The Scottish Fold cat
The Scottish Fold story is one of longest, winding-est cat-breed stories yet, starting in China, making its way through Scotland, and finally landing in the United States.
It’s a cat breed that is now among the most popular in the world – ask Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran to show you pics of their Scottish Folds — and yet, some argue, should not even be allowed to be bred.
Let’s dig in.
What makes a Scottish Fold a Scottish Fold?
The “fold” in Scottish Fold refers to the fact that this cat’s ears bend over. These cats used to be referred to as “lops,” like the bunnies with floppy ears.
Other cats have erect ears. Why do the Scottish Fold’s fold over?
Scottish Folds actually have a genetic mutation called osteochondrosplaysia, OCD for short. It’s an abnormality that affects cartilage and bone throughout the body. The reason the ears flop over is because this mutation alters the cartilage that would normally support the ear.
The floppy ear is absolutely adorable, of course. The problem is that there are other medical worries associated with OCD.
Humans and cats have two of each gene for every trait (one from each parent), including the folded-ear trait. It only takes one copy of the gene for a cat’s ears to fold. A cat who has one copy of the fold gene and one copy of the straight-ear gene is “heterozygous.” A heterozygous Scottish Fold will have fewer problems related to OCD than cats with two of the fold genes, called “homozygous.”
Homozygous Scottish Fold cats can be severely affected by malformed bones and develop painful degenerative joint diseases when they are very young. Responsible breeders take steps to prevent matings that would produce homozygous Scottish Folds for this reason.
Heterozygous Scottish Folds can experience arthritis and other joint problems, but to a lesser extent and at a later age than homozygous Scottish Folds. And some lucky heterozygous Scottish Folds will not have any symptoms for their entire lives.
The problem with breeding Scottish Folds
It is unethical to breed for homozygous Scottish Folds because of their severe health issues. That leaves the only way to breed for Scottish Folds, which is the mating of a heterozygous (a cat with only one fold gene) with a straight-eared cat. These litters have a 50% chance of producing cats with folded ears, and a 50% chance of producing cats with straight ears. Combine those odds with the fact that Scottish Folds produce small litters, and you end up with very few kittens with folded ears.
It’s actually a little more complicated than that. Even though the fold gene is “dominant,” meaning that a cat only has to have one copy of the gene to have folded ears, there can be “incomplete dominance.”
Incomplete dominance means that the dominant trait – in this case the folded ear – does not completely take over the recessive trait – the straight ear. It shows up as a kind of mix of the two. I’ve heard it explained this way: red color is the dominant color for roses, so it should only take one red gene to have a red rose. But in incomplete dominance, a rose with one red gene and one white gene might actually produce a pink rose.
So, a cat can actually get the fold gene, and still not have noticeably folded ears. Sometimes a kitten may have folded ears when she is young, but then they straighten out. (Just to make things even more confusing, all Scottish Folds are born with straight ears. It can take 18-24 days for the ears to actually fold over!)
This makes ethical breeding of Scottish Folds very tricky (and some would argue, impossible. More on that below). A good breeder doesn’t want to accidentally breed a cat that seems to have straight ears, but really has a “hidden” fold gene, with another folded-eared cat, because that mating might produce a homozygous Scottish Fold with terrible health problems.
Not every cat association recognizes the Scottish Fold
Because of the health problems associated with the mutation that causes the Scottish Fold to have folded ears, the Scottish Fold has not been accepted by the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF), the main breed registration in the United Kingdom, or the Fédération Internationale Féline d’Europe (FIFE), an organization that represents 40 countries in cat fancy.
The Cat Fancier’s Association (CFA) in the U.S., among others, does acknowledge this breed, but admits that we still don’t know everything we need to know about safely breeding Scottish Folds. Are mildly-affected parents more likely to have mildly-affected kittens? What percentage of Scottish Folds are severely affected by bone and joint problems? There is still so much to learn.
CFA breeders today do believe that careful breeding between “Fold” and “Non-Fold” cats can eliminate some of the problems associated with OCD any cat lover would be concerned about, including stiff or shortened tails, and bone lesions.
So, today all well-bred Scottish Fold cats are the product of a breeding between a Scottish Fold and another cat breed. To be CFA-registered, a Scottish Fold must be a cross between a Scottish Fold and an American Shorthair or British Shorthair.
What is the history of the Scottish Fold cat?
We don’t know how long cats with folded-over ears have been around. In 1796, the Universal Magazine of Knowledge mentioned some wild cats in China that had folded-over ears. One hundred years after that story was published, an English sailor brought home a “drop-eared” cat from China. In 1938, a second cat was found with floppy ears.
But none of those cats had anything to do with today’s Scottish Folds.
Every Scottish Fold cat in existence today can trace his ancestry to a white barn cat called Susie. She was born in 1961 into a typical-eared litter at the McRae farm in Coupar Angus, a parish in Perthshire, Scotland.
Two of Susie’s own kittens had folded ears like their momma. Unfortunately, Susie was hit by a car and killed, but her folded-eared daughter, Snooks, was given to a neighboring farmer and his wife, William and Mary Ross, who were cat fanciers.
The Ross’ did two important things for the Scottish Fold breed: they registered the breed with the GCCF in 1966, and worked with two geneticists: Pat Turner and Peter Dyte, to establish a breeding program.
