Some Honest Thoughts About Cat Shows

It’s incredible what a difference four years makes.  Four years ago, I went to my first (and up until today, only) cat show.  This was before I’d really gotten involved with shelters or the cat behavior business, so my perspective was a little bit different back then.  My husband and I went because, aside from our love of cats, we just had to check out all the cat people gathered in one place, fawning all over beautiful and exotic kitties.  And I will tell you, the cat show did not disappoint.  We actually had a really fun time watching the cats be evaluated and judged, talking with several of the breeders about their cats, and (our favorite) watching cats attempt the agility course (you can read all about it on my old blog, and even see video footage of the agility course, here).  Chris and I had a great time and some fond memories that we still giggle about.  Ahhh…those were the days.

I don’t know if it was the rain, or the impossibly crowded parking lot situation that stacked the deck against my enjoyment of the International Cat Show in Portland this weekend, but it was an entirely different show than the one I experienced back in 2012.  There were a few of your typical inconveniences that didn’t get bonus points from me: first, it was SOOOOO crowded.  There were a ton of people at this three-day show, and I made it only about 90 minutes in the crowd.  I could barely see anything, the aisles were narrow and jammed with people, and it was HOT.  So hot.  And it bothered me that if I was that uncomfortable, how were the cats faring?  Most of them looked fairly relaxed (read: passed out).  A few (mostly in the judging rings) were meowing.  They had to be hot, too; most were contained in nylon tube-like tents with netting or plastic over them.  In fact, every 10 minutes or so, an announcer would get on the PA and say that it was hot and the cats were getting cranky, so please don’t touch unless you were invited to (which is good advice in general!).

Panoramic view of the cat show.

Panoramic view of the cat show. I took this from the least crowded spot I could find, so it was actually more crowded than it appears!

Aside from being in a physically uncomfortable place, I found myself struggling with questions about who all these people were, and their relationship with cats.  I am obviously not even a cat show novice in terms of my experience, so I’m coming from a place of nearly complete ignorance or naivety, for which I apologize. My purpose in going to cat shows was to learn more about specific cat breeds, and the whole cat breeding scene in general.  I’m coming from a place where I want to help cats and their people; whether they are purebred or shelter kitties makes no real difference to me in terms of wanting to improve their lives.  In fact, I have some amazing clients who are fans of, and own purebred cats, that they have bought from breeders.  I don’t want to alienate any of these caring people with my questions or ignorance – but I understand that some of the questions I have a hard time answering can be controversial and people can be quite passionate about their views. I’m writing down my thoughts and questions not to condemn breeders or the cat show industry, but to get some answers, because I honestly don’t understand some of the things that attending the cat show brought up for me.  Let me just say that I met several really nice, lovely people who clearly adore the cats that they raise, and cats in general.  I also met someone who I was very unsure about, who brought up even more questions, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

First, let’s get back to the cat show!  There were some incredibly beautiful and interesting cats…I took a bunch of pictures because what type of human who has the merest interest in cats could resist? (Click on a photo to get a better look.)

And the kittens?  Oh goodness, all of the kittens were so adorable.  Even the sphinx kittens (yeah, I said it).  I heard so many ooohs and aaahs from onlookers, little kids saying things like “I want one of those”!  Which leads me to my primary question:

Why do people buy purebred cats?

When I hear the question “why do people buy purebred cats”, I immediately want to tack on to the end of that question, “when there are so many cats in shelters who need homes and who cost a fraction of the price?”.  And it’s true – according to the ASPCA, approximately 3.4 million cats enter shelters in the United States every year, and each year, 1.4 million of them will be euthanized as the result of their circumstances.  So WHY spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a cat that you can even “pre-order” when there are loving cats just waiting for a home in a shelter for a minor cost (or even free)? 

Purebred cats are clearly popular, and the culture surrounding cat breeding and showing is growing in popularity as well, as evidenced by new breeds being approved on a regular basis.  In today’s society, however, it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone who decides to bring a pet into their home isn’t aware of the fact that there are so many animals in shelters who need families to take care of them (they may not know the numbers or the details, but surely they are aware of the problem).  

This leads me to the next question in my thought process.  Why might someone prefer a purebred cat to a shelter cat?

What is the difference between purebred vs. shelter cats?

This is where I get stuck.  I imagine that when you boil things down, getting a cat (no matter where you get it from) comes down to appearance and personality.  Because you can get any type of personality you might want in a shelter cat, I’m assuming that the big draw for fans of purebred cats is their specialized appearance (in conjunction with a personality type).  I can understand the logic of acquiring a cat because you love the look of the cat – there is no question that Bengal cats are stunningly gorgeous and Maine coon cats are majestically large and munchkin kitties are just plain adorable.  And I know that certain breeds are predisposed to having certain personality traits (like being more friendly, or smart, or active and energetic, etc.).  It must be a combination of both appearance and personality type that some people must have.  So is buying a purebred cat similar to buying a car you really love, like maybe in a collectible kind of way?  There are many different types of cars, all with different performance levels and “personalities”.  But a cat is not a car – it’s a living animal.  What is the difference?  Is there a difference? 

