The Manx cat
What happens when cats are left to their own devices on an island, surrounded by ocean for miles? One possibility is the Manx cat.
What is a Manx cat?
The Manx is a cat breed known for having no tail.
That statement is only partially true, however. Manx cats can have no tail, they can have a stump of a tail, they can have half a tail, or they can have a tail that is of average length. We’ll get into that in a bit.
The word “Manx” (which also used to be spelled “Manks”) is an adjective that describes people or things related to the Isle of Man, which is an island located in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland.
So, there’s a Manx language – a Celtic tongue indigenous to the people who live on the Isle of Man. There’s even “Manx English,” which describes the dialect of English that people on the Isle of Man speak. There are Manx Loaghtan, which are sheep, and a Manx shearwater, which is a kind of seabird.
And yes, there’s a Manx cat.
Manx cats are related to the African wildcat (felis lybica), just like all house cats. But what happens when an animal gets stuck on an island, with few, if any, new members of their species joining the population? There’s actually a whole branch of scientific study called “insular biogeography” devoted to this question. Without a lot of “immigrant cats” coming on to the island to add to genetic diversity, or even new predators, cats like the Manx can develop certain peculiar traits that get passed from one generation to the next.
The taillessness trait of the Manx is the result of a spontaneous mutation. It’s a genetic trait that became common on the Isle of Man because it’s, well, an island. The cats only had each other to breed with.
What is the history of the Manx cat?
We know very little of the Manx story. What we know is that cats were brought to Europe by Greek and Phoenician traders 3000 years ago. Those cats were probably Manx ancestors, just as they were the ancestors of other European breeds, including the British Shorthair and Norwegian Forest Cat.
The next thing we know, it’s the early 19th century. We’re certain there were “stubbin” or “rumpies,” as Manx are called in the common vernacular, in the 1800s because they were shown in cat shows.
There is a whole lot more that we don’t know about the rise of the Manx, than what we do. There are clues that could be pieces of the puzzle – or not. There are tailless cats in other places in Europe, including Cornwall, which is only about 250 miles from the Isle of Man. There are cats with no tails on the Danish peninsula (which used to be an island) of Reersø. There are cats without tails in Crimea. But we really don’t know that any of these cats are related to our Manx, or even to each other.
It’s possible that Manx cats made their way to these far-flung places (or vice versa) by ship. Or it’s just as likely that a similar genetic mutation arose in all of those places separately.
Tailless cats who are not related to the Manx
There are other tailless cat breeds that are not related to the Manx, including the Kuril Islands Bobtail, the Karelian Bobtail, the Japanese Bobtail, and Lombok cats from Indonesia.
How do we know they are not related? While the Manx gene for taillessness is dominant, the Japanese Bobtail gene (and most likely the Pixiebob gene), for example, is recessive. That means that while the Manx shares a common trait of taillessness with these other breeds, their taillessness is caused by different genes. The
The Manx gene might be similar to the tail-suppression gene in the American Bobtail. We just don’t know enough about it yet.
One more historical aside: while the Manx cat you’re probably thinking of is a shorthaired cat, there is a Manx cat with long hair, too. The long-hair gene was likely introduced during the Viking rule, when ancestors of the Norwegian Forest Cat skipped their Viking ships to party with the native cats. The longhaired Manx is considered a separate breed by certain cat-breed registries, and is called the Cymric (pronounced “kim-rick”). Long- and shorthaired kittens can be born into the same litter.
What is not true about the history of the Manx cat?
Folktales and stories about the Manx’s origin have arisen in the absence of fact.
One of the explanations for the appearance of tailless cats on the Isle of Man is that they swam ashore when a ship from the Spanish Armada wrecked. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that a Spanish ship foundered anywhere nearby, and even less evidence that there were tailless cats in Spain during that time period.
One of the more fanciful folktales holds that Noah slammed the hatch to the ark when it began to rain and the Manx barely slipped through, getting his tail stuck in the door. I can just picture Noah standing at the door, calling for a “selectively deaf” cat, because I’ve been there myself.
Another “explanation” for the Manx cat’s taillessness is that Irish or Viking raiders would steal kittens for their tails, which were considered good-luck charms. Loving mama cats would bite the tails off to keep their babies safe.
