THE PITTSBURGH REFRIGERATOR CAT - A 19TH CENTURY MYTH
The myth of the longhaired "Refrigerator Cat" strain has been repeated as fact in many cat books including those with well-known authors. Here are the facts behind the myth. There was no strain of "Refrigerator Cat", just a single litter of kittens and the family did not thrive. This was turned into a myth by a newspaper at the time and has been repeated ever since. The tale given by many authors says these "Eskimo Cats" were developed in 19th Century Pittsburgh to control vermin in refrigeration plants and could survive and breed at very low temperatures. After several generations, they were more at home in the cold than in daylight or normal temperatures, having heavily furred coats, thick tails like Persians and tufted, lynx-like ears. It's a story that appeals to many, along with the image of a lost 19th Century breed of cat.
Although authors ranging from Lydekker to Desmond Morris have recited this as fact, Ida M Mellen debunked the story in the late 1940s and Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald also debunked it in his book "Cats" (1958). So how did it all start? In 1896, Lydekker wrote the following in his Handbook to the Carnivora, Part I:
It appears that in the cold-storage warehouses of Pittsburg there were originally no Cats or Rats. The temperature in the cold room was too low. The keepers soon found, however, that the Rat is an animal of remarkable adaptability. After some of these houses had been in operation for a few months, the attendant found that Rats were at work in the rooms where the temperature was constantly kept below the freezing point. They were found to be clothed in wonderfully long and thick fur, even their tapering, snake-like tails being covered by a thick growth of hair. Rats whose coats have adapted themselves to the conditions under which they live have thus become domesticated in the storage warehouses in Pittsburg. The prevalence of Rats in these places led to the introduction of Cats. Now, it is well known that Pussy is a lover of warmth and comfort. Cats, too, have a great adaptability to conditions. When Cats were turned loose in the cold rooms they pined and died because of the excessive cold. One Cat was finally introduced into the rooms of the Pennsylvania Storage Company which was able to withstand the low temperature. She was a cat of unusually thick fur, and she thrived and grew fat in quarters where the temperature was below 30 degrees [Fahrenheit]. By careful nursing, a brood of seven kittens was developed in the warehouse into sturdy, thick-furred Cats that love an Icelandic climate. They have been distributed among the other cold-storage warehouses of Pittsburg, and have created a peculiar breed of Cats, adapted to the conditions under which they must exist to find their prey. These Cats are short-tailed, chubby pussies, with hair as thick and full of underfur as the Wild Cats of the Canadian woods. One of the remarkable things about them is the development of their ‘feelers’. Those long, stiff hairs that protrude from a Cat’s nose and eyebrows are, in the ordinary domestic feline, about three inches long. In the Cats cultivated in the cold warehouses the feelers grow to a length of five and six inches. This is probably because the light is dim in these places, and all movements must be the result of the feeling sense. The storage people say that if one of these furry Cats be taken into the open air, particularly during the hot season, it will die in a few hours. It cannot endure a high temperature, and an introduction to a stove would send it into fits.
Based on that account, Lydekker deduced that longhaired breeds resulted from the cat’s adaptability and capacity for change to suit different climates. While it is true that mutation and natural selection can create cold-weather adaptations, the Refrigerator Cat was a myth that has persisted into the modern day.
In 1936, Carl Van Vechten repeated the story in his book "The Tiger in the House": When it was discovered that the extremely frigid temeprature of the great cold-storage plants was not sufficiently bitter to exterminate the sturdy rats and mice some proposed the introduction of cats. The first felines carried into these bleak quarters did not thrive. Some of them, indeed, perished, but a few survived and, after a winter or two, grew an astonishing coat of fur, as thick as that of a beaver. The kittens born in this ice-like temperature were hardy little beasts, and it is said that now the cold-storage cats would pant and languish with nervous exhaustion were they exposed to a New York July day.
A leading American authority on cats, Mrs Ida M Mellen, investigated the Refrigerator Cat story very thoroughly. Mellen interviewed people who had known those cats and she showed clearly that Lydekker’s story was based on a highly inaccurate newspaper report.
There was no attempt to establish cats in the Pittsburgh cold-storage warehouse to combat rats – there had never been any rats in there. In reality, a cat belonging to one of the employees had given birth to a litter of kittens in one of the cold rooms, and had raised them. However those kittens were not distributed around the other cold-storage warehouses, because at that time there were no other cold-storage warehouses in the city. Far from the rise of a peculiar race of cats, adapted to withstand great cold, the family eventually died out.
Both Lydekker (who evidently failed to check the story himself) and the imaginative reporter (presumably a slow news day) had missed is, to modern geneticists, the most interesting point of all: the cats were a family of albinos. The mother was a pink-eyed albino and the father was also white. The male’s eye colour was unknown, but the kittens were all pink-eyed albinos so the father was either a carrier of that gene or was himself a pink-eyed albino. In all likelihood the parents were closely related. The cats had excellent hearing, but none of them could tolerate bright light due to their unpigmented eyes.
The Refrigerator Cats are often described as a lost longhaired breed, but the report – in spite of its various inaccuracies and embroidered facts - does not describe them as long-haired, only as having thick fur. Apart from their thick white fur and pink eyes they were ordinary domestic cats.