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Sphynx history

The origins of the major hairless and Rex breeds are well documented elsewhere so I have included a summary only. In some instances there appear to be several versions of events, dates of origin or disagreement over some issues. Where this is the case, I have included all relevant information without prejudice. Other opinions are mine alone.


Hairlessness is a trait which has occurred in several places at different times. Hairless cats have been reported from Latin America in 1830. There are reports of this mutation occurring in France, Austria, the Czech Republic, England, Australia, Canada, USA, Mexico, Morocco, Russia and Hawaii. In addition, Devon Rexes are prone to baldness due to fragility of the hair and some LaPerm cats are born hairless.


Mexican, Canadian & American Hairless Breeds

Although there are written accounts from the 1830's of a Paraguayan "scant-haired cat", the first properly recorded hairless "breed" was the now extinct Mexican Hairless (also called the New Mexican Hairless). In 1902, a couple from New Mexico received two hairless cats from local Pueblo Indians. It was claimed that these were the last survivors of an ancient Aztec breed of cat. The Mexican Hairless cats were litter-mates and noted to be 25% smaller than local shorthair cats. They were normally whiskered and seasonally coated, growing a ridge of fur down the mid-back and tail during the colder seasons. The male, not yet sexually mature, was killed by dogs and the owners searched for a hairless mate for the female. In fact the loss was avoidable. The female could have been bred to similarly shaped domestic cats and the offspring back-crossed to their mother to re-establish the hairlessness trait. The female cat was sold as a pet and possibly exported to Britain or continental Europe in 1903 where she was exhibited, but apparently not bred. Even in 1902, enough was known about livestock breeding to have made this feasible. They resembled the modern Sphynx but were less extreme in face shape. There is the (remote) possibility that some later occurrences of random hairlessness trace back to this female since pet cats were not spayed in the early 1900s.

In "The Book of the Cat" (1903) Frances Simpson reproduced a letter written by E J Shinick to Mr H C Brooke regarding a pair of hairless cats which had come into Mr Shinick's possession. Brooke commented "A most extraordinary variety, of which next to nothing appears to be known, is the hairless cat, and we cannot do better than quote in extenso the description given by the owner of what, if his surmise should unhappily prove to be correct, was the last pair of these peculiar animals, a portrait of which we give. We can only add, while deeply regretting that Mr Shinick did not mate his cats, the earnest hope that we may hear that he has discovered the existence of other specimens."

"In answer would say my hairless cats are brother and sister. I got them from the Indians a few miles from this place. The old Jesuit Fathers tell me they are the last of the Aztec breed known only in New Mexico. I have found them the most intelligent and affectionate family pets I have ever met in the cat line; they are the quickest in action and smartest cats I have ever seen. They are fond of a warm bath, and love to sleep under the clothes at night with our little girl. They seem to understand nearly everything that is said to them; but I have never had time to train them. They are marked exactly alike - with mouse coloured backs; with neck, stomach and legs a delicate flesh tint. Their bodies are always warm and soft as a child's. They love to be fondled and caressed, and are very playful; will run up and down your body and around your waist like a flash.

"Nellie" weighs about eight pounds, and "Dick" weighed ten pounds; but I am sorry to say we have lost "Dick". We have never allowed them to go out of the house, as the dogs would be after them. They were very fond of our water spaniel, and would sleep with her. "Dick" was a sly rascal, and would steal out. One night last year he stole out, and the dogs finished him. His loss was very great, as I may never replace him. The Chicago Cat Club valued them at 1,000 dollars each. They were very anxious for me to come on with them for their cat shows, but I could not go. They were never on exhibition; as this is a small city, I feared they would be stolen. I have made every endeavour to get another mate for "Nellie", but have not been successful. I never allowed them to mate, as they were brother and sister, and I thought it might alter "Nellie's" beautiful form, which is round and handsome, with body rather long. In winter they have a light fur on back and ridge of tail, which falls off in warm weather. They stand the cold weather the same as other cats. They are not like the hairless dogs, whose hide is solid and tough; they are soft and delicate, with very loose skin.

