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Choosing a Sphynx

By: J. Anne Helgren

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The first time you see a member of this hairless, wrinkled breed, your eyes may widen in surprise. Is that really a cat? While some might look askance at hairless cats, Sphynx fanciers loudly proclaim "bald is beautiful!"

History and Origin

During the last hundred years or so, hairless kittens have spontaneously appeared in litters of otherwise ordinary domestic shorthairs. This natural, spontaneous mutation appears to be a fairly common one, since hairless cats have been found in Canada, France, Morocco, Mexico, Russia, Australia and the United States. Pictures of the "Mexican Hairless" even appeared in Frances Simpson's 1903 classic Book of the Cat. However, many of these lines were never developed or died out from lack of support or from breeding difficulties.

The first formal breeding program took place in Canada in the 1960s, when a pair of domestic shorthairs produced a hairless kitten. In 1970 the Cat Fanciers' Association (CFA) granted provisional status to the "Canadian Hairless." The next year, however, CFA withdrew recognition due to the health problems and breeding difficulties. At the time, it was believed that the gene associated with hairlessness was lethal. That line became extinct.

The Sphynx as we know it today began in 1975, when Minnesota farm owners Milt and Ethelyn Pearson discovered a hairless kitten had been born to their normal-coated farm cat, Jezabelle. This kitten, appropriately named Epidermis, was joined the next year by another hairless kitten named Dermis. Both were sold to Oregon breeder Kim Mueske, who used the kittens to develop the breed. Minnesota breeder Georgiana Gattenby also worked with kittens from the Pearson line, using rex cats to widen and strengthen the gene pool. These lines proved to be healthy. The name "Sphynx" was chosen, named after the Great Sphinx of Giza.

In 1978, Canadian breeder Shirley Smith rescued a hairless male kitten, Bambi, that she neutered and kept as a pet. Bambi's mother, a domestic shorthair, subsequently produced two more hairless offspring. In 1983 Smith sent the two kittens to Dr. Hugo Hernandez in the Netherlands. Dr. Hernandez bred the two kittens, named Punkie and Paloma, to a Devon rex. The descendants of these cats, along with the descendants of the Pearson cats, became the foundation of today's Sphynx. Breeders discovered that even though the hairless gene is recessive to short hair, the gene is incompletely dominant over the recessive gene governing the Devon rex coat. Crosses between the Sphynx and Devon rex helped widen the gene pool and increase numbers.

In February 1998, the Sphynx was accepted for CFA registration, a great stride for the breed. In 2000, 120 Sphynx were registered in CFA, according to CFA's 2000 registration totals. This gives the Sphynx a ranking of 33rd out of the 40 breeds CFA accepts. Fanciers are currently working on gaining the Sphynx provisional status in CFA. Then it's on to championship, which the Sphynx has already achieved in most other associations.

Appearance

Once you get past the shock of seeing a naked cat, you'll notice that this breed has other distinctive traits. Their ears, for one thing, look large enough to intercept satellite transmissions. Their paw pads are thick, giving them the illusion of walking on tiny air cushions. The large, lemon shaped eyes are expressive, slightly slanted, and set wide apart. The head is a modified wedge shape, with prominent cheekbones and whisker pads and a strong, well-developed chin. Medium-sized cats, Sphynx are broad-chested and hard-muscled.

The Sphynx isn't really more wrinkled than other cats. All cats have loose, wrinkled skin; the cat's skin is the thinnest of all the domestic animals, and also the most flexible. It's just easier to see the wrinkles on a hairless cat.

Actually, Sphynx only appear hairless. The skin is covered with a fine vestigial covering of down that resembles the texture of chamois. Sphynx feel like warm suede to the touch. Despite the virtual lack of hair, Sphynx come in every possible color and pattern since color, like beauty, are more than fur deep. However, the exact color is sometimes difficult to determine on a hairless cat, so in the show ring no points are awarded or taken away for color or pattern.

Like the gene for long hair, the gene that governs the Sphynx's lack of hair is recessive. In order for a cat to be hairless, she must inherit one copy of the Sphynx gene from each parent. If a cat has one copy of the hairless gene and one copy of the gene for short hair, the cat will have short hair but will carry the gene for hairlessness. When two such cats are bred, statistically one cat in four will be hairless. On the plus side, when two hairless cats mate they produce entirely hairless litters.

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