If you’ve never seen a Munchkin cat, all you have to do is imagine a kitty in a dachshund-like body. The Munchkin is a medium sized cat with a dwarfism mutation that produces a trait called Achondroplasia, which gives the breed short and stubby legs.
Breeding a cat with a mutation might not seem like a good idea, but the Munchkin cat has been known for nearly 100 years. The breed had a resurgence in the 1980s.
The History of the Munchkin
The Munchkin was reported as early as the 1930s in Great Britain. Although the breed was thought to be largely wiped out during World War II, a veterinarian reported on Munchkins in a 1944 veterinary journal. The Munchkin also surfaced in Stalingrad in the 1950s and New England in 1970, but it wasn’t until 1983 that the modern breed was accidentally discovered in Louisiana.
A teacher named Sandra Hockenedel found a short-legged pregnant stray that she named Blackberry. “She gave a male, Toulouse, from one of Blackberry’s litters to her friend Kay LaFrance and it is from these two cats that the breed was established using domestic cats as an outcross to ensure a diverse gene pool,” says The International Cat Association (TICA) website, which recognizes the Munchkin as an official breed.
LaFrance contacted Dr. Solveig Pflueger, chairwoman of TICA’s genetics committee, who studied the breed and found that the Munchkin’s short legs were the result of a dominant genetic mutation affecting the long bones of the legs.
Due to the presence of a mutation, many people in the cat world were afraid that Munchkins were not healthy, and the breed has drawn some criticism over the years because animal lovers argue that the cats cannot do normal cat activities, such as jump as high as other cats.
“The thought was that cats do better with normal legs,” says Kirsten Kranz, director of Specialty Purebred Cat Rescue (SPCR) in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “We haven’t had any [Munchkins] come through with any abnormal health issues.”
SPCR places approximately 600 cats per year in homes and has been in business for 15 years. “I think the question remains, is this something we want to propagate?” Kranz says. “On the other hand, we do have breeds with no fur and no noses.”
TICA accepted the Munchkin into its new breed development program in 1994. The breeding data showed that the short legs in the cat followed a dominant pattern of inheritance like that in the Corgi and the Dachshund, according to TICA’s website. After years of development and observation, the Munchkin achieved TICA Championship status in May 2003.
Leslie Bowers, business manager for TICA, which is based in Arlington, Texas, says that there have not been any proven instances of mobility problems in Munchkins. “I’ve seen the cats and they are delightful, they are just like a regular cat and can jump like any cat, they just have shorter legs,” says Bowers. “They can experience back problems due to injury, but any animal can do that. They don’t seem to have the genetic back problems as Dachshunds.”
The Cat Fanciers’ Association agrees. Although the cat hasn’t been recognized by the organization, this is only due to the fact that they have not been presented to the board of directors for consideration, says Joan Miller, CFA outreach and education chair. “CFA has a stringent breed acceptance policy which takes years for a breed to advance to championship status,” says Miller. “Research on the gene has been conducted by Tufts University and Ohio State Veterinary School of Medicine and they have found that there is no evidence to suggest that this gene hampers a cats’ mobility.”
But it’s important to keep in mind that the modern-day Munchkin breed is still relatively new and there is not enough evidence to prove or disprove possible heath problems in these short-legged cats. Some veterinarians say Munchkins may be more susceptible to lordosis, or curvature of the spine. “Yes, there may be some increased incidence of certain conditions such as lordosis,” says Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, a practicing veterinarian at Paws into Grace. “But on the other hand, the overall incidence of defects is not at the moment considered to be greater than those seen in other breeds of cat.”
The Munchkin is a confident and outgoing cat, which is not the least bit self-conscious about its unusual look. It loves to play and wrestle with its friends, and is frequently dubbed the magpie of the cat species because it often borrows small, shiny objects and stashes them away for later play. The Munchkin also has a hunter’s instinct and will chase mice or anything that moves, but at the end of the day this cat looks for nothing more than to snuggle into your lap.
Selecting a Munchkin
If you would like a Munchkin as a pet, first look for adoptable kitties in shelters and in rescues. But if you do decide to purchase a Munchkin cat, make sure to do research before selecting a breeder, advises Bowers.
It’s a good idea to go to the breeder’s home or facility and look around for cleanliness. Also make sure to see whether the cats have the capability to roam free at the breeding location. And be wary of breeder’s who are not willing to show you around their facilities or who are not forthcoming with answers to your questions.
Image: Mariko Kato via Flickr