Manx Cats

The Manx cat, formerly often spelled Manks, is a breed of domestic cat (Felis catus) originating on the Isle of Man, with a naturally occurring mutation that shortens the tail. Many Manx have a small stub of a tail, but Manx cats are best known as being entirely tailless; this is the most distinguishing characteristic of the breed, along with elongated rear legs and a rounded head. Manx cats come in all coat colours and patterns, though all-white specimens are rare, and the coat range of the original stock was more limited. Long-haired variants are sometimes considered a separate breed, the Cymric. Manx are prized as skilled hunters, and thus have often been sought by farmers with rodent problems, and been a preferred ship’s cat breed. They are said to be social, tame and active. An old local term for the cats is stubbin. Manx have been exhibited in cat shows since the 1800s, with the first known breed standard published in 1903.

Tailless cats, then called stubbin (apparently both singular and plural) in the Manx language, were known before the 18th century on the Isle of Man (Mann), hence the name, where they remain a substantial percentage of the local cat population. They are descended from domestic cats brought by sea, of obscure origin, descended like all house cats from the African Wildcat (F. silvestris lybica) and not from native European Wildcats (F. s. silvestris), of which the island has long been devoid. In the Manx language, the modern name of the breed is kayt Manninagh literally ‘cat of Mann’ (plural kiyt) or kayt cuttagh lit. ‘bob-tailed cat’. Manx itself was often spelled Manks well into the late 1800s. There are numerous folktales about the Manx cat, all of them of “relatively recent origin” as they are focused entirely on the lack of a tail, and are devoid of religious, philosophical, or mythical aspects found in the traditional Irish-Norse folklore of the native Manx culture, and in legends about cats from other parts of the world.

The dominant trait of taillessness arises from a spontaneous mutation, the Manx taillessness gene, that became common on the island because of the limited genetic diversity of island biogeography (an example of the founder effect and, at the sub-specific level, of the species-area curve).

The name of the promontory Spanish Head on the coast of the isle is often thought to have arisen from the local tale of a ship of the Spanish Armada foundering in the area, though there is no evidence to suggest this actually occurred. Folklore has further claimed that a tailless cat swam ashore from said shipwreck, to found the established breed. However, tailless cats are not commonly known in Spain, even if such a shipwreck were proven. Further elaborations on the story even have it that the cats originally went aboard the fabled Spanish ship in the Far East, but this is probably a modern attempt to link the Manx to the unrelated Japanese Bobtail breed.

Regardless of the genetic reality, there are various Lamarckian folktales that seek to explain why the Manx has a short to no tail. In one of them, Noah closed the door of the Ark when it began to rain, and accidentally cut off the tail of the Manx cat who had almost been left behind. A mid-twentieth-century postcard from the Isle of Man shows a cartoon scene in which a cat’s tail is being run over and severed by a motorcycle, a reference to motorcycle racing being popular on the island, and an update of the Noah story. More postcards from a contemporary “How Manx Cats Are Made” series show similar scenes of another’s cut off by a train, and third’s bitten off by a fish. Because the gene is so dominant and “invades” other breeds when crossed (sometimes without owner intent or knowledge) with the Manx, some have believed that simply being in the proximity of a Manx cat could cause other breeds to somehow produce tailless kittens.

Another (genetically impossible) account claims that the Manx is the offspring of a cat and a rabbit, purporting to explain why it has no or little tail, long hind legs and a hopping gait. The cat-rabbit halfbreed tale has been further reinforced by the more widespread “cabbit” legend.

