Tackling the Manx controversy by the tail

Everyone knows what a Manx cat looks like. The Manx is a cat without a tail, which has been one of the symbols of the Isle of Man for generations of holidaymakers, as potent and easy to remember as the Isle of Man TT Races. Hundreds of thousands of postcards must have been sold depicting Manx cats and the Manx cattery set up by the town fathers of Douglas on the island.

Even during World War 2, Miss Sladen's Stonor strain of Manx cats advertised Government War Bonds and became incredibly well known. The man in the street knows what a Manx looks like, but there is much more to the Manx cat than meets the eye.

Sometimes editors get worried when I suggest the potential subject of a Breed Review.

They worry about Manx because they don't have the appearance of a 'normal' cat. That's very true; most cats have tails ? Manx cats don't. The taillessness of the Manx is certainly the result of a genetic phenomenon; in extreme cases, the genetic phenomenon shows itself to be a lethal factor, and that's the point that makes editors draw back in alarm.

Ask most people in the street about the standard genetic health problems affecting dogs and you can bet your life someone will come up with hip dysplasia, deafness in Dalmatians, breathing problems in Pekes, 'rage' in Cocker Spaniels ? the list is long. But, few people know anything about cats, least of all that the Manx kitten in its pure (homozygous) form may show the classic symptoms of 'Spina Bifida' (see Genetics for Cat Breeders - Roy Robinson).

According to Reader's Digest Oxford ? Complete Wordfinder: Spina Bifida - a congenital defect of the spine in which part of the spinal cord and its meninges are exposed through a gap in the backbone.

The Manx breed is controversial, but sometimes you have to take controversy by the tail. Ah, yes! Not so easy with a Manx, though!

ORIGINS:

There is really only one significant tale (ha!) told about the arrival of Manx cats on the Isle of Man; a yarn that may have more to do with the quality of alcoholic beverages on the island, than reality:

'They are some as do say, me dear, that of a dark and howlin' night, with the winds gusting mightily toward that there rock, a vast ship of the Spanish King's Armada crashed and crushed to its doom. You could hear the screams of the sailors in some wild tongue none could understand, but all that survived that wrack, me dear, were three or four cats who sat upon Spanish Rock, as we do call it now, and washed the salt sea from their coats. These cats, now, they had no tails. I reckon as the sailors pulled them off tryin' not to drown. But those "betty" cats, they have kittens just like they are themselves; with no tails at all.'

Believe that, and you'll believe anything!

There is no doubt that ships from the gale-blown Spanish Armada of 1558 careened the whole length of the east coast of Britain, found their way through the isles north of Scotland and, still in appalling weather, left more wrecks on the rocky west coast, the Isle of Man and Ireland. Most every ship would have had its compliment of ship's cats (to keep down the rodents), but were any of them cats with no tails? It is highly unlikely.

It's always sad to pour cold water on any interesting notion of origin, but there are a couple of arguments to suggest that the Spanish Armada theory is a bit far-fetched. First of all, a feline census undertaken in Spain in 1898 did not reveal a single tailless cat.

Secondly, and in my opinion, more persuasive, the great Manx cat authority and breeder, the late Dr Kerruish, in studying the native Manx language, discovered that there was no specific word for a cat with no tail, as would certainly have been the case had such cats existed on the Isle of Man before the indigenous language declined and became little used.

This linguistic decline appears to have taken place in the first half of the 18th century, a good 150 years after the Armada. From such evidence, it seems likely that the genetic mutation that caused the Manx took place from the middle of the 18th century onwards.

THE GENETIC REALITY:

In extremely rare circumstances, the natural form of the cat can change to such an extent that the mutation can be readily seen. Little mutations are taking place all the time, but at a microscopic level.

Occasionally, a mutation is visibly large and this is called a 'macro-mutation'. I think a cat being born without a tail qualifies as a macro-mutation. Certainly, a friend of mine had no trouble identifying this particular macro-mutation when a kitten without a tail was born to one of her resident females.

Here was that spontaneous mutation which serves to set up a new variety. In this case, the kitten died. Had it survived, it could have served as a useful outcross to all existing Manx lines as there was not a single Manx cat to be found anywhere in its pedigree over a minimum of 20 generations.

It is how that mutation behaves, once it has been established, that is crucial for the survival of the new look. In the case of the Manx cat, the mutation is dominant which means that a pure Manx cat mated to a non-Manx cat would result in kittens which are all Manx.

However, I do not know of any pure breeding Manx cats (I may be wrong). The genetic symbol for a pure breeding Manx is 'MM' and to the best of existing knowledge, viable Manx cats have the genetic symbol 'Mm' ? in other words, one gene for the Manx appearance and one gene for non-Manx. Non-Manx expresses itself in there being a normal tail. What breeders guard against, if at all possible, is the pure form of Manx for it is the very purity of Manx gene which causes all the problems.

The late Roy Robinson in the series of his revised book, Genetics For Cat Breeders, summarises this contentious issue clearly:

'The Manx cat is well known as an established breed, but is also famous as a genetic anomaly... (the mutation) has profound effects upon the whole spinal column, apart from the absence of a tail. A number of visceral organs also seem to be affected in one way or another (Todd, 1964; Howell & Siegel, 1966).

