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Feline Genetics Traits

It's Not Just About Color

Genetic traits are observable, specific characteristics that are inherited from an animal’s parent.  While color is the most obvious and likely most studied of inherited traits, there are many other types of traits that are inherited and can be tested for, such as coat pattern, coat length, length of tail, and number of toes.  (For an in depth discussion of feline color genetics, click here.)  Traits that can be identified through genetic testing are relatively few – other traits such as size, build, head shape and even temperament cannot be tested for as these characteristics are the result of many genes working together and a difficult to pinpoint and map compared to those that are controlled by a single gene.   They are observable, though, and careful recording through generations can help breeders predict some of these traits. 

Testing For Traits

Just like genetic health testing, it is much less expensive to test for many traits at one time rather than selected ones individually.  At the time of this writing, Wisdom Panel tested for 12 color variants, such as colorpoint, solid, and full or partial white; 10 coat variants, such as long hair, hairlessness, or rexing (curly); three tail length variants such as tail absent or bobtail; and three polydactyl variants.   Some laboratories have more traits available on their panels, some less.  When the genetic basis for a trait is newly determined, it is often offered as a single test before it becomes part of a panel.   If a trait is of enough interest to breeders, it will eventually find its way into a panel.  

Can Trait Testing Identify a Breed?

There are approximately 2.5 – 3.0 billion base pairs that comprise the feline genome, but only a tiny percentage of these vary from breed to breed.  There is not one specific marker that identifies the breed of your cat.  Keep in mind that breeds are a man-made designation based on observable traits.  While many genetic laboratories are offering breed analysis as part of their test panels, it is no substitute for a pedigree.  Genetic laboratories have been collecting and analyzing the genomes of the various breeds based on the owner’s self-identification of the breed.  As time goes on, and more cats of a breed are submitted for analysis, the breed identification will become more specific.   Also keep in mind that many breeds are hybrids.  For example, if your cat’s breed analysis shows 80% Breed A and 20% Breed B, there is nothing wrong with the analysis if those two breeds were used to create your cat’s breed.   Over time, as the database grows the specific genetic footprint of the hybrid will be more easily identified.  Trait testing can offer insights into parentage and breed, but they are not yet a substitute for careful visual observation of the cat and accurate recording of a cat’s traits in a registry.

A Written Standard is the Breed’s Blueprint 

Why do breeders care about genetic traits? Observable traits are what breeders use to define their breed’s standard.   For the most part, standards are completely subjective, and describe what one group of people believes a breed should look like.  Standards can differ between animal registries – a CFA standard for a Maine Coon Cat may differ from other feline registries in how they describe specifically the unique traits of a Maine Coon Cat, but they generally only differ in the finer details.         

When breeds are first accepted into a registry, a group of well-established breeders of a proposed “new” breed, known as a breed council in CFA, collaborate to write a standard that best describes their breed.   In the case of “natural” breeds, like the Siberian, the breed council will look at several outstanding examples of the breed and describe what they look like through a standard, and what variances between cats is allowable.  In the case of hybrid breeds, where a breeder desires to capture desirable traits of multiple species in one cat such as the Exotic Shorthair, or wants to create something totally different, like the wild spotted but totally tame Ocicat, breeders select breeding pairs that most closely resemble the desired standard and cross with other breeds or non-pedigree cats to move closer to the desired outcome. 

Validating Breed Standards

Breeders validate their interpretation of the standard by earning titles for their cats.   Not every title requires a cat to win or place in a competition, but all titles require a cat to meet the standard with no disqualifying faults.  For example, the CFA Champion or Premier title requires the cat to compete in a minimum of six qualifying rings with at least two different judges (requirements may vary depending on geographic region) and not be disqualified.   More competitive titles, such as Grand Chanpion or Grand Premier, require them to rate higher than other cats of the same or different breed.  For an in-depth description of the titles CFA cats can earn, click here.

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