Saturday, March 24, 2012

Welcome to Safe Harbor in Jackson, Missouri

When nurse Alice Wybert, working with hospice patients, was asked by terminal patients to find homes for their cats, she agreed. Once she got started, she found there was a much larger population of cats--and dogs, too--in need of homes.

On July 6, 2005, Safe Harbor opened at 359 Cree Lane (phone 573-243-9823) in Jackson with  25 cats. Today, it shelters 250 cats and 20 dogs. The good news is that 100 cats have been sent to new homes so far this year!

The cost of adopting a cat is $50, to defray the cost of spaying or neutering the animal, which has already been done. To adopt a cat that has been declawed, the cost is $75.

Safe Habor's facilities
But each month, the facility runs a "special" on a certain kind of cat. In March, the special has been yellow cats--$35 instead of $50. Declawed cats are $50, down from the regular $75.

This is the last week of March, but there is still time to adopt a yellow cat, like this one (right), at the special rate. Yellow (or orange, or ginger, whatever term you prefer) cats are the most friendly and laid back of cats, in my opinion.  They are also "guard cats"--the self-appointed watchcat of the home. When my husband and I arrived at Safe Harbor, this one came up and greeted us, checking us out in a friendly way. He was a boy cat, of course.

Check out my post "Most Perfect Animal" for stories about my own ginger cat, Ezra.

Yellow cats can be female, but there are far fewer female ginger cats. Coat color is carried on the X chromosome, of which males (XY) have one and females have two (XX). If the boy's X gives him yellow, then he is yellow. But a ginger girl has to have two yellow X's. If her other X is for black instead, she will be a tortoiseshell, or if she also has the white spotting gene, she will be a three-colored calico.

In April, the special will be on tabby cats; in May, dilute calicos; and in June, the month of weddings, what else but the black and white tuxedo cat!

Coming in April

All dressed up and ready to go to a new home!
This kitty is adoptable and included in the special during April at Safe Harbor


This April, you can obtain a tabby cat from Safe Harbor in Jackson for $35 instead of the usual $50. Declawed cats are $50, down from the regular $75.

The Tabby cat's name comes from a word formerly used for ribbed silk material. according to Harrison Weir. "The word tabby was derived from a kind of taffeta, or ribbed silk, which when calendered or what is now terms 'watered,' is by that process covered with wavy lines," Weir said in his book Our Cats and All About Them.

My cat Abby has more of the ticked pattern.
She has the thinnest fur of any cat I've ever
 seen. Her ancestors were from Africa, for sure.

The tabby cat is the most common of varieties, found in all parts of the world that have cats, which is everywhere today. Of all domesticated cats, the tabby most closely resembles the small wildcat that inhabited Europe, Asia, and Africa. When there was a land bridge across what is now the Bering Strait, cats roamed in North America also. But the land bridge disappeared, and cats for some reason were trapped on the eastern side. Our present-day cats were brought to America from Europe.

The felis sylvestris is basically the same cat everywhere, with distinct adaptations to its environment. For example, the European cat had long, thick  hair because of the colder climate. African and Southeast Asian cats' fur is short, and much thinner.

Evidence of the first domesticated cat appears in the Middle East. The earliest mummified cats have been found in the island country of Cyprus, located in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. The fertile crescent is where agriculture began, and it was also the beginning of the relationship between  man and cat.

Wild cats started coming around humans to eat rodents, according to feline researcher Dr. Laura Lyons, at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary MedicineAs humans became farmers, they created grain stores and refuse piles, two things that draw rodents. Humans allowed them to stay around because they protected their food source, and cats in turn tolerated humans because they provided food for them. The cats that were most bold--or tame, from our perspective, got the most food, and they started domesticating themselves.

Human civilization moved to Egypt, and so did the cat, where it was worshipped. The Romans seemed to be a little slower in using the cat for rodent control. Some stories say that the Egyptians attempted to forbid cats from being taken to Rome. But the cat was already in Europe! Nonetheless, Europeans did not use the cat for rodent control at first, but instead relied on the smellier and less tamable weasel. 

Most likely, the European wildcat did not venture so easily to human settlement as the Middle Eastern and African cats. It was more isolated in European forests, and farther away from the humans' food sources. I suspect that the first domesticated cats in Europe did come from Egypt, and then they quickly interbred with the native wildcat.

Felis sylvestris is endangered almost to the point of extinction, especially in Europe, because of its domesticated relative. The wildcat has bred so much with feral cats that scientists are doubtful they can still find a bon fide Scottish wildcat. The African wildcat is also getting more and more rare.