"Nellie" has a very small head, large amber eyes, extra long moustache and eyebrows; her voice now is a good baritone, when young it sounded exactly like a child's. They have great appetites, and are quite dainty eaters - fried chicken and good steak is their choice. Have never been sick an hour. The enclosed faded picture is the only one I have at present - it is very lifelike, as it shows the wrinkles in its fine, soft skin. "Dick" was a very powerful cat; could whip any dog alone; his courage, no doubt, was the cause of his death. He always was the boss over our dogs. I have priced "Nellie" at 300 dollars. She is too valuable for me to keep in a small town. Many wealthy ladies would value her at her weight in gold if they knew what a very rare pet she is. I think in your position she would be a very good investment to exhibit at cat shows and other select events, as she doubtless is the only hairless cat now known. I have written to Old Mexico and all over this country without finding another. I would like to have her in some large museum where she would interest and be appreciated by thousands of people." E J Shinick, Albuquerque, New Mexico, February 3rd, 1902

Sadly, the Mexican Hairless was lost through lack of a breeding programme. There was reputedly a pair in Europe, but whether these were genuine Mexican Hairless or a new mutation was unproven. In 2006, it was claimed that new examples of the Mexican Hairless had been found. This remains to be confirmed. A true Mexican Hairless cat grows a ridge of fur along the spine in winter.

Hairless kittens (Bald Cats) appeared in in France (1932) but failed to thrive. In April 1935, the magazine "Vie A La Campagne" (Life in the Country) carried pictures from a 1932 cat show in Paris which had featured two hairless cats called "le chat nu" (the naked cat) shown as curiosities by Professor E Letard. The naked cats had been born to two different domestic females in the same household in 1930 though both died without reproducing in 1931. This suggests a degree of inbreeding allowing a recessive gene to be expressed. Some later reports refer to the French Sphynx being "resurrected" , but this would refer to the resurrection of hairless cats in general, not to a French strain. The French Sphynx (Le Chat Nu) never became an established breed in its own right.

Vie A La Campagne also reported the occurrence of a hairless kitten born to a shorthair female in Fêz, Morocco as well as occasional sightings of hairless cats in parts of Western Europe. The Journal of Heredity had two pictorial features of hairless cats. One (in 1930s?), nicknamed the "cat-dog", was born to a housecat in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was apparently born with open eyes, no whiskers and a precocious ability to crawl (characteristics said to occur in modern Sphynx cats). In 1938, veterinary professor E Letard reported two hairless kittens born to two Siamese cats in Paris, France but this may have been a re-reporting of the 1930s cats. The other Journal of Heredity report was of three hairless kittens born to a Siamese in Paris in 1950. The other six kittens in the litter were normally-furred. The hairless Siamese kittens were examined over several months by Professor Letard and reported to have whiskers and varying degrees of hairlessness; also the amount and type of hair changed during their first six months. When they were interbred, three more hairless kittens were produced, but there are no records of further breedings using these hairless cats so the mutation was lost.

 It was reported (in 1966, probably referring to the 1950s kittens) that Professor Étienne Letard of L'Ecole Nationale Vétérinaire d'Alfort in France had "resurrected" the breed of bald cats and it was noted that there were a few examples in Europe and America. The cats were reported as not born completely bald. The kittens had very light hairs which have scarcely thickened by the growth of a slight down during the first two months. After the kittens are weaned, this down falls away to leave them completely smooth. At the time, they are described as sensitive to cold, unaesthetic and not much admired by cat lovers and having only a technical interest. The report noted that the mutation had been fixed, but the breeding of bald cats was a flirtation for the specialist and did not have a great future.

The modern Sphynx (Canadian Hairless) may be advertised as the hairless cat from the scrolls of antiquity, but it derives from Canadian cats of either the 1960s or 1970s. It has variously been known as the Moon Cat, Moonstone Cat or Canadian Hairless and may be spelled either Sphynx or Sphinx, though the former spelling is more common. The history of the Canadian Sphynx is not continuous as the original bloodline has been lost, but the breeding program was restored when more hairless kittens surfaced later. The later cats were probably related to the earlier discovery, but there is no traceability.

