What is a Sphynx cat?
The sphinx – spelled with an “i” – is a treacherous monster from Greek mythology who spewed riddles and mercilessly terrorized anyone who couldn’t answer them.
The Sphynx – spelled with a “y” – is a hairless breed of cat that couldn’t be more different from its namesake. Despite the Sphynx’s often dour expression, it’s a jolly cat, who, according to some aficionados, tells “jokes,” clowns around for attention, and comes running to the door in excitement when his owner comes home from work.
What does a Sphynx look like?
The Sphynx is a showstopper, no doubt about it. You’ll never be at a loss for conversation when someone new comes over if there’s a Sphynx in the house. A Sphynx is not merely a housecat without hair; a Sphynx has a look and physiology all its own.
A Sphynx is a medium-sized cat, medium-boned, with a strong, sturdy body and elegant legs. A Sphynx has a barrel chest and full, round pot belly that makes the cat appear as if she just had a good meal (and probably she did). A Sphynx has unusually thick paw pads on oval paws that make her look as though she’s walking on little cushions, and a horsewhip of a tail that tapers to the end and sometimes sports a little tuft there.
But the face! The face is what makes this cat so singularly astonishing. The Sphynx has a triangular-shaped head, with a strong and well-developed chin, and wide-set eyes some describe as lemon-shaped. He has over-sized, bat-like ears that can be 2-3 inches high, and wrinkles galore. The whole effect is a “living gargoyle,” in the most beautiful sense.
The nakedness of the Sphynx
But the most notable physical quality of the Sphynx cat is not one of her unique features. It’s the lack of a feature.
Quite often when we describe cats, or name them, we refer to their glorious coats. We have longhaired, shorthaired and curly-haired breeds. We describe their coat colorings with terms like calico, tortoiseshell, tabby, bi-color, and “self” (solid colored). We elaborate further, describing “points” (darker markings on the face, paws, and tail), in every tone from ginger, to cinnamon and fawn.)
But the Sphynx has no coat.
Actually, the Sphynx is not truly bald. He has a fine coat of fuzz, and the feel of his skin is often likened to the texture of suede, or described as having a “buttery” feel. Color patterns can be seen on his skin – the colors that might have been there had there been fur: there are solid Sphynxes, tabbies, and tortiseshells.
There may be whiskers (and eyelashes), or not. Some Sphynxes display full whiskers, which contrast with their otherwise hairlessness. Some have broken or curled whiskers, and some have none.
Where did the Sphynx come from?
Hairless cats have been reported for generations, even millennia. They include, most recently, the Mexican Hairless or Aztec Cat, which is now considered a lost breed.
The first attempts at a formal breeding program began in 1966 in Toronto, Canada (which is why the Sphynx cat is also called the Canadian Sphynx) when a naked kitten was born in a litter of domestic shorthairs. This male kitten was named Prune, and backcrossed (mated) with his mother in an attempt to found a hairless breed of cats.
A few more naked kittens found on the streets were added to the breeding program, but the offspring of these matings were often unhealthy. Many of the females had convulsions and kittens died at an unfortunate rate.
About a decade later, two separate sets of hairless kittens were unexpectedly born in Toronto and in Minnesota. These kittens were each separately outcrossed with Devon Rex and Cornish Rex cats, and most of today’s Sphynx cats are descended from these litters.
Hairlessness is a naturally-occurring genetic mutation. It turns out that that hairlessness is a mutation in the same gene that produces the curly coats of the Devon Rex (but not the Cornish Rex).
Note that the Sphynx is not related to other hairless breeds like the Peterbald and Donskoy, which are the result of different genetic mutations and have different temperaments.
The temperament of a Sphynx cat
“Follows you around like a puppy,” said one Sphynx owner, which is appropriate because other terms commonly used to describe a Sphynx are more frequently used to describe dogs rather than cats: friendly, loyal, and loving.
In fact, the Sphynx is frequently described as “part cat, part dog, and part monkey,” the last bit because this cat breed is a bit of a clown and has a penchant for high places.
