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"Do you think my cat had a Siamese grandparent?" and other speculations on cat breeds.

Posted Oct 01 2011 6:52pm
I see people trying to figure out whether their unusual-looking cat has purebred ancestry, and it makes me think of the differences between dog breeds and cat breeds. Dogs have been bred to certain styles of body and behavior for ages--Great Dane to Chihuahua--you wouldn't even know they were the same animal if you didn't watch them and see the obvious doggyness. Cats, on the other hand, have been primarily selected for their natural, wild behavior--catching mice and looking pretty lounging in a sunbeam, which any cat can do whatever its pattern is.

A purebred dog has a pretty narrow selection of genes, as far as doggy genetics goes. You create a breed--say, a collie--by breeding out all the non-collie genes, so that when you got a proper modern collie, you couldn't, however you tried, get the collie's wolflike ancestor back.

Cats on the other hand are much, much closer to their small wildcat ancestors. They haven't had that huge selection pressure. Purebred cat breeds are usually much "younger" than purebred dog breeds. As a result, the cat gene pool is close to the wildcat gene pool. One generic mixed-breed cat looks very much like another, within a range of colors, body shapes, and personalities. And cats of no particular breed have always been the largest portion of the domestic cat population.

Not so with dogs. Because dogs have been bred for specific tasks, the largest part of the domestic dog population is made of purebred dogs and mixes of purebred dogs. The thing that gets closest to the "generic dog" is probably the Australian dingo or the members of the long-standing feral dog packs where those exist. Those dogs aren't near as common as "generic cats". So, when you adopt a mixed-breed dog, you can usually see that it's got purebred ancestry back one, two, three generations. You'll almost never get "generic dog", the way you would probably get "generic cat" if you picked a non-purebred cat at random.

Unlike mixed-breed dogs, non-purebred cats still have a lot of the same traits that they got from the wildcat. They've got in them all the genes that make up the Siamese and the Persian and the Bengal and the Abyssinian. Through random combinations, a kitten can be born that looks Bengal, but hasn't ever had a Bengal in his family tree. You can get a Siamese lookalike with a single pointed cat on the family tree a hundred years back. Unlike dogs, cats haven't been bred into little sub-species. Even the purebred cats are almost all Generic Cat, with a few special traits that are concentrated and exaggerated to give them their unique look and personality. People even breed in wildcats, like with the Bengal breed.

That's the interesting thing about cats, you see--as far as domestic animals go, they didn't need to be changed nearly as much to fit into human society. People keep small wildcats successfully as pets, and with much less adjustment than one would have to make to keep a wolf rather than a dog. A cat brings with it so much of the wild that you might as well have a tiny panther in your lap.
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