The Sphynx's recessive gene mutation appeared more than once in Toronto, Canada but the cats were most likely related. Hairless kittens were discovered in Toronto in 1963 and it was established that the trait was due to a recessive gene. They were bred, but the breeding experiment was discontinued in the late 1970s. Though a number of breeders were working with these cats, the breed was not eligible for registration and many small breeding programs were started up, only to vanish without trace a few years later. Inexperienced breeders produced unhealthy or poorly fertile cats, signs of inbreeding. In 1973, the Journal of Heredity ran a report on these hairless cats. In 1978, the last breeding pair of cats from that breeding program went to Holland. The cats were brother and sister and though the female produced a litter of kittens, she rejected them. They did not manage to produce any further kittens which suggests poor fertility/infertility due to severe inbreeding. What was needed, were further female Sphynxes to widen the gene pool.

Coincidentally, also in 1978 (some reports erroneously state 1973, probably based on the report in the Journal of Heredity relating to the earlier hairless cats), a litter with hairless kittens was discovered among street cats in Toronto. The mother giving birth to two further hairless female kittens in separate litters in 1980. Since the gene for hairlessness is recessive, both the mother and the two sires must have carried the gene. It is likely that the parents of those kittens were unrecorded progeny from the earlier, failed, breeding program. The two 1980s females were sent to the Netherlands to the same person who held the last of the 1970s strain. He attempted to breed the two strains together. The male refused to accept either of the two new females and was neutered. It was discovered that one of the females was pregnant by that sire, but she lost the litter and with it the genes of the last authenticated Canadian Hairless of the earlier strain. The Sphynx breed was therefore developed using Devon Rex. Devon Rex sometimes occur with sparse fur. Rather than being totally hairless, the modern Sphynx derived from Canadian cats and other genetically compatible spontaneously occurring hairless cats has a light peach-fuzz on the skin and sometimes fur on the tail-tip. Unlike the Mexican Hairless, it does not grow a ridge of fur during the colder seasons.

A further Canadian Sphynx appeared during the early years of the breed; this being a hairless male farm cat found in Western Canada. Though acquired by a Sphynx owner in Washington state, he does not appear to have contributed to the modern Sphynx line. Possibly he was genetically incompatible or otherwise unsuitable.

In 1970, two nude cats (later named Starkers and Baldy) were cared for at the Blue Cross Animal Hospital in London's Victoria district. The pair appeared in the Daily Mirror newspaper apparently in spite of its "no nudes" policy! In 1975 and 1976, Jezabelle, a tabby shorthair farm cat owned by Minnesota couple, Milt & Ethelyn Pearson, had given birth to two hairless female kittens - Epidermis (1975) and Dermis (1976). These were later used to expand the Sphynx gene pool. The Pearsons' farm cats bred freely and there were hairless kittens born in several litters, suggesting a mutation several generations earlier followed by a degree of inbreeding. A hairless male barn cat occurred in North Carolina, but there are no recorded offspring from this cat.

In 1984, the Journal of Heredity carried again reported hairlessness in cats. This was a report of ten hairless Birman kittens born in England between 1978-1982. The hairless Birman kittens had short or absent whiskers and greasy skin. None survived beyond ten weeks of age, dying from various disease processes (this suggests some sort of metabolic disorder or immune system disorder). This type of hairlessness was already associated with a lethal gene following a study in 1981. In 1986 (unconfirmed date) a hairless cat turned up at a New York, USA animal show. The owner claimed to know of a hundred more in various locations around the world. In 1986 a hairless female was discovered in a colony of freely breeding domestic shorthairs in Bloomfield, New Jersey, but the owner apparently would not allow this cat or its normal haired offspring (which would carry the gene for hairlessness) to be used in the Sphynx breeding program. In 1993, a mother cat with three normal-coated kittens and one hairless kitten was rescued in Westchester County, New York. The kitten, known as Gracie, proved to have a different mutation. She produced normal coated offspring when mated with a Sphynx. In 1995 a hairless male kitten was born to two long-haired parents in Tennessee and was incorporated into the Sphynx genepool.

Hairlessness has, allegedly, also occurred at some point (no date was given) in Persian cats, a breed known for its long fur. In Persians, hairlessness was considered shameful; the existence of hairless kittens was therefore a closely guarded secret among those working with the affecting breeding line so that carriers could be eliminated from the Persian breed. Mutating genes have no respect for which breed they turn up in!