Snooks was first bred with a red tabby cat, and the male kitten from that litter, called Snowball, was bred to a white British Shorthair called Lady May. Together, they produced five folded-eared kittens. The Ross’ breeding program eventually produced 76 kittens in its first year: 42 with folded ears and 34 with straight ears.
But the breed the Ross’ established was a victim of its own success. Too many Scottish Folds were experiencing crippling deformities in their limbs and tails. Some of the cats also had ear problems, including infections, mites, and deafness, although these were eventually shown to be unrelated to breed. The GCCF eventually halted registrations for Scottish Folds and the breed was no longer accepted for showing in Europe.
The Scottish Fold finds its way to the United States
In 1970, Dr. Neil Todd, a geneticist who had no interest in cat fancy at all, imported three of Snooks’ daughters for a study on mutations at the Carnivore Genetics Research Center in Newtonville, Massachusetts. After he discontinued the project, the cats were found good cat-fancying, cat-breeder, and show homes. And the rest is history.
What does the Scottish Fold look like?
We already know about the ears, but the Scottish Fold has several other identifying features that set it apart from other cat breeds.
The Scottish Fold is a “round” cat. He has a round, domed head and round, broadly spaced eyes. He has a short nose with a gentle curve and a short neck.
The short-haired type of Scottish Fold has thick, soft fur in nearly any coat color combination. The long-haired variety – called Scottish Fold Longhair, Highland Fold, Longhair Fold, or Coupari – has, in addition to longer hair overall, exceptionally dense fur around her upper thighs and toes, in her ears, and on her tail.
This is a medium-sized cat. Females are around 6-9 pounds, and males are 9-13 pounds.
But back to the ears for a moment: I’ve been referring to the fold in the ears, as if there is only one kind, but there are actually three kinds of folded ears.
The “single” ear fold is a slight fold in the ear tips. In a “double” fold, about half the ear bends forward. In the “triple” fold, the ear folds more sharply, lying flat against the cat’s head.
Note that even though the ears are folding over, they can still do cat things: they can pivot to listen, they can flatten back in anger, and prick up when they hear dinner being served.
(Learn more about what your cat's ears are telling you in this post, "Why do cats put their ears back?")
What is the personality of the Scottish Fold?
This is an affectionate, sweet, charming cat. They are easy to live with and get along with everyone in the household: kids, cat-friendly dogs, and other cats.
They’re good eaters, and they appreciate being brushed. They’re not as active as other cat breeds, but they absolutely need interactive play with their guardians. They can get lonely and depressed if they don’t get enough time and attention with you.
The Scottish Fold is a playful and intelligent breed. This is a cat you can teach to play fetch. This is also a cat whose intelligence (and dexterity) can get him into trouble! Don’t be surprised to find yours opening a cabinet to help himself to a snack or to find a favorite toy.
(Although this one didn't get the message about "soft voices.")
The Scottish Fold is also known for sitting and sleeping in some strange positions. Folds like to sleep on their backs, and they’re also famous for sitting in the “Buddha position,” with their hind legs stretched out before them and their forelegs hanging down between. This is what I mean:
Are Scottish Folds healthy cats?
Although the Scottish Fold can be a relatively long-lived cat (some live past the age of 19) there is controversy about breeding this cat given the fact that what distinguishes it is, effectively, a genetic disease.
In the 1970s, British geneticist Oliphant Jackson conducted an X-ray study of Scottish Folds and discovered the bone issues that homozygous Scottish Folds experience. His report recommended a ban on breeding such cats, which is what happened in the UK and France.
In the early 1990s, a group of Australian veterinarians showed that all Scottish Folds, including heterozygous Folds, have abnormal bone development, especially in their ankle and wrist bones and tails. The conclusion of that study, which was later confirmed by additional studies in other countries, was that all Scottish Folds will eventually experience detrimental bone changes in their lifetimes.
You can see why breeding this cat is controversial, as lovely and cute as they are.
The other health problems that Scottish Folds are prone to are:
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). HCM is a genetic disorder and the most common form of heart disease in cats. It causes a thickening of the heart wall which makes the heart pump less efficiently. It can cause sudden death in a cat.
Polycystic kidney disease (PKD). PKD is an inherited and progressive disease of the kidneys, in which a cyst forms leading to organ failure. This disease can be detected through genetic testing or ultrasound. There isn’t a cure but there is treatment.
Are there any famous Scottish Folds?
Author Peter Gethers wrote two best-selling books about his travels with his Scottish Fold, Norton, including The Cat Who Went to Paris and Cat Abroad.
Maru, a Scottish Fold who lives in Japan, holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the Most Watched Animal on YouTube. Here is Maru doing what he does best:
Taylor Swift is currently owned by three cats, including two Scottish Folds (Meredith Gray and Olivia Benson) and one Ragdoll cat (Benjamin Button). They feature prominently in her Instagram account. This one is Olivia:
Ed Sheeran maintains an Instagram account just for his two Scottish Folds, named Calippo and Dorito, collectively referred to as The Wibbles. The Wibbles currently have 300,000 fans of their own!
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 Richard Malik Richard Malik is a Friend of The Conversation. Veterinary Internist (Specialist). “Cute and Condemned to Suffering: It's Time to Ban the Breeding of Mutant Cats.” The Conversation, 6 Dec. 2018, theconversation.com/cute-and-condemned-to-suffering-its-time-to-ban-the-breeding-of-mutant-cats-65874.