British Shorthair is a relatively popular cat breed, especially in Britain and Turkey. Many websites, cat books, magazines and TV programs emphasize breed’s attractive traits: a round body, “chubby-looking” face and large eyes. The most common coat color of this breed is grey. For an unknown reason, breeders do not like the name of color grey and insist that British Shorthair is a “blue” cat (1).
We are told that the British Shorthair is supposedly an affectionate cat with a quiet personality. Moreover, British Shorthair is promoted as a very healthy breed. This is why people who are aware of Scottish Fold’s painful and debilitating condition, may decide to buy the British Shorthair instead.
You probably have heard the assertion that British Shorthair is “the oldest English breed” (2). The story of this breed goes like this: When Romans invaded Britain 2,000 years ago, they also brought cats with them (2,3,4). Of course, these Roman cats were of Egyptian origin (don’t they say this about all the cats?). These Roman cats mixed with native British wildcats (European wildcats?), and this is how British Shorthair came into existence (1). Later, breeder’s discovered these ancient Roman cats and gave them a name “British Shorthair”. During World War II, the breed almost went extinct but breeders managed to save it (1,2). End of the story.
If you have just read the beginning of this article and thought this article is another typical endorsement for British Shorthair breed, you got it wrong.
Did you know that everything you read about cat breeds is written from cat breeder’s point of view? As you may guess, cat breeders never show their breeds in a bad light. So the information about cat breeds, British Shorthair included, is one-sided, biased and often deceptive. This is why we are not convinced by breeder’s claims – and you should not be either.
British Shorthair is a Persian cat
Remember a story we told you of how British Shorthair cats originated? Roman cats hybridizing with British wildcats? We have to disappoint you – none of this is true. British Shorthair is not ancient. It is one of the breeds which was created from Persian cats (5,6,7,8). More specifically, it is a Persian cat.
You probably had this thought come across your mind: “This makes no sense! British Shorthair does not have a flat face and its fur is short!”
Well, Persian does not have one type of look. The image below illustrates Persian breeds. “Persian family” which consists of Persian, British Shorthair, Scottish Fold, Exotic Shorthair, Selkirk Rex and Chartreux. Of course, this also includes silver colored Persians or “Chinchillas” and pointed Persians – “Himalayan” breed (9).
Persian breeds look somewhat different from each other but genetically they are indistinguishable (5,6,7,8). It means that these cats have the same ancestors.
The differences in appearance are a result of the few genes responsible for coat types (short, long, curled) and degrees of brachycephaly or “flat head syndrome” – from moderate to extremely short muzzle.
British Shorthair has a moderate face type and a short fur. Chartreux could be easily confused with British Shorthair. Scottish Fold is the same as British Shorthair but has a gene that makes its ears fold – this same gene causes a disease osteochondrodysplasia (10).
Persian and Exotic were selected for extremely flat face, just their length of the fur is different. Selkirk Rex is the same as Persian, except for its curled hair.
It is worth to note, that Persians influenced many other cat breeds to some extent. Breeders choose to outcross their new breeds with Persians because it helps to achieve rounder body and a shorter head type quickly (11).
If British Shorthair originated from Persians, where did Persian cats come from?
Research shows that breeders created the Persian cat and its breeds from the natural cat populations of Western Europe (5,6,7). These cats had a genetic disorder that allowed breeders to develop the extreme looks Persians are famous for, but we will return to this topic later. We know what you think: Did Persians not come from Iran?No, cats that founded Persian breed were European – the name and the fictional history does not match Persian breed’s true origins.
To sum up, British Shorthair is a Persian cat that has a short fur and more normal looking face.
Is British Shorthair cat mentally handicapped? Maybe
British Shorthair is said to be calm, docile and an undemanding companion (2,4). They are generally inactive cats, not very playful and more passive (12). These behavioral characteristics make them good pets, especially for people who are annoyed by cats that exhibit typical “wild” behavioral traits: active, easily stressed, independent cats, having a desire to hunt.
Because British Shorthair is one of the Persian breeds, its behavior is very similar to that of Persians, Exotics and Scottish Folds. If you have ever interacted with any of these breeds, you will be quick to notice how differently these breeds behave. They appear much more “domesticated”, quiet and sometimes indifferent to the world around them (12), compared to cats without Persian ancestry.
Breeders would like to take credit for this distinctive behavior of Persian breeds, saying that it is a product of selective breeding. However, a genetic study on Persian breeds found a different explanation (8). The findings were surprising and thought-provoking.
Researchers discovered that Persian breeds have unique mutations in genes called CHL1 and CNTN6. Mutations in these genes are known to cause face and skull conformation changes– this would explain a “flat face”/ brachycephaly and a round body of Persian breeds. The face of British Shorthair may not seem flat at all, but it still has a mild degree of brachycephaly.
What’s more, mutations in CHL1 and CNTN6, combined with other neural genes, could be responsible for a distinctive behavior of Persian breeds. In humans, mutations in CHL1 and CNTN6 are associated with behavioral alterations, developmental problems and mental retardation(8).
It is very likely that these analogical mutations have similar effects on cats as they do on humans. We can conclude that Persian breeds are possibly mentally handicapped – they have so-called “Persian syndrome”. This genetic syndrome shapes cat’s morphology, by causing brachycephaly (from mild to severe), also making a body round, and at the same time altering cats’ behavior (8).