Populations of tailless cats also exist in a few other places in Europe, most notably Cornwall, only 250 miles (400 km) from Mann, an easy sail. A population on the isolated Danish peninsula (former island) of Reersø in the Great Belt may be due to the arrival on the island of shipwrecked cats of Manx origin. Similar cats are also found in Crimea a near-island Black Sea peninsula, though whether they are genetically related to maritime Manx cats or are a coincidentally similar result of insular genetic diversity limitations, like the unrelated Kuril Islands Bobtail, Karelian Bobtail and Japanese Bobtail, is unknown. The Manx gene may be related to the similarly dominant tail suppression gene of the recent American Bobtail breed, but Manx, Japanese Bobtails and other short-tailed cats are not used in its breeding program, and the mutation seems to have appeared in the breed spontaneously. Possible relation to the Pixie-bob breed, which also ranges from rumpy to fully tailed, is unknown.

Manx cats have been exhibited in cat shows, as a named, distinct breed (and with the modern spelling “Manx”), since at least the late 1800s. In that era, few shows provided a Manx division, and exhibited specimens were usually entered under the “Any Other Variety” class, where they often could not compete well unless “exceptionally good in size and markings”. Early pet breeding and showing expert Charles Henry Lane, himself the owner of a prize-winning rare white rumpy Manx named “Lord Luke”, published the first known, albeit informal breed standard for the Manx in his 1903 Rabbits, Cats and Cavies, but noted that already by the time of his writing “if the judge understood the variety” a Manx would be clearly distinguishable from some other tailless cat being exhibited, “as the make of the animal, its movements and its general character are all distinctive.” Not all cat experts of the day were favourable toward the breed; in The Cat: Its Points and Management in Health and Disease, Frank Townend Barton wrote in 1908: “There is nothing whatever to recommend the breed, whilst the loss of the tail in no way enhances its beauty.”

The Manx was one of the first breeds recognised by the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) (the predominant United States-based pedigreed cat registry, founded in 1908), which has records on the breed in North America going back to the 1920s.

Although tail suppression is not the sole characteristic feature of the breed, the chief defining characteristic of the Manx cat is its absence or near-absence of a tail. This a naturally occurring, cat body-type mutation of the spine, caused by a dominant gene. As with the sometimes-tail-suppressed Schipperke dog and Old English Sheepdog, tail suppression does not “breed true” in Manx cats. Attempting to force it to do so in the cats leads to negative, even fatal genetic disorders (see below). Tail length is random throughout a litter of kittens. Manx to non-Manx breeding will usually produce some Manx-type kittens; whether these are properly labeled Manx cats is up to the breed standard consulted. Manx cats are classified according to proportional tail length as kittens (the proportion does not change after birth):

  • Rumpy (rumpie) or dimple rumpy: having no tail at all, though often a tuft of hair where the tail would have grown from the rump
  • Riser or rumpy riser: having a bump of cartilage under the fur, most noticeable when the animal is happy and raising its tail end
  • Stumpy (stumpie): having a partial tail of vestigial, fused vertebrae, up to about an inch long
  • Stubby (stubbie): having a short tail of non-fused bones, up to about half an average cat tail
  • Longy (longie), tailed or “taily (tailie): having a half- to normal-length tail

Since the early days of breed recognition, Manx show cats have been rumpy through stumpy specimens, with stubby and longy Manx not qualifying to be shown except in the “Any Other Variety” class. Kittens with complete tails may be born in a Manx or Manx-cross litter, having not inherited the taillessness gene at all; these are not classified as Manx cats by any breed standards, and cannot pass on the gene, since they do not possess it.

The Manx is easily distinguished from the Japanese Bobtail, which also has a mutation causing a short tail and elongated rear legs. The Bobtail always has a stumpy to stubby tail, which is kinked or curled and has a slightly bulbous appearance, while the Manx has a straight tail when one is present at all. The Bobtail is also triangular-faced and long-eared, with a long body, like many other Asian breeds, and is frequently all-white or mostly white calico, with one blue and one green eye, in pure-bred examples (virtually any coat pattern is possible in either breed, however). The gene responsible for the bobbed tail in the Japanese variety is a recessive, and unrelated to the Manx taillessness gene, which has been associated with a pattern of health issues. The Pixie-bob breed also has a short tail.