The Sphynx seeks out company and needs attention. She is social, and very dependent on her owner. A Sphynx cat does not enjoy being left alone for long periods of time. If you have one Sphynx, you’ll probably need two (at least).
A Sphynx cat is talkative and often communicates in a vocabulary of chirps, squeaks, and whines. If you’re looking for peace and quiet, a Sphynx cat might not be for you.
The Sphynx cat is a healthy breed
The Sphynx is a robust breed of cat, but they do have a few health problems worth mentioning.
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) is an unfortunate health issue that is associated with this breed. The disease causes a thickening of the heart muscle, which affects its ability to pump blood into the aorta. Symptoms include, among other things, loss of appetite and lethargy, and sometimes collapse and sudden heart failure. HCM can often be detected with an echocardiogram, which can be used to examine the electrical currents in heart muscles.
The only other serious diseases associated with this breed is hereditary myopathy, a condition affecting muscle function.
Otherwise, the Sphynx is prone to some skin issues, including urticaria pigmentosa, which causes crusty sores, as well as sunburn.
Sphynx cats also suffer from periodontal disease. They need regular teeth brushing and dental checkups, and many ultimately require teeth extraction.
Taking care of a sphynx
A Sphynx needs to be protected from sun damage, as well as cold. Many Sphynx owners purchase special UV-blocking attire to protect their cats’ delicate skin (choose only soft fabrics, like cotton or fleece) and keep them warm. Heated or covered beds provide warm refuges for a naked cat, and microwaveable heating pads are also helpful in maintaining these cats’ unusually high body temperatures (at least two degrees higher than most furred cats).
A Sphynx is not a low-maintenance cat. Although Sphynx owners don’t have to deal with shedding, they do have to maintain their naked cat’s oily skin.
Even though a Sphynx cat does not have hair, its skin continues to secrete oils that would normally keep fur lubricated and shiny. Without fur to absorb and distribute that oil, however, it accumulates, especially in the ears and on the paws.
Without regular weekly bathing, the accumulated oils, which harbor bacteria and fungi, can cause skin infections. Grime accumulates in the paws and ears especially and owners have to take extra care to keep these body parts clean. Sphynx owners will also find that without assiduous bathing, the oils transfer to the bedding and furniture in the home.
A Sphynx cat has a voracious appetite, presumably to keep up with the heat loss. This breed requires a high-quality, high calorie diet. A Sphynx cat is not for an owner who is unable or unwilling to meet this cat’s grocery needs.
Some Sphynx cats are famous. Ted NudeGent played Mr. Bigglesworth, a cat belonging to Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers Movies. His trainer, Tammy Maples described the chemistry between Ted and Mike Myers. "When Ted appeared on the set for the sequel, he hadn't seen Mike in months. Ted immediately ran to Mike's lap, jumped in it and began to purr. I believe Mike really loves Ted. On more than one occasion, Ted wound up staying in a scene longer than planned because he dozed off in Mike's lap."
And Rachel, a character on Friends, once adopted a Sphynx named Mrs. Whiskerson, in the episode entitled, “The One with the Ball.”
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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.
 Omlet. “Homepage.” Choosing The Right Cat For You | Cats | Guide | Omlet US, www.omlet.us/guide/cats/choosing_the_right_cat_for_you/cat_coat_types.
 “Signs & Symptoms of Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) Heart Disease in Cats, Treatment Options in Upstate NY |.” Upstate Veterinary Specialties, 27 Apr. 2017, www.uvsonline.com/hypertrophic-cardiomyopathy-hcm/.
 Curley, Kendall. “What You Need to Know Before Bringing Home a Sphynx Cat.” PetMD, 9 Aug. 2019, www.petmd.com/cat/care/what-you-need-know-bringing-home-sphynx-cat.
 Dale, Steve, and Tribune. “MR. BIGGLESWORTH EXPOSED!” Chicagotribune.com, 29 Aug. 2018, www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1999-06-08-9906080247-story.html.