And here’s where things get really sticky.  I can understand why people might buy a purebred cat as a companion animal – again, it’s a combination of appearance and personality type that are particularly attractive to some folks.  What I don’t understand is the relationship between breeders and their cats.  Because the cats they breed can be tied to their livelihood or income, they must have more of a business relationship with their cats than if they were companion animals.  If this is the case, then:

Is having a breeding cat different from having a companion cat?

I have little knowledge of how breeders treat their breeding cats other than what I’ve seen at the two shows I’ve been to.  I’ve seen people be very loving to their show kitties, and they appear to be well cared for (they must be, in order to show, yes?).  But I know that breeding cats and showing cats can be two very different things – breeding cats are not always so well cared for, and animals can be bred solely for profit and financial gain, to the detriment and suffering of the breeding animals.  And it seems like breeding purebred cats just for the sake of doing the whole cat show thing is rewarding mostly for the human involved, not for the cat (buuuuut, I suppose I could be wrong about that; I did see a Siberian who looked pretty darn proud of that large satin green and white ribbon attached to her kennel!).  My assumption is that breeders/showers care for their animals but perhaps they have a different type of relationship with their cats (due to the business side of things) than a person who adopts a shelter cat (or even a purebred cat, bought for companionship) would have with their animal.  How can the relationship between a breeder and their cats be described?  And if they are selling non-breeding offspring to people who do want a companion animal, what are the breeders’ thoughts on their business as it relates to cats in shelters who need to be adopted to avoid euthanasia?

What is the relationship between cat breeders and animal shelters?

At the cat show, I found myself having a conversation with a woman who was showing a couple of her cats from out of state.  She started talking about the shelter in her area and proceeded to rant about how the lady who runs the local humane society hates her breeding business.  The woman I talked with said that her main gripe against shelters is that they need to make spaying and neutering more available – apparently the humane society there charges $80 per spay/neuter (which is completely reasonable in my opinion) and because the veterinarians donate their time for doing the surgeries, she doesn’t know where that $80 per surgery goes (because animal shelters apparently don’t need to pay rent, utility bills, provide food for their animals, etc.).  The woman said that none of her purebred cats ever ended up in the shelter – all of the animals you find in shelters are “outbred by at least five generations”.  I don’t know how that makes them any less deserving of a home (or if that statement is even remotely true), but it was clear that she felt her purebred animals generally stayed out of shelters by being “better” (she referenced behavior issues) and thus didn’t drain the resources that shelters need.

On an interesting related note, I just finished a class called “Animal Minds and Emotions”, and we read the book “Animals in Translation” by Temple Grandin.  She talked extensively about the effects of breeding and selecting for single traits (i.e., usually a specific desired physical trait) on dogs in the United States.  She wrote:

Any time you selectively breed for one trait, eventually you end up with neurological problems.  Once you start getting neurological problems, one of those problems is likely to be aggression, so it doesn’t surprise me that purebreds have more aggression problems than mutts.

Behavior problems, including aggression, are one of the main reasons dogs (and cats, too) are abandoned or surrendered to animal shelters.  While the numbers used in this example may be a little dated (Grandin’s book was written in 2005), she cited further information about the occurrence of fatal dog bites caused by purebreds vs. mutts:

In terms of behavior, the most important difference between mutts and purebred dogs is that purebreds are responsible for the large majority of fatal dog bites, not mutts.  One twenty-year survey found that purebreds were responsible for around 74% of all fatal dog attacks on people.  Seeing as how purebreds are only around 40% of the total dog population in the country, that’s pretty bad.

I’m not bringing this up to bash purebreds, but it makes me wonder if breeders are aware that breeding for appearance will eventually result in unintended consequences in behavior.  It was clear to me that the particular lady I spoke with did not understand this, and that she did NOT have a cooperative or positive  relationship with her local shelter.  And this leads me to my final question:

Can cat breeders and shelters have mutually beneficial relationships?

I’m sure that there are breeders who work with shelters to improve the lives of cats in each others’ care.  What does this type of relationship look like?  How can the relationship between breeders and shelters be improved for the benefit of all cats and their people?  I was so happy that the West Columbia Gorge Humane Society was invited to, and participated in, the cat show this weekend.  They adopted out a number of kitties, which was really awesome – I love that they were there and were able to scratch that “cat-itch” for some of the show attendees.  I believe that the cat show organizers donated booth space for the Humane Society to be there, which speaks volumes about the desire to have a positive relationship with shelters and rescue organizations.  These are the relationships that I hope can be fostered in the breeding and sheltering communities; it might take a bit of creative thinking, but perhaps it would be a wonderful opportunity to give people like me information about the good things that breeders and shelters can do for cats and their people…together.

I invite answers, clarifications, corrections, and discussion about the above issues and questions.  I’m sure I’m wrong in my assumptions of certain aspects of breeding and showing, so if you have information you feel would be helpful for me to get a better understanding of this culture, please let me know!  I truly am interested, and like I said earlier, I simply want to learn more so that I can be of better help to my clients and their people, or at least be better able to understand where they are coming from.

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