The domesticated tabby cat may resemble the wildcat, but it is not "wilder" than other cats. It is definitely domesticated, and a lot of breeding has gone into even the most ordinary of cats. Harrison Weir proscribed the appearance of the perfect brown tabby in 1889: "[Its] ground color is of a very rich, orangey, dark brown ground, without any white, and that is evenly, proportionably (sic), and not too broadly but elegantly marked on the face, head, breast sides, back, belly, legs and tail with bands of solid, deep shining black." There is more, but you get the idea--the tabby was bred for specific features desirable by its owner.

A Mackerel:
Come get me! I'm waiting!

Blotched tabby:
This adoptable cat is beautiful!

A tabby is any cat that has a distinctive coat that features stripes, dots, lines or swirling patterns, usually together with a mark resembling an "M" on its forehead (See photo, right). Tabbies are not a cat breed. Its features are found in many breeds of cats. The Maine Coon Cat is a long-haired tabby, and the Norwegian Forest Cat comes in a tabby variety.  In short-hair varieties, there is the British shorthair tabby and the American shorthair tabby--the two differ mainly in the breed standards established by the two countries.

(By the way, Safe Harbor has at least one long-haired tabby, too, although I don't have a photo.)

There are four recognized kinds of patterns in the Tabby family. 

The Mackerel Tabby pattern has vertical, gently curving stripes on the side of the body. The stripes are narrow, and may be continuous or broken into bars and spots on the flanks and stomach. Often, an 'M' shape appears on the forehead. Mackerels also feature a 'peppered' nose, where black spots appear along the pink tip of the nose.

The Classic (or 'Blotched') Tabby, tends to have a pattern of dark browns, ochres, and black. Classic Tabbies have an 'M' pattern on the head similar to that of Mackerel Tabbies, but the body markings are different, having a whirled and swirled pattern with wider stripes that make what are referred to as "butterfly" patterns on their shoulders, and usually a bullseye or oyster pattern on the flank. The legs and tail are more heavily barred and the pattern is variable with respect to the width of the bands.

The Ticked Tabby pattern produces hairs with distinct bands of color on them, breaking up the tabby patterning into a salt-and-pepper appearance. Residual ghost striping or "barring" can often be seen on the lower legs, face and belly and sometimes at the tail tip.

The Spotted Tabby may not be a true pattern, but a modifier that breaks up the Mackerel Tabby pattern so that the stripes appear as spots. Similarly, the stripes of the Classic Tabby pattern may be broken into larger spots. Both large spot and small spot patterns can be seen in the Australian Mist, the Bengal, the Egyptian Mau, Maine Coon, and Ocicat breeds.

The tabby striping is in the genes of every cat, purebred or plebian, but other coloring makes it hard to see in the case of solid cats. In cat genetics, pattern is unrelated to color, so the tabby coat pattern can show up in combination with a variety of coat colors, including tortoiseshell (Tortoiseshell Tabby cats are called 'Torbies'). White spotting of any degree can also appear in combination with tabby patterns. White is the only coat color that does not have any tabby markings, because, as you can read in my blog post "In Search of White", the white gene masks all color in the fur.

Friday, March 16, 2012

In Search of White

Harrison Weir's purpose in starting cat shows was to promote the welfare of all cats, not just special breeds. Many cat blogs promote and sell a particular breed of cat. This blog promotes cats who are found in shelters. Sometimes shelter cats are purebreds, and as I find them, I will post them here. But I love mixed breeds, who combine the traits of several different cats.  I write about purebreds, too, and I have no intention to disparage them, any more than a Siamese cat site intentionally disparages Persian cats. But I love the mixed breed; this is what I am "selling" on this particular post.

Daisy is a sweet, friendly 5-year-old white cat with blue eyes who is up for adoption. Her owners had to leave her when they moved. She is used to other cats. She is spayed; she has all her claws.

Daisy is hard of hearing, not totally deaf. Hearing problems are common with many beautiful blue-eyed white cats. Her fur is soft, like a chinchilla rabbit.

 If you are interested in finding out more about her, contact Deer Ridge Animal Hospital in Jackson, MO, at (573) 243-3200.

If you don't live around Jackson, MO, contact a shelter near you. I'm sure there are lots of other beautiful white cats waiting for a home!

Why are white cats often deaf?

Somewhere between 65 and 85 percent of solid white cats with blue eyes have congenital deafness. It is caused by the Dominant White gene, which suppresses the production of melatonin and thus all color in the cat's fur and skin. Every cat has a gene for the expression of color, but in the white cat, that gene is "turned off." It may affect the cat's eyes, creating the blue eyes, and also may prevent the inner ear from forming correctly, thus creating a deaf cat. Cats that are white but only have one blue eye and one eye of another color are often only deaf in the ear that is on the same side of the head as the blue eye.

Because White is dominant, if a cat has only one W gene and one w gene, carrying color, it will always be white. Whether the cat is WW or Ww, breeders still have not developed a fool-proof way of breeding white cats that are never deaf.