And, 'It has been known for some time that Manx taillessness is inherited as a dominant trait... This has been confirmed and ... the accumulation of breeding data makes it highly probable, if not certain, that individuals homozygous for the Manx gene die prior to birth. The evidence for this is (i) an apparent absence of pure-breeding strains of Manx and (ii) a decrease of the average number of young per litter for matings of Manx to Manx. The reduction is from an average of about four to three living offspring per litter.'

This ratio corresponds exactly to the laws of genetics discovered by an Austrian monk called Gregor Mendel. If two Manx with the genetic codes 'Mm' and 'Mm' are mated together, over a series of matings the resulting kittens will be (in strict ratio) 1 x 'mm' (normal tail), 2 x 'Mm' (Manx, but not genetically pure) and 1 x 'MM' (pure Manx, which will die before birth, will be still-born or die soon after birth).

VARIATIONS OF MANX:

The Manx cat that goes to cat shows must show the physical characteristics described in Britain's Governing Council of the Cat Fancy's Standard of Points: 'Absolute taillessness is essential.'

This form of Manx is known as a 'Rumpy' and a very gentle examination of the place on the rump of the cat from which a tail would normally issue, reveals a little hollow. But the Manx gene also allows for three further grades of caudally challenged cat which are not allowed in Manx classes at shows.

First of all there is the 'Rumpy Riser'. Instead of there being a hollow, there is a definite rise of bone or cartilage at the end of the spine which interferes with the roundness of the rump. The second Manx form is the 'Stumpy', which obviously has a visible stump of tail. Finally, the 'Longie' has a reduced tail length generally at a mid-point between the stumpy and the cat with a normal tail.

There have been efforts to get rumpy risers, stumpies and longies recognised for show purposes, but the GCCF is only content that they should be given breed numbers and be allowable in the breeding policy for Manx cats. In this way, breeders are able to use intermediate forms of the breed in Manx x Manx matings that seems to reduce the problems caused by Rumpy x Rumpy matings.

CHARACTER:

Breeders who work with Manx cats have to be extremely disciplined and have shown themselves to be full of integrity and able 'to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune'. In taking on this breed, in which so much can go wrong; to work to eliminate weak breeding lines from the gene pool and, in so doing, produce an exhibition-quality Manx once in a blue moon, deserves all credit and admiration from their fellow breeders.

However, the man in the street rarely has any interest in the structures and politics of the world of the cat breeder. His concern is nearly always to do with the character of the Manx cat. I think I can answer that.

In more than 20 years of judging cats, I can on the fingers of one hand the Manx I have encountered who were less than superbly well natured.

One of my great favourites on the show bench at the moment is the amazingly titled United Kingdom Grand Champion and Premier Chatterley Ruissagh. He was born in 1991 and I met him again at a show just the other day. He is as sweet as a nut, purrs like a traction engine and just adores people. He is a roly-poly little bear of a cat.

Perhaps that is the attraction. With a tailless rump lifted high in the air and a rather John-Wayne walking action, the Manx are the bravado tough guys of the cat world.

They run like little bears and climb with astounding strength. I am told they are quite dog-like in their devotion to their owners and, with the double quality of their coats being a total delight to stroke, they fill a teddy-bear niche in the feline catalogue.

SUMMARY:

If the Manx cat was a new mutation of the domestic cat discovered towards the end of the 20th century, would it be 'recognised' and promoted as a new breed? I have to say, 'probably not'.

Already there are feline registering bodies outside Britain that will not recognise the Manx as anything other than a feline deformity.

The reason they are still seen in GCCF is because they are one of the traditional varieties of cat which were seen at the very first cat shows and for which the great Victorian authority, Harrison Weir, drew up a Standard of Points.

And, for all the controversy, Manx cats draw about them adherents who are remarkably passionate about the great qualities of an unusual and very distinctive cat.

General Type Standard:

Head: fairly round and large with prominent cheeks. Nose broad and straight, of medium length without break. Strong muzzle without any hint of snipiness. Firm chin and even bite.

Ears: fairly tall, set rather high on the head and angled slightly outwards. Open at base, tapering to a narrow, rounded tip.

Eyes: large and round. Colour preferably in keeping with coat colour.

Body: solid, compact, with good breadth of chest and short back ending in a definite round rump. The rump should be higher than the shoulder. Flanks should be of great depth.

Legs: of good substance with front legs short and well set to show good breadth of chest. Back legs longer than the front with powerful, deep thighs.

Taillessness: absolute taillessness is essential. The rump should be felt to be completely rounded with no definite rise of bone or cartilage interfering with the roundness of the rump.

Coat: double-coated showing a well padded quality arising from a short, very thick undercoat and a slightly longer overcoat. The double quality of the coat is of far more importance than colour or markings, which should be taken into account only if all other points are equal.

Colours and patterns: all colours and patterns are acceptable with the exception of the 'Siamese' pattern.

SCALE OF POINTS:

Head and ears: 20
Eyes: 5
Body, legs and paws: 30
Taillessness: 25
Coat Texture: 20
Total: 100

INFORMATION BOX:

There are no specific cat clubs catering for Manx cats. At the turn of the century the Manx Cat Club was founded, but was later incorporated into The Short-Haired Cat Society. In reality, Manx cats are catered for by every club concerned with British Shorthairs. The senior club is:
The Short-haired Cat Society and the secretary is Mrs D Goadby, 'Highridge', Parsonage Lane, Somerton, Somerset TA11 7PF. Her telephone number is 01458 272982.

© Alan Edwards
March 1998