Longhaired cats

How Did The Longhaired Cat Occur?

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At a glance

The coat of a longhaired cat occurred due to a mutation (alteration) of the FGF5 gene (fibroblast growth factor-5), which is thought to be an inhibitor of hair elongation. The longhair mutation is thought to have originated in Russia before migrating to other parts of the world.

Longhaired cats have an advantage in cold climates, as the thick-woolly coat protects the cats from the harsh winter weather.

Popular longhaired breeds include the Maine Coon, Ragdoll, Birman, Siberian, Turkish Angora and Persian.

Longhaired (and shorthaired) domestic cats (Felis domesticus) are descended from the African wildcat (Felis sylvestris lybica) which is native to the Middle East. A symbiotic relationship between cat and humans developed 9,000 to 10,000 years ago as people gave up their nomadic lifestyle and settled on the land.

African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica)
African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica)

Rodents were attracted to the grain stores, which were an easy meal, this, in turn, attracted wild cats who predated on the abundance of rodents. A relationship developed between farmers and cats, the cats protected food stores by keeping rodent populations down, and farmers protected cats from larger predators.

The image above shows Felis silvestris lybica to be a shorthaired tabby cat who is close in size to domesticated cats.

How did longhaired cats occur?

Tabby and white Siberian cat
Tabby and white Siberian cat

A landrace is a variety of plant or animal species which has genetically adapted to and is able to withstand the local environment in which it lives and is not the product of a formal breeding programme. Distinctive landraces of the cat include the Aegean, Cyprus, Van Kedisi, Siberian, Kellas, Khadzonzo, domestic shorthair and domestic longhair.

Chromosomes are found in every cell of the body, within the chromosomes are genes, which are made up of DNA that provides instructions for function, growth and reproduction. Each gene has a set position on the chromosome which is known as loci (or locus in plural).

Chromosome

Four independent mutations have been identified in longhaired cats. Mutation 4 (M4) is present in all longhaired cats. The affected gene is fibroblast growth factor5 (FGF5), which regulates hair length.

  • Mutation 1 (M1): present in Ragdolls
  • Mutation 2 (M2): present in Norwegian Forest Cats
  • Mutation 3 (M3): present in Maine Coons and Ragdolls
  • Mutation 4 (M4): present in all breeds of long hair cats, including Ragdolls, Maine Coons, and Norwegian Forest Cats.

The first longhaired cats arrived in Europe in the 1500s, from Turkey and Italian traveller Pietro Della Valle (1586 – 1652) is credited with bringing the first Persian cats back to Europe, arriving in his homeland of Italy in 1620 with them.

Harrison Weir describes longhaired cats in his book Our Cats and All about them dated 1889.

These are very diversified, both in form, colour, and the quality of the hair, which in some is more woolly than in others; and they vary also in the shape and length of the tail, the ears, and size of the eyes. There are several varieties-the Russian, the Angoram the Persian, and Indian. Forty or fifty years ago they used all to be called French cats, as they were mostly imported from Paris.

What are mutations?

Two types of cell division exist, mitosis and meiosis. A mutation can occur during both mitosis and meiosis. There are three types of mutation, substitutions, insertions or deletions of small or large fragments of DNA

Mitosis produces daughter cells which are exactly the same as the parent cell and occurs in all of the somatic cells of the body for growth, repair or to replace cells which have died. Cancer is the uncontrolled division of certain lines of cells. Any type of cell mutate, for example, liver, skin or brain cells while other cells within the body remain normal.

Meiosis is a specialised form of cell division which produces the reproductive sperm and egg cells which cause permanent alterations to the DNA sequence. It is estimated that one genetic error occurs in every million sex cells that are formed. [1] Mutations before or during meiosis will be in all cells of the offspring. Each parent cell (sperm and egg) contains genes which combine during fertilisation to provide the next generation with its own individual genetic profile (half from the mother, half from the father).

Most mutations are lost during meiosis because only a minuscule number of sex cells will go into the creation of the next generation, even if fertilisation does take place, some mutations are so severe that the embryo is not viable or the kitten dies shortly after birth. In other cases, the mutation is mild and is not noticed, is apparent and has no advantage or disadvantage, and sometimes it provides an evolutionary benefit.

Dominant and recessive genes

Genes are dominant or recessive. A dominant gene only needs one copy (from either the father or mother) to be expressed, two copies of a recessive gene are necessary for it to be expressed. The blue eye colour in cats is recessive, therefore if one parent has green eyes, and the other has blue, the offspring will have green eyes but may also carry the recessive gene for blue eyes. Therefore if the cat who carries the gene for blue eyes mates with another cat who also carries the blue-eyed gene, the litter may carry blue-eyed kittens.

The gene for longhair is recessive, therefore even if a kitten is born with the longhair gene, this cannot be expressed unless the cat carries two copies. If the cat who carried the mutated longhaired gene passed it on to its offspring, some of whom also carried the longhaired gene and inbreeding occurred, future generations could acquire a copy of the gene from each parent, which would then be expressed. Or, if two cats who independently carried the same random mutation mated, longhaired kittens would be the result. This is much less likely than a mutation which is fixed by inbreeding. Breeders can ‘fix’ desirable mutations (for example the curly coat of the Cornish and Devon Rex) by inbreeding.

