The joys of living with a white rarity.

THE WHITE MOGGIE:

When the first cat-like creatures were destined, through the processes of evolution, to become domestic cats, their natural colour was a fuzzy brown mackerel lined/spotted tabby.

It is not difficult to realise this was an evolutionary camouflage characteristic which helped the proto-cat to hunt and also to disguise itself successfully from its own predators. In Britain, we can see echoes of that distant past in the ways of the Scottish Wild Cat (Felis Sylvestris). But even within this most natural of cats there may well have appeared a colour mutation in the pure black, so-called 'Kellas' cat (My Highland Kellas Cats by Di Francis 1993). If so, this reflects the first colour mutation recorded in the domestic cat, centuries ago.

Of all the colour mutations, probably the most dramatic is that which has produced the pure white cat. Not only dramatic, but most intriguing, as the way in which this mutation works is not really completely understood.

It is tempting to believe this mutation appeared as a response to the environmental conditions in which the cat found itself. Imagine a landscape frosty and still, blanketed with that silence only experienced after a heavy fall of snow. An unnatural light flickers through the tall, brooding pines and the heavy silence is broken only by the swish of mini-avalanches cascading gently from the branches. And yet, there is another sound; almost at the edge of hearing, a careful scrunching of the snow; a hesitant movement at the corner of the eye as the little white cat, perfectly disguised against the brilliance of the snow, goes about her business of seasonal survival.

A pretty idea, but, unlike the vicious little stoat who changes his coat to become the regal Ermine, 'Madame Blanchette' remains pure white even when the snow melts and the fresh green of spring mercilessly reveals her whiteness to the world. The leopard cannot change his spots and the white cat is doomed to be in a feline spotlight from birth 'til death.

THE WHITE MOGGIE:

The great joy of the non-pedigreed cat is that it can come in all shapes, sizes, coat-lengths and eye colours. The permutations are endless. But, even if you take away the characteristic of endlessly variable coat colours, the white cat has very much to offer the moggie enthusiast.

I became very much aware of this as early as December 1970 when my wife and I were showing Jemima and Lillun in the non-pedigree classes at the National Cat Club show at Olympia. Not all that many pens away was September Lady II, owned by a Mrs Thawley. Then quite elderly, Mrs Thawley had been having a regular outing to Olympia with her generations of September Ladies, who were always presented so magnificently; spotlessly white and not a hair out of place. This little cat corresponded very well to the type of white cat favoured so much at the turn of the century with many examples from Ankara in Turkey swelling the ranks of the new pedigree varieties.

These 'Angora' cats with their single flowing coats, quite long noses and brilliant blue eyes can be still be found in Turkey where they are known as 'Kedi' cats. Perceptive breeders in America imported them in the mid- to late-sixties and a new variety has emerged re-creating the difference between Turkish and Persian cats.

Of Persian 'type' was one of the most-famous non-pedigreed cats of all time. Lady, owned by Mrs Francis, had been found as a stray in a sorry state indeed. Her fur was filthy, matted and full of knots, but tender, loving care from Mrs Francis restored the sweet-tempered Lady to pristine glory, allowing her to become a huge favourite with the dedicated judges of 'moggies'.

It is delightful to note that the Misses Creaton and Walker have had great success at the 1996 Supreme Show with their Tanya, a nine-year-old longhaired white who was Best of the Self-Coloured Group, winning over some real stunners.

The genetics of whiteness

I've got a fascinating book called Comparative Genetics Of Coat Colour In Mammals by A G Searle in my feline library. In common with the late Roy Robinson (the feline geneticist on whom we all relied), Mr Searle took most of his research findings from breeding Fancy Mice. They breed quicker!

It has been discovered that the dominant 'W' gene '-removes all melanin pigment from the coat and also reduces the amount of pigment in the eyes, so that there may be blue (eyes) on one or both sides, although more usually yellow -' One of the most-fascinating points about the white cat is that if it only has one 'W' gene, the white colour acts as a sort of overcoat, hiding the true colour of the cat 'underneath' if you get my drift.