In 2004, the Cheops was apparently derived from Canadian lines of the American Cornish Rex. It has a very fine coat, approximately 1/8" long over the head, neck, back and sides and a slightly longer coat on the chest and hips, however this residual coat lacks the waviness of the Cornish Rex. The tail may have a tuft at the tip.

Throughout the world there are still reports of hairless kittens appearing in litters of feral cats and house cats. Hairless cats found in domestic cat litters may still be used in the Sphynx breeding programme to strengthen and expand the gene pool. Some of them are producing extremely hairless offspring, suggesting that several genes may be involved, not just a single simple mutation. Others, like the much more recent Peterbald (discussed later), prove incompatible with the Canadian Sphynx because they have a different mutation. In the USA, hairless cats have been found in North Carolina, Minnesota, Texas, Arkansas and Indiana. In Canada they have turned up in Toronto and in Western Canada (no precise location given). They have also occurred around the world although to date only the Canadian, Russian and Hawaiian mutations have given rise to distinct breeds.

Recent Mutations and Developments

Hairless cats still pop up out of nowhere due to mutation. Many are treated as oddities and are neutered because the trait is seen as detrimental. Elsewhere, the new occurrences may either be used to expand the gene pool of an existing hairless breed (if found to be genetically compatible) or used to create a whole new breed (if genetically different). In 2002, I received information about another hairless cat bloodline being bred. This is the Hawaiian Hairless (or Kohana Kat). These cats are claimed to be the only completely hairless cats, since they lack hair follicles and have a skin texture like rubber. The Hawaiian Hairless originated from a feral litter in Hawaii, and are due to a dominant gene which masks out the dominant gene for full-coatedness. Unlike the other hairless breeds where the mutation affects the function of the hair follicles, this mutation is allegedly different in that it causes the hair follicles themselves to be absent. There are unconfirmed reports that it is due to the mating of a Donskoy Sphynx to a Canadian Sphynx and the interaction of the 2 different genes.

In 2003, a magazine featured an almost hairless cat. Described as the result of inbreeding, it was bald apart from long whiskery guard hairs all over the body. It resembled the mythical "longhair sphynx" and was described by one correspondent as strange and rather ugly, but in a way that puts it back at lovely! A brother and sister born to a domestic shorthair have also turned up with a very similar mutation, but were homed from a cat shelter as pets and will presumably be neutered. There is a mutation known as "sparse fur" which eliminates all but the guard hairs, which tend to be short. The classical "sparse fur" mutation described in veterinary literature is associated short guard hairs, skin problems and unsightly brown exudate, but is by no means the only the only "sparse fur" mutation in existence.

The male, "Pyewacket" is owned by Tricia Janes and became famous in the LiveJournal community after she posted his photos. Pyewacket and his sister were born to a grey and white domestic shorthair of unknown ancestry. Both kittens were completely hairless when born, but later grew the sparse coats shown in the photos. Of the two, Pyewacket's coat is the sparsest and facially and in conformation the two cats differ. The majority of his hair is on his spine and tail and resembles a "balding mohawk (mohican)" haircut. He has hardly any fur on his head and very, very little on his legs. He has little hair on his face and none on his belly, ears or chest. When adopted, his age was estimated at 12 weeks, but a veterinarian revised that estimate to 4 - 5 months, but undersized compared to a regular cat of that age. He apparently likes to sleep under the bedcovers. Tricia describes him as resembling the original Mexican Hairless (which was 25% smaller than regular shorthairs and also had a sparse coat during the winter), rather than the sparse hair mutation.

Once the gene for hairlessness has appeared, it is possible to introduce it into other breeding programs. Whether this is desirable is a matter of debate. For example, the Hemingway Sphynx is a polydactyl hairless cat suggested in 2001 by a Don Sphynx breeder (it was previously nicknamed the Polyfynx). Around the same time, another breeder was using Canadian Sphynx and breeding them to Munchkins and domestics to produce the Minskin. The Minskin is neither a short-legged Sphynx nor a hairless Munchkin, but has its own unique look and is described as "fur-pointed". The Minskin is neither a short-legged Sphynx nor a hairless Munchkin, but has its own unique look.

Copyright 2002 - 2006, Sarah Hartwell