breeding from healthy cats
The health of your future kitten starts with its ancestors. Genetically flawed, poorly developed, sick or defective cats cannot consistently produce healthy kittens.
Hybrid vigour really is a thing, and unfortunately pedigree animals, whether it be horses, cats or dogs, all lack the health and vigour we might see in the naturally evolved mixed breeds. Every pedigree animal comes with it's own host of health concerns, often specific to that breed.
A pedigree simply means a documented, verified and carefully controlled ancestry. Meaning the animal has been selectively and purposefully bred for certain characteristics or traits. This often means a couple of things, the gene pool from which that ancestry is derived is often smaller than that of a hybrid, if defects were present in the foundations of that breed then they become magnified by the close relation and concentration of those genetics within the ancestry.
Some of the health conditions and diseases affecting the Maine Coon cat are listed here (click on each one for more information)-
HEALTH TESTED LINES
Historically the health and vigour of the Maine Coon was weakened, as is the same for many pedigrees, by a lack of understanding, discovery and testing for certain defective genetics or conditions, meaning that cats who should have been excluded from the gene pool, were not.
New research, screening and education of the conditions affecting the Maine Coon cat now make it easier for breeders to determine the suitability of a cat for inclusion in their breeding program. However, many breeders are still not testing, screening or excluding cats that continue to weaken and compromise the gene pool. There are a few reasons for this, many breeders choose not to conduct screening based on many factors including logistics, costs, personal beliefs, or that they just do not need to because buyers do not ask or care. Many breeders also do not remove a cat from a breeding program for financial reasons. Removing a cat often means in excess of a £4,000 loss plus the cost of replacement at that same amount, totalling around £8k per cat, minimum. Keeping a cat in a breeding program is also a very personal decision. The breeder may feel that certain minor health concerns or conditions are outweighed by the merit the cat brings to the gene pool or breeding program.
So knowing that the Maine Coon breed is plagued by so many conditions and diseases known to be in part, linked to genetics and travelling through blood lines, it's essential that breeders work to strengthen the gene pool for the future generations. It's also important that kitten buyers support these breeders and stop buying from untested lines but in order to do this we need to understand the standard of testing to look for as statements such as these can be misleading-
'We breed from health tested lines'
'Our cats are free from genetic diseases'
'From health tested parents'
Many breeders use these terms to suggest that they are breeding from healthy lines. But as buyers we don't always understand exactly what such statements mean. Not all 'health tested' cats are equal and not all breeders take equal steps to be able to claim their cats are health tested.
HCM, SMA, PKD and PKDef all have known, linked, mutated genes specific to the Maine Coon breed. Cats carrying these mutated genes are at increased risk of developing the related conditions (there are no genetic test for patellar luxation or hip dysplasia). The DNA test is either a home cheek swab or by blood samples taken by a vet and verified against the cat's microchip number.These genes are carried in pairs so you may see the results written as n/n, meaning double negative for carrying that particular gene. Most cats sold into breeding are n/n for all of the known mutations as carrying even one copy can mean health problems, with the exception of PKDef as carrying one copy is acceptable in breeding.So statements like above may simply mean the breeder has run the readily available DNA test confirming there are no mutant copies of those genes. However, research, statistics and histology tells us that cats can and do still develop those and other conditions even though they test genetically clear of the known mutated gene. We do not fully understand all the genetics linked to such conditions and there are many other factors involved, but what we do know is that they have a genetic predisposition, therefor suggesting we can and should do more towards ensuring our lines really are health tested.
HCM (Feline Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy)
Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) is the most common heart disease seen in cats and often carries a poor long term prognosis for affected cats and treatment/management of this disease is lifelong. The prevalence of HCM in the Maine Coon breed, coupled with research and the discovery of the mutant gene specific to this disease in the Maine Coon, shows that HCM is in part, a genetic condition, meaning it can run in lines.
The DNA test screens for the presence of the known mutant gene linked to HCM and all breeding cats should be double NEGATIVE (n/n) for this gene.
