A Feline With Funny Ears

WILLIAM ROSS, a shepherd, had an interest in purebred cats. One day in 1961, Ross visited his neighbor’s farm in Perthshire, Scotland. There he saw Susie, the neighbor’s cat. But Susie did not look like an everyday domestic feline. She was white and of mixed breed, but her ears, from about halfway up, folded forward and downward, giving her a rather comical look. Captivated with his find, Ross acquired a female kitten with folded ears from a litter Susie bore about a year later.

Ross then contacted a London breeder with an interest in feline genetics, and the two helped initiate a breeding program for Susie’s offspring. Not surprisingly, the breed received the name Scottish Fold. Since then, these cats have become very popular. British cat associations, however, have not accepted them for registry. Some have expressed concern that the cats might be prone to certain health problems stemming from the gene causing the fold. But this concern has not disqualified Scottish Folds from being registered in the United States, where a breeding program was established in the early 1970’s. Indeed, by the end of that decade, these cats had become show champions in that country.

Why the Fold in the Ears?

“What happened to your cat’s ears?” people often ask when they see a Scottish Fold for the first time. The fold in the ears is a result of a mutation in what scientists call a dominant gene. Even if a kitten inherits this gene from just one parent, it will be a Scottish Fold.

However, the degree of fold in the ears varies considerably, from no fold at all to a single, double, or triple fold. Susie, the original Scottish Fold, had a loose single fold. Show cats generally have a triple fold, where the ears lay flat on the head. Interestingly, Scottish Folds are all born with straight ears. But when a litter is about three weeks of age, breeders can begin to tell which kittens will develop folded ears.

Careless breeding of Scottish Folds can invite health problems.  For example, if the male and female both have folded ears, their offspring may develop a genetic defect such as congenital osteodystrophy, which results in deformities of the bones. Hence, reputable breeders will constantly outbreed by mating Scottish Folds with other kinds of cats that have straight ears. Breeders often use British and American shorthairs in outbreeding.

Another potential health concern relates to ear hygiene, especially with triple-fold cats. Because their ears fold so low to the head, they tend to become dirty inside. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Cat Breeds recommends that owners gently clean “inside the folds with a moistened cotton bud [swab].” But on the positive side, healthy cats “are not particularly prone to ear infections or ear mites, as was suspected some years ago,” says The Cat Site, an Internet Web site for cat owners.

Lovable Companions

Scottish Folds are considered to be mellow, affectionate, and intelligent cats. They live for about 15 years, and they seem to enjoy nothing more than a comfortable home life. “The Scottish Fold is a loving, placid and companionable cat which loves both humans and other pets,” says The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Cat Breeds. They have a soft, chirpy voice, which they use infrequently. Even when hungry, they will often just stand and stare at you until you feed them.

Like other cats, Scottish Folds come in many colors and color combinations and in both longhair and shorthair varieties. But it is their folded ears, spherical head, short neck, and owllike face with big round eyes that have made them increasingly popular. In fact, Scottish Folds have become one of the most sought-after breeds in the world. Potential buyers often have to wait six months or more before a kitten becomes available. Of course, if a customer wants a specific coat length, color, or sex, he or she may have to wait longer.

When William Ross chanced upon Susie in 1961, he probably had no inkling that the descendants of this lowly barn cat would become so well accepted, especially considering that the breed’s popularity lies not in some innate superiority but in a genetic mutation that is evident mainly in the ears.