Manx (and other tail-suppressed breeds) do not exhibit problems with balance, since that sense is controlled primarily by the inner ear, and in cats, dogs and other large-bodied mammals has little to do with the tail (contrast rats, for whom the tail is a quite significant portion of their body mass).

With Manx kittens born with stubby or longer tails, Docking (surgical removal) of the tail a few days after birth was formerly common. Although illegal in many jurisdictions (including most of Europe) today, the practise was formerly recommended, although with the caveat that the commonness of the practice meant that many spurious Manx cats, e.g. random British Shorthairs medically altered to look like Manx, were on the market.

Manx are small to medium-sized cats,broad-chested with sloping shoulders and flat sides, and in show condition are firmly muscular and lean, neither bulky nor fatty. Lane reported the original, native, naturally occurring pure breed as ranging typically from eight to ten pounds for males and six to eight pounds for females, with many smaller examples but only rare ones larger. The hind legs of Manx are notably longer than the fore legs, causing the rump to be higher than the shoulder and creating a continuous arch from shoulders to rump giving the cat an overall rounded or humped appearance, though the breed is comparatively long when stretched out. The fore legs are strong and straight. The shape is often described as rabbit-like.

Manx cats’ heads are rounded in shape, and medium in depth with a long neck. The face is often very expressive, with a small nose. The upright, round-tipped and front-facing ears are largish. The eyes are large, rounded and prominent,with their outer corners higher than the inner ones. Absent any bloodlines with a dominant alternative eye color (such as blue in Siamese or related ancestry), Manx usually have some hue variant of yellow (“gold”) eyes, and for show purposes follow the eye colour standards of the same coat colour/pattern in non-Manx short-hairs (or long-hairs, in the case of the Cymric sub-breed).

Manx cats exhibit two coat lengths. Short- or long-haired, all Manx have a thick, double-layered coat. The colour and pattern ranges exhibited should conform to the standards for that type of coat in non-Manx.

The more common short-haired Manx, the original breed, has a coat with a dense, soft, under-layer and a longer, coarse outer layer with guard hairs. The overall appearance of the coat is fine, short and lying close to the skin, versus fluffy or voluminous.

The long-haired Manx, known to some cat registries as the Cymric, has a silky-textured double coat of medium length, with breeches, belly ruff and neck ruff, tufts of fur between the toes and full ear furnishings. The CFA considers the Cymric to be a variety of Manx and judges it in the short-hair division even though it is long-haired, while The International Cat Association (TICA) judges it in the long-hair division as a distinct Cymric breed. The long-haired variety are of comparatively recent development. Lane wrote in 1903 that the Manx “to the best of my knowledge, information and belief, does not include any long-haired specimens”, in his detailed chapter on the breed.

Regardless of coat length, the colours and coat patterns occurring in the breed today run the gamut of virtually all breeds due to extensive cross-breeding, though not all registries may accept all coats as qualifying for show. The most common coats are tabby, tortoiseshell, calico and solid colours. Widely divergent Manx specimens, including even a colour-point long-hair of evident Himalayan ancestry with blue eyes, have been celebrated on Isle of Man postage stamps since the 1980s, and recent publications often show marbled and spotted varieties. The original insular stock, however, were of less widespread variation. Lane, having “seen a great many of them” wrote of Manx cats that “it is curious that the colours in this variety seem somewhat limited” and that the breed “does not comprise all the colours usually associated with other short-haired varieties”. He reported only very common black, common black and white, common grey-striped tabby, uncommon tortoiseshell, and very rare all-white specimens in 1903. Calico and point-coloured are notably absent from this list, as are even today’s common colourful tabbies. However, writing in England only five years later, Barton suggested that “the Manx may be of any colour, but probably black is the most frequently met with.” According to CFA, entirely white Manx cats still remain extremely rare. In some cases, white Manx may be worth over US$4,000.

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