Persians, Turkish Angoras, and Turkish Vans are long-haired cats that can be pure white. In the shorthair variety, there is the domestic shorthair, and the White Oriental--a cat that looks like a Siamese but without the points.

 Jubilee lost her whiteness as she got older, like all Siamese--
a great disappointment to 19th century breeders who were
 in search of "white" from the albino cat.
 The Albino Gene

Siamese cats, which are born white, get their white color from a different gene--the albino gene. This gene has a spectrum of expressions, ranging from full color to full-blown albinism, in which the animal has totally white hair and skin, and pink eyes. In between these extremes are the burmese allele, which results in muted color; the temperature-sensitive albinism allele, which creates the Siamese cat; and the blue-eyed albino.

This gene is not related to deafness. However, as with albinism in all species, there can be vision problems. Albinism inhibits the normal development of the visual cortex, so that the animal does not develop stereoscopic vision. This is often the cause of crossed eyes in the Siamese. Still, it does not present a serious vision problem to most cats.

The Siamese cat is born white, but does not stay all white, especially when taken out of the tropical climate from where it was bred. For centuries, breeders have sought to develop a white cat that did not have the threat of deafness in its genes and maintained its beautiful white coat throughout its life. The albino gene was not the answer.

And then they were one!

In the 1962, breeder and cat geneticist Pat Turner began mating Seal Point Siamese with White Domestic Shorthair cats. Her goal was to create a white Siamese with blue eyes, but without the genetic trait that can create deafness in cats.  The Foreign white is basically a white Siamese with blue eyes. Introducing the Dominant White gene into the breed again risks deafness, although the breed is carefully monitored.

All white cats, whether or not their hearing or vision is impaired, have a greater risk of skin cancer.

Humans love white cats, but nature doesn't. So why did nature provide for the possibility?

The White Spotting Gene

There is another gene in the cat genome that creates white by masking color: the white spotting gene. It is responsible for the white locket, the white mitted feet, and the various white markings on any part of a cat's body. Occasionally,  this gene creates a cat that is essentially all white.

Tiger's white chin and feet help her blend
into the natural environment.
The S gene works exactly the same as the W gene, and if by chance it should touch the cat's ears, it makes the animal deaf in the same way. But most of the time it doesn't. It just adds interest to the cat's looks. Humans select for the prettiest arrangement of white--the feet, the face, and the underbelly. Less attractive arrangements are largely phased out by human selection. But nature likes the white spots for a different reason--they have a camouflage advantage. In the forests where the European wildcat originated, white spots mimic beams of light streaming through the trees.

The W gene may have been a mutation of S that nature made by mistake, which humans loved so much that they kept it going.

And what of the albino gene?

As already mentioned, the albino gene comes in a spectrum of effects. Complete albinos are at a serious disadvantage, but what about muted colors? Gray instead of black? Tan instead of brown? Pretty, but also a pretty good camouflage if the cat lives on the sandy shore of the Mekong River, where the Siamese breed originated. The burmese allele is commonly found in the street cats of Thailand. One step beyond that is the Siamese allele, and that is not so bad, either.

Vanilla and chocolate varieties of the street cats in Laos


This Siamese kitty blends in with the light sandy soil.


Blue eyes are beautiful, too!

Blue eyes are found randomly in cats that are not all white. Usually, they have some white, thanks to the old White Spotting gene.There is another relatively new breed claimed to have blue eyes NOT linked to coat color. The Ojos Azules (Spanish for blue eyes) breed may be found in any color, but white patching on the peripheral parts of the cat, particularly the tips of the feet and tail, are a common manifestation of the Ojos gene. Less white is considered most desirable, except in colorpoint, where the typical white peripheral tipping is necessary to illustrate that this is a true Ojos Azules and not a colorpoint Oriental.

Ojos Azules have deep blue eyes. Because this supposed gene is not linked to any certain fur color or pattern, it gives the opportunity to have cats with dark coats and blue eyes. It does not cause squinting, deafness, or cross-eye.

But the breed is not without its problems. When the "gene" is homozygous (the cat has the trait from both parents), it causes cranial deformities, white fur, a small curled tail, and stillbirth. However, when the gene is heterozygous (from only one parent), those lethal genetic mutations do not manifest. The result is that breeders must cross the blue-eyed cats with non-blue-eyed cats, assuring a litter of about 50/50 blue/non-blue-eyed kittens. Although only half of the kittens are then part of the Ojos Azules breed, this avoids having much of the litter comprise deformed and /or dead kittens.

This is not a real breed, then, if another breed must be introduced every generation.

I found some experts that even doubt this breed really exists, saying that the pictures might be doctored. In Massimo Picardello's book on feline genetics, no such gene is mentioned.

Fake or not, this cat's blue eyes do seem to present a problem even more serious than that of the other breeds.