21 July 2011

now we are Eight...

Today, Foo Foo turns eight. She has lived with me for four years. She is a smart and beautiful purebred Maine Coon with a documented provenance, so to speak, and last year I received her papers from her former human mum. I was thrilled to learn her birthdate and her original name, Peconic Quwtie Pie, and decided to send out birthday announcements to a few cat-loving friends and acquaintances. As is typical of Maine Coons, she is determined to have her own way. Last year, the birthday girl chose to spend the better part of her special day asleep on a porch with her head in a shoe. This year's celebrations may be similarly low-key.

For those not familiar with this breed, the Maine Coon is frequently referred to as a "gentle giant".   At around 16 pounds, Foof is a mighty big girl, but to consider her gentle, one must pass helplessly into a dimly lit realm of myth. I learned very quickly that, darling as she is, she can also be bossy, saucy, possessive, and unpredictable. Any thing that you might have, a book, for example, an article of clothing, your keys, becomes hers on a whim and once hers, it is not surrendered graciously. Because her behavior is adamantly contrary to the sweet geniality associated with Maine Coons, I became curious.  That led me to genetics.

Here's a color version of the Beastie:

As you can see, she's patched, or blotched, with ginger and grey. Her papers identify her as a "Patched Tabby with White", which is another way of saying she's a Tortoiseshell or Torbie.  Although her paws and ruff are white, technically, she doesn't have enough white to be called a Calico which should be at least half white. As many vet techs and veterinarians, shelter workers and loving owners can attest, Foof and those cats whose coats are similar to hers are infamously known as Naughty Torties.

Sometimes it's called "Tortitude".   I was actually speechless when her veterinarian, a delightful woman of  thoughtful tact and diplomacy, said Foof had "the Demon Gene", a characterization that seemed rather too colorful.   I will certainly admit that her behavior can be ... difficult, at times, but I adore her no less for it.  To me, she is perfect.  In fact, as my perception of her is mired in some thick aspic of love and affection,  I think it only enhances her many charms.  I'm not alone.  A visit to the tortie page of a cat behavior website confirms this with comments like,

"She's a holy terror at the vet's"


"She has strong "preferences" about how things should be done, such as the perfect drip speed for the bathtub faucet. But she is never mean--she's just an independent thinker."

or this,

"I have to admit she does have a bit of tortitude, but it doesn't help that I spoil her. She can be very bi-polar at times. One minute she's purring as you pet her; the next minute she's biting your hand for no apparent reason."

Notice the common theme here: "she".  Torties and calicos are normally females.  Here's where a rudimentary genetics lesson is useful.   Females have two X chromosomes, males have one X and one Y chromosome.   Coat color is a sex-linked trait associated with the X chromosome so females inherit two color genes, one from each parent.  Males inherit only one.  The feline color genes that occupy the X chromosome are identified as either orange, "O" or not-orange, "o".   If the female cat inherits only one "O" gene, the non-orange "o"  patches will be expressed as some shade of black and her coat has tortoiseshell coloration. The predominant whiteness of calicos is  known as "piebalding".  It is caused by a white spotting gene which results in large patches of unpigmented fur.  Messybeast  is a UK based site with lots of good information about feline genetics and many other cat-related topics.   For a clear and entertaining explanation about coat color and the story of the genetically anomalous calico male named George, seek out the picturesquely titled, Cats Are Not Peas by Laura  Gould.

But what about the tortie reputation for difficult behavior?  Is there a connection between coat color and temperament or is this just a byproduct of accrued human prejudice?  My research so far has been  intriguing.   Numerous studies have demonstrated a link between coat color and temperament in cats, dogs, foxes, mink, rats, deermice, and fallow deer.  The association does not imply that coat color is responsible for behavior but rather that hormones and neurotransmitters involved in the way an animal experiences stress are closely connected to pigment production.  Investigate this site for a more thorough explanation.

Since we know the year but not the exact date of Bob's birthday, I'm choosing to honor him today as well.  He is in the initial stages of Chronic Renal Failure, the kidney disease all too common in cats.  He is being treated with a product called Rubenal, more familiarly known as medicinal rhubarb root. He is feeling much better.

A postscript: Foof's eight happy cat years equal 48 human years.  Bob's age is twice that: 96.

Update:  September 2012 findings from a new study on feline genetics reveal that cheetahs and domestic tabbies share a mutation responsible for blotched coat patterns.