Breeders used “Persian syndrome” for their advantage: A genetic disorder was made into a desirable breed characteristic. It is not the first and not the last time when breeders exploited cats with disabilities and deleterious mutations and turned them into cat breeds.
Health problems of British Shorthair cats
Because British Shorthair is derived from Persians, it has similar health concerns.
Here is a complete list of diseases which have been documented in British Shorthair cats:
♦ Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) is a serious problem in British Shorthairs (13). Some cats with HCM may appear healthy, but others will show signs of congestive heart failure. In cats with HCM heart’s pumping power is weaker than normal. The heart muscle walls may eventually weaken and become unable to pump as efficiently. As a result, the kidneys may respond by causing the body to retain water and salt. HCM could cause the formation of blood clots that may also lead to thromboembolism. There is no cure for this condition.
♦ Polycystic Kidney Disease. Once thought to be an issue of Persians only, it was shown that this disease manifests in other Persian breeds too, including British Shorthairs (14).
♦ The urinary disease was found to be a cause of death in many British Shorthairs, in particularly males (15).
♦ Metaphyseal osteopathy– is a rare bone disease that produces severe lameness (inability to walk normally) and pain. Metaphyseal osteopathy usually affects limbs (16).
♦ Retinal atrophy and retinal degenerative disease may lead to visual impairment and blindness (17,18).
♦ Cataracts– A cataract is a condition in which the lens in cat’s eye becomes cloudy or totally opaque. Cataracts affect vision, and if not treated quickly, may cause blindness (19).
♦ Erythrocyte Pyruvate Kinase Deficiency– is a type of anemia (20). The symptoms are a severe lethargy, weakness, weight loss, jaundice (yellow discoloration of the skin and whites of the eyes), abdominal enlargement and diarrhea. Severe anemia can be life-threatening.
We have been taught to believe idealized and one-sided descriptions about cat breeds. But once we start to look through the lenses of science, superior qualities and exceptionality of cat breeds are beginning to fade. This is what happened with the British Shorthair as well.
More and more scientists and veterinarians are opposing the breeding of Scottish Fold cats because the evidence shows that all of them suffer from a painful disease. But how can we justify the breeding of British Shorthair? Where do we draw the line?
Cover photo: Dimitri Gaboreau
1. The Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (2015). British Shorthair.
2. Helgren, J. A. (2013). Encyclopedia of Cat Breeds. In A Complete Guide to the Domestic Cats of North America. Barron’s Educational Series, Hauppauge.
3. The International Cat Association (2014). British Shorthair.
4. Cat Fanciers’ Association (2013). Breed Profile: British Shorthair.
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10. Gandolfi, B., Alamri, S., Darby, W. G., Adhikari, B., Lattimer, J. C., Malik, R., … & McIntyre, P. (2016). A dominant TRPV4 variant underlies osteochondrodysplasia in Scottish fold cats. Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, 24(8), 1441-1450.
11. Lyons, L. A., & Kurushima, J. D. (2012). A Short Natural History of the Cat and its Relationship with Humans. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders.
12. Vapalahti, K., Virtala, A. M., Joensuu, T. A., Tiira, K., Tähtinen, J., & Lohi, H. (2016). health and Behavioral survey of over 8000 Finnish cats. Frontiers in veterinary science, 3.
13. Granström, S., Nyberg Godiksen, M. T., Christiansen, M., Pipper, C. B., Willesen, J. T., & Koch, J. (2011). Prevalence of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in a cohort of British Shorthair cats in Denmark. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 25(4), 866-871.
14. Eaton, K. A., Biller, D. S., DiBartola, S. P., Radin, M. J., & Wellman, M. L. (1997). Autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease in Persian and Persian-cross cats. Veterinary Pathology, 34(2), 117-126.
15. Egenvall, A., Nødtvedt, A., Häggström, J., Ström Holst, B., Möller, L., & Bonnett, B. N. (2009). Mortality of life‐insured Swedish cats during 1999–2006: Age, breed, sex, and diagnosis. Journal of veterinary internal medicine, 23(6), 1175-1183.
16. Adagra, C., Spielman, D., Adagra, A., & Foster, D. J. (2015). Metaphyseal osteopathy in a British Shorthair cat. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 17(4), 367-370.
17. Lyons, L. A., Creighton, E. K., Alhaddad, H., Beale, H. C., Grahn, R. A., Rah, H., … & Gandolfi, B. (2016). Whole genome sequencing in cats, identifies new models for blindness in AIPL1 and somite segmentation in HES7. BMC Genomics, 17(1), 265.
18. Menotti-Raymond, M., David, V. A., Pflueger, S., Roelke, M. E., Kehler, J., O’Brien, S. J., & Narfström, K. (2010). Widespread retinal degenerative disease mutation (rdAc) discovered among a large number of popular cat breeds. The Veterinary Journal, 186(1), 32-38.
19. Barnett, K. C., & Crispin, S. M. (1998). Feline ophthalmology: an atlas and text. WB Saunders Company Ltd..
20. Grahn, R. A., Grahn, J. C., Penedo, M. C., Helps, C. R., & Lyons, L. A. (2012). Erythrocyte pyruvate kinase deficiency mutation identified in multiple breeds of domestic cats. BMC veterinary research, 8(1), 207.