The Cat Fanciers' Association put out a special media release to vilify her. Newspapers, magazines and television news shows are hot on her trail. And thousands of people have called, written or e-mailed her from all over the world to tell her -- often in crude and threatening language -- what a terrible person she is.
It's the hottest pet story around, and Vickie Ives Speir of Marshall, Texas, is at the center of it, because of her interest in breeding deformed cats.
She calls them "Twisty Kats," and the animals take the controversial short-legged munchkin cat one step further, with legs that are not only short but bent, with paws the breeder described as "vestigial" -- and in some cases missing. The mutation arises when two of her polydactyl -- a fancy name for "extra-toed" -- cats are bred. The animals that result can't walk normally, and bounce instead like kangaroos, using their front elbows for balance as they move.
Is a handful of cats in Texas worth the furor? Emotions aside -- and these cats surely do trigger emotions -- it's hard to say.
It can be argued that all this anger and energy aligned against the breeder could be better put into the bigger problems that cats face in our society, primarily homelessness and overpopulation. Like the munchkin breed before it, the "Twisties" will always be rare, and the total impact of the breeds will always be small compared to the larger numbers of needy cats. What's even a few dozen problem cats compared to the tens of thousands killed as "surplus" every year? Why don't we care more about them? Pedigreed cats in general make up a tiny fraction of the general cat population, less than 10 percent by some estimates. If Speir launched her breed full-force, few of us would ever find ourselves in the company of a Twisty, and few Twisties would ever end up in shelters.
Maybe the furor is a bit overblown, and certainly those who have threatened Speir have no business doing so. But what she is doing is most certainly wrong.
As animal lovers -- and Speir claims that she is one -- we have a pact with those animals in our care. It involves proper stewardship, making sure their physical and emotional needs are met, and they are protected from harm. But it also involves respect, and the arrogant act of meddling with an animal's functionality shows very little of that.
A cat's very nature is about movement, graceful and smooth, on four good legs. It's one of the things we love about them, one of the things that makes them what they are. Running, jumping, stalking: These are natural to a cat, and anyone who would deny them these behaviors is no friend to cats, and no animal lover.
Speir is welcome to care for her deformed and crippled cats for the length of their natural lives, and by all appearances she cares for them well. But when they are gone, let us hope they are the end of a line, and that we will have heard the last of one woman's twisted idea. Let us hope, too, that some of the people who are so vocal against her will be equally pro-cat when it comes to the larger issues.
PETS ON THE WEB
One cat-lover has put together a thorough site covering the Twisty Kats controversy (www.delmars.com/kitcats/twisted.htm), complete with links to newspaper articles, letters, humane groups and other related Web sites. The site also contains the breeder's own original -- and now defunct -- Twisty Kat Web site, with pictures of the animals. The Veterinary Information Network's weekly online pet-care poll (www.vin.com/poll/pub.html) will be on the topic of these cats the week of Jan. 10.
If you're dealing with a house-soiling problem, be sure you clean up any accidents promptly and thoroughly; otherwise, the smell will attract repeat business. Use products designed for dealing with pet messes. These liquid products contain enzymes that break down waste and neutralize odor. For fresh urine, one part white vinegar to four parts tap water is another effective smell neutralizer. Whatever you do, don't use ammonia-based cleaning products on pet messes. They smell like urine to pets, since ammonia is one of the by-products of decomposing urine. Instead of making the area smell clean, ammonia makes a mess site even more attractive to your problem pet.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We're expecting a new baby in a couple of months, and we're worried about our cat, Pumpkin. She's been our spoiled child, and we want to make sure she accepts the baby. I understand this won't be easy. My mother-in-law is even saying that cats are dangerous around babies and that we should find a new home for Pumpkin. We don't want to do that, but obviously we don't want to put our child in danger. -- N.P., via the Internet
A: You don't need to find a new home for your pet, no matter what well-meaning relatives and friends may say to the contrary. Cats do not maliciously smother or suck the breath out of babies, as the myths hold. Still, to best protect your baby, you do need to be aware of the facts and exercise a little caution.
It's fairly easy to see how this myth started -- with a cat's natural curiosity to investigate a new addition to the family coupled with a crib death (a mysterious tragedy about which even today relatively little is known). It wouldn't take much for someone who had seen a cat in the crib -- perhaps sniffing at a baby's milk-scented breath -- and later found a dead child to try to find an explanation for the loss by linking the two events together, even though we now know such a link is not based on fact.
Still, common sense dictates that no animal be left unattended with a small child. The Humane Society of the United States, which keeps statistics on injuries inflicted by animals on people, knows of no documented case of a cat smothering an infant by resting on the child's face. Other experts, however, point out that such a scenario, although unlikely, is feasible and suggest taking precautions, which makes perfect sense. You don't want your baby to be the first to be harmed in such a way.
Some parents have gone so far as to install a screen door on the nursery to keep pets out, a simple and relatively inexpensive solution that should soothe your mother-in-law.
As for Pumpkin herself, she should be fine. Cats thrive on familiarity and routine, so work at getting the household settled down as soon as you can. Put aside a little time for her every day, for petting, grooming and interactive play, such as with a string toy. Some cats stop using the litter box when under stress, and if that happens, set her up in a small bedroom -- with litter box, food and water, and toys -- to retrain her and let her chill out for a few days. Then gradually expand her territory.
Q: We want to breed our Lhasa-poo, because she is so wonderful and we want another one just like her. We're having a hard time finding a stud, and hope you can point us to someone who has this breed. -- D.F., via the Internet
A: A Lhasa-poo isn't a breed; it's a mix, a combination of a poodle and a Lhasa apso. The distinction is important, because chances are even if you did find another Lhasa apso-poodle mix to breed with, you may not end up with puppies like either mom or dad.
A breed of animal is one that has had its "type" set through selective breeding, in which people home in on the traits they do want and select out the traits they don't, until what's left is an animal that will breed true when mated with another of its type. If you breed a poodle to a poodle, for example, you won't be expecting short noses and straight hair. But if you breed Lhasa-poos to each other, you could get any combination involved in each of the two breeds they came from.
The popular crosses -- cockapoo, peke-a-poo, terr-a-poo and so on -- are wonderful pets, with a wide variety of body types and personalities. They are each individuals and should be celebrated as such. Spay your girl for her health and to fight pet overpopulation, and if you want another dog, keep an eye out at your local shelter. Mixes of all kinds -- and purebreds, too -- end up there every day.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Write2Gina(at)aol.com.
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