There are also folktales about “cabbits,” a fictional rabbit/cat hybrid. The tales “explain” why this cat breed has no tail, long hind legs, and sometimes, a hopping gait. Do I need to tell you that rabbits and cats cannot actually interbreed?
Another folk belief about the Manx breed that I’ll mention here, even though it is unrelated to history, is that a Manx cat only has to get near a cat of another breed to cause it to produce kittens without tails. The gene is dominant, meaning the trait only requires one gene to be expressed, making it easier, in a sense, for the trait to be passed on. But the only way to get tailless cats is the old-fashioned way.
What is the deal with the Manx cat’s tail (or no tail)?
The Manx is a Manx because of a naturally occurring genetic mutation. This mutation can actually cause a cat to have a tail of any length, from no tail at all, to a normal-length tail.
Manx cats are classified according to tail length:
Rumpy or dimple rumpy – A Manx cat with no tail. There is often a little tuft of hair where the tail would have grown had there been one.
Riser or rumpy riser – A Manx cat with a bump of cartilage under the fur where a tail should be.
Stumpy – A Manx cat with a partial tail, formed of fused vertebrae, up to about an inch long.
Stubby, shorty, short-tailed – A Manx cat with a short tail of non-fused bones. The tail is about half the length of that of an average cat.
Longy, tailed, or taily – A Manx cat with a at least half the length of a normal tail, but up to a full-length tail.
Why do Manx cats have tails of varying lengths?
Let’s discuss genetics for a moment. Cats have two genes for each trait, one from each parent. It only takes one copy of the Manx taillessness gene for a cat to have a shortened tail because the trait is dominant. In fact, if a cat gets two copies of the gene, it is likely that the kitten will die before it is born.
Early breeders tried to force the production of more tailless cats by breeding two tailless cats together, but that resulted in serious genetic disorders, and didn’t necessarily produce more tailless cats.
In fact, tail length is random throughout any litter of Manx kittens. This is because that one copy of the Manx tailless gene can have “incomplete penetration,” which means that it doesn’t get fully expressed.
Not all Manx cats are eligible for showing. Depending on the country and cat organization, only rumpies, rumpy risers, and stumpies may fit the standard.
Longer tails are actually considered a breed fault, even though the cats they are attached to are purebred Manx cats who are essential for use in breeding programs. Without long-tail cats to breed to tailless cats, there would be more fatal spinal deformities. (More on this topic below.)
It was actually once common to surgically dock longer tails a few days after a kitten’s birth. This practice is now illegal in many areas, including much of Europe. The commonness of the practice meant that it was easy to sell fake Manx cats to unwitting buyers. It probably still is.
As a side note, a Manx without a tail has no problem with balance. Many animals use their tails as a counterbalance when jumping or turning, including cats. But the Manx seems to be able to main its stability using the balance mechanism in the inner ear.
What does a Manx cat look like?
Let’s put the tail aside for a moment. What do you see when you look at a Manx?
One author, writing for The International Cat Association (TICA), says that the Manx, “reminds one of a bowling ball.”
This cat is all roundness: a rounded head on a longish neck, and large rounded eyes, on a slight tilt. The cat has a small nose, and largish rounded-tipped ears.
Even the Manx’s back is rounded: his hind legs are longer than his front, causing his rump to stand higher than his shoulders, giving him a humped or rabbit-like appearance.
This is a medium-sized cat, about 8-12 pounds. She has a broad chest, sloping shoulders, and flat sides. She should be muscular and lean.
The Manx comes in all coats and patterns, but all-white cats are rare (but not unheard of). The most common patterns are tabby, calico, and solid colors. There are tortoiseshell Manx, and even some color-pointed Manx cats, too. Most have gold eyes. They all have a thick, double-layered coat.
The longhaired Manx has a silky-textured double coat of medium length with “breeches” – longer fur at the back of the hind legs, like old-fashioned horseback-riding pants. This type has a belly ruff, a neck ruff, tufts of fur between the toes, and tufts in the ears, called “ear furnishings.”
There is also a curly-coated variety called the Tasman Manx. The curly coat is caused by a recessive mutation which arose in some Manx litters in Australia and New Zealand.
What is a Manx’s personality?
The Manx is a highly intelligent, playful, dog-like cat. They will follow their guardians around like puppies, and are able to learn simple verbal commands. Like dogs, they can be taught to fetch, and they enjoy carrying their toys around, or even burying them the way a dog might. Sometimes they are too clever. Many have learned to use their paws to turn a door handle to get to a room containing something they want.
