Unlock Cat Genetics for Purrfect Health

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Cat genetics are the blueprints that dictate everything from coat color, to personality, to the number of toes. Your pet's genes are the reason why Siamese cats are so talkative, ragdolls are cuddly, Sphynx cats are hairless and Persians have smushed faces. While many diseases are multifactorial (meaning they have more than one cause, which can be both genetic and environmental), researchers have identified through genetic sequencing of chromosomes that cats have genetic mutations that predispose them to developing specific diseases. Some of these conditions are even breed-specific.

Canadian Sphynx cat is wrapped up in a towel

Genetic Mutations

Just like humans, cats can have mutations in their genome that code sequences incorrectly and predispose them to developing certain diseases. Essentially, this means that the DNA that helps make up cats can be affected at some point in their development that makes the cat more likely to develop diseases. This change in their genetic makeup is kind of like an error in their code. Some diseases, such as polycystic kidney disease in Persians and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (heart disease) in Maine coons and ragdolls, are known to have a genetic component, writes International Cat Care. Other health conditions, like asthmatic or cross-eyed Siamese cats, are disproportionately common in a specific breed, but a single gene for them has not yet been identified.

Purebred Risks

While any cat can develop a genetic mutation that causes a disease, cat genetic disorders tend to be more common in purebred cats. This is because breeders select cats to breed for specific characteristics that can increase the risk of inherited problems. They may also breed cats that are too closely related from a familial perspective (inbreeding). In some cases such as munchkin cats (dwarf cats that have short legs) or severely brachycephalic (short-nosed) breeds such as Persians, the breed itself can have characteristics that can negatively impact the cat's quality of life. Potential and current pet parents should be aware of the concerns that come with caring for a specific breed.

For example, Munchkin cats are super cute (I mean, look at them!), but it's important to remember that dwarfism is actually a genetic mutation that can cause a cat to develop problems. Dwarfed cats often have joint problems and abnormally curved spines that can predispose them to herniated spinal discs. Furthermore, these cats can be expensive (some kitten price tags are over $1,000), and unsuspecting pet owners are often unaware that they could have steep veterinary bills.

Furry Family Trees

Did you know that cats and humans share more than 90 percent of the same DNA? The Tech Museum of Innovation at Stanford University points out that if you lined up a sequence of one hundred letters of genetic code, only ten would differ between you and your cat. We also share 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees and 80 percent with cows (and more than 60 percent with bananas, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute, so maybe we shouldn't get too excited).

Why compare cat genetics in the first place? Analyzing and comparing animal genetics provides a powerful way to study infectious diseases, such as immunodeficiency virus in both cats (FIV) and humans (HIV). Studying cat genetics not only helps us to care for our feline friends better, it helps us understand our own genetic disorders and develop new ways to resist and treat diseases that have a genetic component.

These days, you can actually have your cat's genetics tested through a simple sample collection at your local veterinary clinic. The veterinarian will send the sample off to a lab to be analyzed, and then you can get the results back in a few weeks. DNA tests can provide information, such as disease risk, best guesses at breed ancestry and even your furball's similarity to certain wild cat species.

Understanding cat genetics can help you take proactive measures to try to prevent disease and maintain the best quality of life possible for your furry friend. In doing so, you can gain information about your cat's ancestors and determine if your cat has any of the gene defects that are associated with inherited diseases.

It is important to note that even if your cat carries a genetic mutation that codes for disease, that doesn't necessarily mean that your cat will develop that disease. That is because a lot of these diseases are multifactorial or polygenic, and may require multiple genes to be involved or specific environmental conditions to be expressed. Your vet will be your best resource on what to do with the results of your cat's genetic test. Genetic testing helps you know your cat inside and out, and provide the best environment and care so that you can have a long and healthy life together.

Did you know that genetic research also helps play a role in choosing the right nutrition for your cat? In fact, Hill's Pet Nutrition cracked the feline genome back in 2008 and donated the results to Morris Animal Foundation for further research. We use this type of research to help create cat foods founded in research that interact with your cat's natural biology to keep her happy and healthy.

Cat with half orange half black face close up.

Breeding Caution

If you are planning on breeding cats, knowing the genetic predispositions of the breed and having breeding animals tested for genetic disease can ensure that you will not be forcing cats to pass on any genetic mutations to their offspring. This has been very helpful in the case of polycystic kidney disease (PKD) in flat-faced cats. PKD causes cysts to form in the kidneys of affected cats, which leads to premature kidney failure. PKD is a simple autosomal dominant genetic disease, which means that it is passed down to offspring even if only one of the parents has the mutation. A simple blood test has been developed to detect this genetic mutation, and the prevalence of PKD has been dramatically reduced by testing cats before breeding.

For the average pet parent, it's a good idea to have your kitty spayed or neutered to avoid starting any kind of breeding program in your house. Instead of taking home a purebred kitten, you can also look for adoptable kittens and cats at your local animal shelter. They might look like a genetic grab bag, but you'll be sure to find one whose blend of traits makes her a perfect companion for you.

If you want to have your cat's genes tested, there are companies that offer genetic tests that will offer breed ancestry, health and wellness recommendations. The University of California Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory also provides genetic testing for specific feline health conditions.

Knowing the genetic makeup of every hair on your cat's head is fascinating, but it's also important to treat her as an individual, with needs and personality quirks that you and your vet, not a breeder, know best. By providing good nutrition and a healthy environment and taking genetics into account, you can positively shape your cat's health and well-being.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Sarah Wooten

Dr. Sarah Wooten

Dr. Sarah Wooten graduated from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. A member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists, Dr. Wooten divides her professional time between small animal practice in Greeley, Colorado, public speaking on associate issues, leadership, and client communication, and writing. She enjoys camping with her family, skiing, SCUBA, and participating in triathlons.

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