Each parent has a pair of chromosomes, which the genes are located on. A dominant gene is symbolised by an UPPERCASE letter while a recessive gene is symbolised by a lowercase letter. The chart below shows longhair and shorthair inheritance. Note that the S is for shorthair which is dominant and s is for longhair which is recessive.

Heterozygous means the organism (in this case, the cat) carries two different alleles of a gene. Homozygous means the cat carries two identical alleles of a gene. Each parent will pass one copy from each gene, which when combined (mother and father), produce two copies in the offspring. The punnet square below outlines the possible outcome of mating shorthaired and longhaired cats.

For the ease of simplicity, let’s assume the mother’s genes are outlined in the left column and the father’s in the upper column. In most cases, it doesn’t matter, unless we’re discussing colour inheritance. As you can see, the mother contributes one gene, the father contributes one which means the offspring have two copies.

Punnet square

Both parents are shorthaired and do not carry the longhair gene

SS
SSS (homozygous shorthair)SS (homozygous shorthair)
SSS (homozygous shorthair)SS (homozygous shorthair)

One parent is homozygous for longhair the other is homozygous for
shorthair

SS
sSs (shorthair but carrying longhair)Ss (shorthair but carrying longhair)
sSs (shorthair but carrying longhair)Ss (shorthair but carrying longhair)

One parent is heterozygous and is shorthair but carries the longhair
gene, the other parent is homozygous for longhair

Ss
sSs (shorthair but carrying longhair)ss (homozygous longhair)
sSs (shorthair but carrying longhair)ss (homozygous longhair)

Both parents are homozygous for longhair and both are longhaired

ss
sss (homozygous longhair)ss (homozygous longhair)
sss (homozygous longhair)ss (homozygous longhair)

As you can see, two shorthaired cats can produce a longhaired kitten if they both carry the recessive s gene, two longhaired cats can produce a longhaired kitten, but two longhaired cats cannot produce a shorthaired kitten. A shorthaired cat who carries one copy of the longhaired gene is known as a carrier. Breeders used to have to carry out test matings to determine if a cat carried recessive traits (such as long hair or rexing), but advancements in DNA tests means it is possible to test cats for a number of genetic diseases as well as inherited traits (coat colours, length etc).

Longhaired mutation and its benefits

We know that the domestic cat is an ancestor of Felis silvestris lybica and had a similar shorthaired tabby appearance. At some point, a mutation occurred, apparently somewhere in southern Russia [2], which changed the DNA instructions in the cat’s coat length. New breed variations occurred as cats migrated from Russia to Turkey (Turkish Angora), Iran (Persian) and East Asia (Japanese Bobtail) via land and sea trade routes. It is also possible that the longhair mutation occurred in not one localised event, but the same mutation has popped up in cat populations multiple times.

Sphynx cat
Sphynx cat

Hairlessness has been reported several times. The first mention of hairless cats goes back to 1830 in the book A Natural History of the Mammals of Paraguay. Local Indians gave Mr and Mrs F. J Shink two bald cats, Nellie and Dick in 1902. These cats were referred to as Mexican Hairless. The Sphynx originates from four cats; two from Minnesota who were the bald offspring of a cat named Jezebelle. The other two from a cat in Toronto in 1966.

The success (for want of a better word) of a gene mutation depends on the effect it has on the animal. As we have outlined, sometimes the mutation is purely cosmetic such as a change in eye or coat colour and doesn’t impact the animal in a positive or negative way. Other mutations can be impairing, and will often die out.

It is estimated that every human carries between 5 and 50 genetic mutations that carry some risk for disease or disability. When the frequency of a mutation is 1% or greater in the population, it is known as genetic polymorphism. Common examples include blood groups, blonde or red hair, blue or green eyes and white skin.

In some cases, the mutation confers natural benefits to the animal. The African wildcat lives in a warm climate, therefore a short coat protected the skin from the sun, but wasn’t long or thick enough to inhibit the cat. As cats migrated to other parts of the world, sometimes a mutation benefitted the cat, in the case of the longhaired gene. Cats in cold climates have a better chance of surviving the frigid Siberian and Northern European winters than a shorthaired cat.