A Manx is even-tempered and calm. These cats get along with children and other pets in the family, and are known to be protective of their families. A Manx is not above growling or attacking a dog or person they feel might be a threat. In fact, a Manx loves his family so much, he’d prefer not to be left alone for long periods of time.
(Interested in learning more about protective cats? Read this post, “Are cats protective of their owners?”)
What is Manx Syndrome, and why is breeding this cat controversial?
The problem with Manx is that the gene that causes the loss or shortening of the tail also affects the development of the spine and spinal cord.
Manx Syndrome, or Manxness, as it is sometimes called, describes what happens when the tailless gene shortens the spine too much. The effect is a form of spina bifida, meaning serious damage to the spinal cord and nerves that causes problems with a cat’s bowels, bladder, and digestion. Cats with this issue can have problems with urination and defecation. They can be partially paralyzed in the back legs. Many develop severe and painful arthritis.
Cats with Manx Syndrome can die suddenly. Some cats with the problem only live for three or four years. One study done on rumpy Manxes suggested that 30% had the disease, although this number gives a skewed perspective because of the population that was surveyed.
Most kittens with spinal problems are identified by six months of age and must be euthanized. Some experts encourage prospective Manx owners to wait those six months before taking a kitten home to ensure he doesn’t suffer from these problems. If you are looking to buy a kitten from a breeder, avoid kittens who have trouble walking, or who walk with a stiff or hopping gait. Insist on a written health guarantee from your breeder.
Manx Syndrome can be reduced by avoiding breeding tailless cats to other tailless cats, but there is still a question of ethics. Is it ethical to continue deliberately breeding cats with a genetic mutation that may give them a poorer quality of life, or may even result in death?
Unfortunately, Manx Syndrome is not the only health problem that faces this breed. The Manx is predisposed to megacolon, which is the abnormal dilation of the large intestine. Due to the absence of the tail, the smooth muscle that normally pushes stool to the rectum loses its ability to do so.
The Manx is also predisposed to intertrigo, which is a rash that forms between skin folds, and corneal dystrophy, which affects vision.
What is the Manx Cat Genome Project?
The Manx Cat Genome Project is a crowd-funded all-volunteer project that hopes to sequence the genome of the Manx cat. The long-term hope is to uncover the genetic mutations that make the Manx cat what it is, and to keep the breed healthy by identifying cats who should not be bred.
The questions the Manx Cat Genome Project hopes to answer include:
- Which mutations are unique to the Manx cat?
- Which other genes are involved in the health issues that Manx cats can sometimes have?
- What is the genetic basis for some Manx cats having tails of different lengths?
- Can we find any genetic basis for any health problems Manx cats have?
For more information, visit Manx Cat Genome Project.
Fun Manx Facts
- The Isle of Man uses the image of its world-famous cat on numerous postage stamps, on its 1980-83 penny, and on some commemorative coins.
- Stubbs, the honorary mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska until his death in 2017, was a Manx cat.
- Manx cat All Ball (followed by Lipstick and Smokey, who were also Manxes), were the companion animals to Koko, the gorilla who was known for communicating in American Sign Language.
- Stimpy, a main character on the animated TV series, The Ren and Stimpy Show, was portrayed as a Manx.
Enjoy this related post about another tailless cat:
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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 “7 Unusual Facts About Japanese Bobtail Cats.” Mental Floss, 10 June 2016, www.mentalfloss.com/article/80475/7-unusual-facts-about-japanese-bobtail-cats.
 “International Cat Care.” Manx Syndrome & Spina Bifida | International Cat Care, 6 Oct. 2019, icatcare.org/advice/manx-syndrome-and-spina-bifida/.
 Miko, Ilona. Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 2008, www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/phenotype-variability-penetrance-and-expressivity-573/.
 “Manx Breed.” Welcome to TICA - The International Cat Association, TICA Cats, TICA Pedigreed Cats, Pedigreed Cats, Pedigreed Cats Registry, Household Pet Cat Registry, Domestic Cat Registry, Savannah Cat, Bengal Cat, Persian Cat, Maine Coon Cat, tica.org/breeds/browse-all-breeds?view=article&id=837%3Amanx-breed&catid=79.
 The Cat Fanciers Association Inc.