So we know that by DNA testing our breeding cats and by excluding all cats carrying even one copy of the mutant gene does reduce a cats risk factor. But we also know that cats who are DNA tested and genetically clear (n/n) of the mutant HCM gene, can and do still develop HCM. This is because there are likely other undiscovered genes and many other factors related to HCM and specifically the development of HCM in Maine Coons, Therefor indicating that simply running a genetic test for the one mutated gene and assuming the cat/line to be free of Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) is not accurate and is not enough. Knowing what we do about the genetic predisposition of HCM, it's important that as breeders we are utilising the tools available to screen for heart abnormalities and to remove affected cats from our program. Thus vastly decreasing the risk of our kittens being born with or developing Heart complications throughout their life time. Currently the best most effective way to do this is by conducting an echocardiography (Ultrasound). Heart Echos should be performed by a RCVS recognised specialist in veterinary cardiology and not by a regular vet.
This is an ultrasound conducted by a feline cardiology specialist. Regular veterinarians should not be conducting these tests unless they have the relevant qualifications and expertise. It is advisable to screen cats either each year following their first birthday or at set intervals e.g 1, 3 and 5 years old. Cats found to have even slight HCM should be excluded from breeding programs.
patellar luxation and HIP DYSPLASIA
The Maine Coon is a large breed and is prone to knee and hip problems. Two common conditions affecting the Maine Coon are Patellar Luxation and Hip Dysplasia. There are many factors leading to the development of the conditions including, diet and nutrition, jumping from a height at a young age, repetitive jumping and landing on a preferred leg, twisting the leg or other injury, sliding or living on slippery surfaces including laminate floors. So given that there are so many variables it's really impossible to declare the conditions as being solely genetic. However research tells us that cats affected by these conditions are more likely to produce kittens who are also affected, particularly where two affected cats are mated together. Therefor demonstrating a genetic predisposition.
To lesson the genetic risk factor, breeding cats should be hip X-Rayed by a qualified veterinarian after the age of 10 months and on an ongoing basis once matured at around 2-3 years old.
This still does not mean your cat will never develop hip dysplasia as previously mentioned, there are many factors at play, but it does mean your breeder has been responsible and vastly lowered the risks for you bu understanding the status of their cats and planning the matings accordingly.
Health testing at WildBlue
In summary we believe that simply conducting a genetic test of a breeding cat does not declare it as being 'from health tested lines'.
There are many other factors thought to be genetic that can influence the development of conditions such as HCM and hip dysplasia and as breeders we believe it's responsible to fully utilise the testing and screening available to us.
This should be regardless of the cost, inconvenience and the inevitable casualties from our breeding program. It is extremely unnerving when you've spent thousands of pounds on a breeding cat, possibly imported it, grown it on for a year and have fallen in love with it, spent money on its screening and testing, knowing it could result in their complete removal from your breeding program. We have personally removed more cats than we have so far kept in our breeding. The financial losses are frightening and this is inevitably reflected in our kitten pricing, but we would rather make these investments and losses now, knowing that we are laying genetically stronger, healthier foundations for our future lines, than to repeatedly and irresponsibly breed further health issues into the Maine Coon gene pool.
For this reason, all our cats are DNA tested genetically clear for the mutated genes related to HCM, SMA and PKD without exception with a n/n result (double negative). We include a few cats that carry one copy of the PKDef gene as this has no affect on the cat and their health unless two carriers are mated resulting in a double gene affected cat. We never mate two carriers and testing DNA helps breeders to plan their matings accordingly. We heart echo our cats using one of the best in her field, Emily Dutton at Cheshire Cardiology. We are working our way through our cats as covid interrupted our screening program. So far we have screened both our stud boys and three of our Queens, with a further three booked in. We also hip X-ray our stud boys prior to breeding and to date three of our queens are also hip x-rayed. We also test for FIV and FeLv and are a negative cattery.