, ultimately, almost every issue highlighted in the documentary was eventually upheld. Now that many of the issues highlighted in the programme are finally under the spotlight and being addressed, the obvious question in the minds of many cat lovers must surely be ‘what about the cats?’ Do pedigree cats have similar issues? Could the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy and other breed organisations be equally at fault in terms of their management and stewardship of the cat world? Read on to hear our thoughts.
Jemima Harrison, the director and editor of ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’ and ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed: Three Years On’ believes that there is. In April 2012, Jemima Harrison posted on her Pedigree Dogs Exposed blog that ‘Pedigree Cats Exposed’ is already underway as a project, and since that time, the documentary itself has entered production. The programme is likely still unfinished and there is no airdate yet, and in fact, Pedigree Cats Exposed will probably take many months or even years to make it on to our screens due to any amount of legal wrangling and liability issues. But even so, the fact is that the pedigree cat world will almost certainly find itself under the spotlight for all of the wrong reasons in the near to mid-term future.
Until the programme itself airs, and the results of several months of hands-on research backed up by years of supporting data are formally announced, any conjecture as to the contents of the show would be almost pure guesswork. That being said, there are several high profile and popular breeds of cat that are universally known to have a range of genetically inherited and deliberately bred health issues as a result of conforming to breed standards. There are also various other issues among several pedigree breeds, such as deliberate inbreeding and selectively breeding for desirable traits that often cause problems for the cats that possess them.
The documentary ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’ highlighted five main problem areas with the breed standards encouraged across large parts of the pedigree dog world. Here are our interpretations of how those same five areas might be applied to the cat world.
One pedigree breed that will almost certainly be featured in the programme is the Persian cat. These cats are valued for their long, silky coats and signature brachycephalic (squashed-looking) faces. The squat, short-muzzled appearance of the Persian is one of the key characteristics of the breed, and Persian show cats have been selectively bred for decades to have an ever-shorter muzzle to be considered as a good quality breed standard cat. A multitude of potential health problems accompany brachycephalia, and the more pronounced the flatness of the face is, the worse these problems become. Breathing problems, skin problems, and a multitude of different painful and uncomfortable eye conditions often plague extremely flat faced Persian cats. These issues are not unique to Persian cats; many other flat faced breeds, such as the Exotic Shorthair and Himalayan cat may also be prone to the same issues when specifically bred for a heightened flattened appearance of the face.
Again, the Persian and other cats of Persian origins fall under the spotlight here. Traditional Persian cats (also known sometimes as ‘Doll Faced Persians’) had delicate, petite faces, but were not considered to be brachycephalic and had a normal, healthy length nose and palate. A spontaneous genetic mutation that occurred in a Persian cat in the 1950’s led to the advent of the first flat-faced Persian cat. Rather than being viewed as a one-off anomaly, this cat was selectively bred out to produce further offspring with the same appearance, which snowballed into becoming the show standard Persian breed strain that we recognise today.The Siamese cat is another breed selectively bred to have a modern appearance that is significantly different to the natural appearance of the breed. Now, a narrow, sharp-looking triangular shaped pointed face is considered to be desirable and most well regarded in showing circles; traditionally, the Siamese cat had a much more rounded face, a look that is now known as the ‘apple headed Siamese’ and considered in showing circles to be undesirable.
Eugenics can best be described as humanity’s way of trying to artificially manipulate natural selection, and involves selectively breeding and culling the population to produce traits and genetic features that are perceived by those at the head of the movement to be good, or desirable. Understandably, the concept of eugenics is a controversial one for many reasons; might Pedigree Cats Exposed expose the culling of non-breed standard cats and unethical breeding practices to produce show standard cats? This is something that we will have to wait to find out.
Inbreeding to some extent is a necessary part of establishing a new breed of cat, and most modern pedigree breeds have some history of inbreeding evident somewhere within their ancestry. However, inbreeding can lead to a wide range of undesirable genetic mutations and inherited health defects, which are often by their nature detrimental to the health and wellbeing of the cats that possess them. Both the Scottish Fold and the Munchkin cat breeds originate from a relatively small gene pool, and cats from within these two respective breeds often possess a family tree containing a significant history of inbreeding and shared ancestries.
Common sense and ethics dictate that no show champion should be in poor health; how can a cat that is ill or suffering from an inherited condition that causes them pain or suffering be held up as a positive example of the breed? Nevertheless, ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’ revealed that on more than one occasion, dogs that were clearly unwell and/or unable to cope with the rigours of showing without remedial help were placed as class winners and even, on one occasion, Best In Show at The Kennel Club’s prestigious Crufts dog show.Whether the same will be found of the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy’s Supreme Cat Show remains to be seen.
Until Pedigree Cats Exposed is finished, aired and examined, no firm conclusions can be drawn as to what might be revealed about the fate of pedigree cats in the UK and their treatment by the organisations and bodies charged with their advocacy. However, with the points raised above being just a small sampling of the known potential and common issues already well documented about several breeds in the pedigree cat world, it is hard to imagine that the pedigree cat world will not find itself faced with some tough questions to answer once the programme has aired.