When the white kitten is born, until it is sometimes as old as nine months, there can be a flash of colour on the top of the head which shows you what that underlying colour might be. If the cat has two genes for dominant white ('WW'), then there is no underlying colour, and whatever colour of cat it is mated to, all the kittens will be white.

Sadly, there is a side effect which is associated with the white cat. Many of the different mutations of white mice die early as the gene is a 'lethal' one, and although it certainly isn't as bad as that in cats, there are problems with deafness associated with the white coat. Indeed, when the white kitten is between four and six days old there MAY be a degeneration of the cochlea and saccule in the inner ear. Probably 80% of white cats are affected in some way or another, possibly leading to total deafness. This appears to be more common among blue-eyed white, although odd-eyed and yellow (orange)-eyed cats have been known to be affected as well.

Living with a deaf cat

A cat of any description is reliant on its senses, particularly those of sight, smell and hearing. Remove any one of these and the cat is seriously disabled. There may be many of you reading this profile who own a deaf cat and you know perfectly well what I mean ? accommodations have to be made to the cat's lifestyle to make it completely secure.

Despite what anyone might say, there is an independent streak to the cat which has to be seen to be believed! Any cat, given half a chance, will explore. For the deaf cat, such a situation is fraught with danger.

Under certain circumstances, even in an apparently safe environment, the cat will not be able to hear the approach of danger if that danger is down-wind. And then there is the road and speeding cars. Many 'complete' cats are killed every year on the road ? what chance the deaf one?

Immediately, therefore, there are restrictions on mobility. Territory is restricted and must be made safe. Within the home, one would think that there was no problem, but that is not the case as the element of surprise in a hasty or inconsiderate movement will make a deaf cat defend itself. Those who have lived with deaf white cats have told me that vibrations can be the answer here, with a gentle drumming on the floor as one approaches the cat providing an attention cue. Some cats have even been trained to respond to vibrations, for example to know when food is being served.

But, it is not all one-way attention from the owner. A deaf cat cannot hear itself make sounds so that mewing is often harsh and discordant, and wailing can be positively blood-curdling. Always the message is the same, however. The true animal-lover will make the accommodations necessary for the cat to live a comfortable life which is as natural as possible.

Care of the white cat:

Many readers will have a pretty good idea by now about correct feeding techniques and the maintenance of a healthy physical lifestyle for their feline companions, but for the white cat, grooming is a of paramount importance. There is nothing worse than a grubby white cat!

Oh, and believe it, cats can get dirty! Yes, they wash themselves, but there are occasions when even the most rasping of tongues cannot get rid of ingrained filth. The only solution is the bath!

Somehow, breeders of Persians appear to be able to do this with their charges and still come away with the correct complement of fingers, hands and eyes! These Persians are trained from an early age to tolerate the process. Some even seem to enjoy it.

Preparation is the key to success so that you can get your whitish cat through all the stages of the dreaded bath with as little fuss as possible.

The initial bathing should be done with an appropriate shampoo. Here, your vet will be able to advise. Don't use just any old product. It may contain extracts like. Laurel, which can well be lethal for the cat.

Always ensure the cat is in warm surroundings and make sure the rinsing is thoroughly completed. Some breeders and owners of white cats will tell you that the old-fashioned blue block in the final rinsing water will give the cat that extra little sparkle. And always make sure that the area around the mouth, nose and chin is kept spotlessly clean as the white cat may well develop a pigment extrusion on the chin which is a little like dried tar. We used to call this phenomenon 'chin grot'!

Dry the cat with a subdued hair-dryer or plenty of towels and make sure it cannot escape to anywhere where there are extremes of temperature. The drying time is the best time to get rid of any knots or tangles if the fur is long or particularly dense.

There are pleasures galore in living with a white cat, not least the knowledge that you have the companionship of a creature almost unknown in the wild and very rare numerically, compared to other colour varieties. You, too, will probably spurn 'Whitey' as a name, it being so traditional. Your mog will join the brigade of the White Knight, Fair Blanche, Blanco, Guiding Star, Sneewitchen - and you will always marvel at that coat which scintillates with reflected light.

© Alan Edwards, December 1996