Advantages and disadvantages

  • Consider the hairless (well, almost hairless) Sphynx cat, which occurred as a spontaneous mutation in a barn cat in Canada and Minnesota. Without human intervention, this hairless mutation would quite probably have not gone further because a bald cat in a cold climate would be at risk of hypothermia.
  • Bacterial antibiotic resistance occurs due to mutations which is great if you’re a bacteria, but not an organism infected with a pathogenic (disease-causing) strain.
  • By default, mammals lose their ability to digest lactose (the sugars in milk) beyond infancy, but a mutation has meant some people are able to digest milk in adulthood (lactase persistence).
  • DNA errors are also common in viruses, which is why there are so many strains of the cold and flu. We may catch and recover from a cold or the flu one year because our body has made antibodies against that particular strain, but by the following year it has mutated and we do not have antibodies effective against that strain. Some animal viruses can also mutate and infect humans.
Sphynx cat
Sphynx cat

Selectively breeding longhaired cats

Eventually, cats moved from protecting crops to pampered pets and so the cat fancy took off. The first cat show was held at Crystal Palace on July 13th, 1871 and both longhaired and shorthaired cats were on display. Purebred cats are bred to a breed standard which outlines the specifics of a particular breed, and cats on the show bench are judged on a standard of points. Each cat is awarded points on the body, coat, head etc.

Breeders select cats for breeding who are particularly good examples of the breed which over time has caused some breeds to change. The nose of the Persian has become shorter and the Siamese has become leaner.

The coat is an important feature, particularly in longhaired breeds and selective breeding has ensured the coat is long and luxurious. The coat of mixed breed cats may not be as long as that of purebred cats due to the emphasis on selective breeding. It does not mean that random-bred cats are any less beautiful than purebreds, just that specific traits haven’t been selectively chosen over generations.

What other mutations have happened in cats?

To many, the word mutation evokes images of freaks with two heads or one eye, but in reality, mutations are just alteration in the nucleotide sequence of the genome. Many cats (and people) carry genetic mutations that we are not even aware of. Common types of mutation in cats include polydactyly (extra toes), hairlessness, curled ears, short legs and rexing (curly coats).

When a mutation occurs which changes the appearance of an animal, breeders will sometimes try to create a new breed out of this variant. The ethics of breeding cats with mutations hinges on the welfare of the cat. Simple changes to the colour of the coat or eyes that have no impact on the health or quality of life of the cat may be acceptable, but when it affects the welfare of the cat (short or long term), we have to ask questions which are beyond the scope of this article.

Breeds which arose from mutations include:

  • American Curl
  • American Bobtail
  • American Wirehair
  • Cornish Rex
  • Devon Rex
  • German Rex
  • Japanese Bobtail
  • LaPerm
  • Lykoi
  • Manx cat
  • Munchkin (and Munchkin variants)
  • Scottish Fold
  • Sphynx (and Sphynx variants)

Interestingly, the wild-type is a shorthaired mackerel tabby, so in theory, all cats who don’t match the wild-type carry mutations, this includes cats who are a solid colour, ginger, pointed cats, bi-colour cats, spotted, ticked and classic tabby cats as well as cats with blue eyes. As there are so many coat colours and patterns, I am not including these in the list of breeds.

Frequently asked questions

Norwegian Forest cat

What breeds of cat have long hair?

Long hair can be found in several purebred cat breeds as well as mixed breed cats.

  • Balinese (longhaired Siamese)
  • Birman
  • British Longhair
  • Chinchilla (shaded Persian)
  • Cymric (longhaired Manx)
  • Himalayan (pointed Persian)
  • Javanese
  • Maine Coon
  • Munchkin (long and shorthair)
  • Nebelung
  • Norwegian Forest Cat
  • Oriental Longhair
  • Persian
  • Ragamuffin
  • Ragdoll
  • Selkirk Rex
  • Siberian
  • Somali (longhaired Abyssinian)
  • Turkish Angora

Are longhaired cats friendlier?

The personality of a cat is shaped by genetics, the mother and positive, early interaction with people. Longhaired cats are no more or less friendly than shorthaired cats.

How big do domestic longhair cats get?

The size depends on the breed. Norwegian Forest Cats, Maine Coons, Siberians and Ragdolls are all large cats who can weigh between 6 – 11 kg. Mixed breed longhaired cats will usually weigh between 4-6 kg.

Will my cat be longhaired?

It depends if one or both parents carry the longhaired gene. Two shorthaired cats can produce longhaired offspring if they both carry the longhair gene. Two longhaired cats can only produce longhaired offspring.

How much do longhaired cats cost?

This depends on the breed. The average domestic longhair (DLH) from a shelter will cost between $100 and $200. This usually includes desexing, microchipping, worming and at least two vaccinations.

A purebred longhaired cat can cost anywhere between $800 and $2,000 depending on the breed. A rare breed will cost more and a pet quality cat will cost less than a show quality or breeding cat.

Do longhaired cats shed more?

Longhaired cats don’t shed more than shorthaired cats but because their hair is longer, it can seem there’s more in the home.

Do longhaired cats need to be groomed?

Cat grooming equipment

Yes, longhaired cats will need to be groomed once a day to remove loose hairs and prevent the coat from developing mats which are clumps of tangled hair which are extremely painful to the cat.

References:

[1 and 2] Gould, Laura (1996). Cats Are Not Peas. New York. Springer-Verlag.




Julia Wilson is a cat expert with over 20 years of experience writing about a wide range of cat topics, with a special interest in cat health, welfare and preventative care.Julia lives in Sydney with her family, four cats and two dogs. She enjoys photography, gardening and running in her spare time.Full author bio Contact Julia