KANGAROO CATS AND SQUITTENS REVEALED
There are many fanciful stories of cats mating with other types of animal to create peculiar cross-bred creatures. There is still a widespread belief that cats and rabbits can mate and give rise to "cabbits" (see What Is A Cabbit) and that cats can mate with other creatures as well. On encountering a "winged cat" in 1842 (see Winged Cats - What are They) Thoreau wrote:
"Some thought it was part flying squirrel or some other wild animal, which is not impossible, for, according to naturalists, prolific hybrids have been produced by the union of the marten and the domestic cat"
Modern genetics study shows that cat/rabbit hybrids, cat/racoon hybrids (cacoons), cat/squirrel hybrids and cat/marten hybrids are all impossible as the species are too dissimilar in genetic terms. Cabbits are usually Manx-type cats with an additional deformity such as spina bifida; cats with peculiarly short front legs due to radial hypoplasia [RH] (Twisty Cats and the Ethics of Breeding for Deformity) or one of the several bobtailed cat breeds (Bobtailed and Tailless Cats). There are also kittens born with straightened or twisted hind legs due to cramping in the womb (Twisted Limbs in Kittens), a developmental problem not a genetic one. In America, the Maine Coon breed got its name from a belief that it was a hybrid between shorthaired cats and native racoons. This is impossible though several naïve owners have tried to put a cat and a racoon together, ending up with an almighty fight and lots of flying fur rather than genuine first generation coon-cat kittens. In Ireland, the Pine Marten (related to polecats and stoats) used to be called "tree cat" and this can cause confusion to people reading historical accounts. In Canadian French, the racoon is called "chat sauvage", referring to its similarity to the robust, thick-tailed European or Scottish Wildcat (les chats sauvages) which the racoon slightly resembles, though with no true wildcats in the region, chats sauvages could also mean feral cats (for more information see Fanciful Feline Hybrids).
If winged cats and cabbits can be explained as medical conditions and genetic aberrations rather than hybrid animals, what is the explanation for squittens and kangaroo cats?
"Squitten" is a term used to describe supposed cat-squirrel hybrids. It derives from "squirrel kitten" meaning the offspring of a cat which has mated with a squirrel. The term has also been used by a cat owner whose cat nursed and reared an orphan squirrel baby alongside her own kittens.
A squitten is described as cat-like with a plumy tail and short front legs with paws resembling hands in which it can hold things. It sits on its haunches like a squirrel and can climb trees, but when on the ground it moves with a bobbing or hopping gait. As geneticist Roy Robinson reminded his readers, cats come in different colours and varieties - you cannot rely on appearance alone to identify a cat as a hybrid. He was talking about hybrids between domestic cats and other wildcat species, but the comment is valid here. No matter what squittens look like, cats are cats and squirrels are tree-living rodents - cats do not mate with rats, not even with cute fluffy-tailed rats!
Some longhaired cats naturally have long, but sleek (rather than fluffy) fur and plumy tails like the brush of a fox or squirrel. This gives them the appearance of a shorthaired cat with a fluffy tail. Some polydactyl (extra-toed) cats have the vestigial dew-claw converted into a finger-like toe and can become adept at using this like an opposable thumb. They may catch or pick up a toy between their two paws and sit back on their haunches to investigate it - this does indeed look squirrel-like. This explains the fluffy tail and the hand-like paws, but what about the bobbing gait when moving along the ground?
A condition called radial hypoplasia (RH or "Twisty") is associated with one particular form of polydactyly. While regular polydactyl cats have duplicated toes, cats with the gene for RH have a form which converts the dew claw into a finger. The effect of the RH gene doesn't stop there though. It also causes shortened and/or misshapen front legs. The cat finds it more comfortable to sit back on its haunches, like a squirrel, than to crouch like a normal cat. Crouching on all four legs puts its chest is closer to the ground than normal and probably puts a strain on the spine as well as on the deformed forelegs.
Jacob (above) is an RH cat owned by Jamie Fay who sent these photos in Jan 2005. The debris on Jacob's fur is catnip which he enjoys rolling in! He has a severe form of Radial Hypoplasia as his forelegs are missing almost entirely.
Roo, short for Rupert (above), is an RH cat photographed by Jocelyne Durrenberger of the Metrowest Animal Awareness Society. The photos show him aged about 4 months old. Both front legs are stunted, with malformed radial and ulnar bones. He walks mostly on his elbows, or hops like a kangaroo. Jocelyne has tried bracing the right leg so he can walk upright as he has already broken a tooth from bumping his head. Roo had a polyp on his left lid and was awaiting surgery at the time the photos were taken.
Cats are very adaptable creatures. Because of the inequality in the size of their legs, RH cats have peculiar ways of getting about. Those with mild RH appear to hop like rabbits, sitting up and resting their front legs every so often (this may have lead to some of the reported cabbit sightings). Those with a moderate form might compensate for their vestigial forelegs by learning to bound on their hind legs like a kangaroo. The hind legs become well muscled due to being the main form of locomotion and the tail may be used as a support when the cat sits upright. The most severely affected cats push themselves along with their hind legs while their useless front "flippers" scrabble or move with a swimming motion.
RH cats with less severe forms of the condition can climb by bracing themselves or pushing themselves upwards with their back legs and gripping with the claws of their front paws. Unlike squirrels, they are not agile once up in a tree and they have great difficulty climbing down - a normal cat's forelegs act as shock absorbers when it lands, but an RH cat has no shock absorbers and its chest and head will hit the ground. They have a similar problem with stairs although some have learnt to descend stairs backwards to compensate.
Far from being squirrel-cat hybrids, squittens can be explained as longhair cats with radial hypoplasia - this accounts for the plumy tail and for the short forelegs, hand-like paws, sitting on haunches and the bobbing gait when they move.
"Squitten" is the more common term although such cats have also been called "dinosaur cats" or "kangaroo cats" because they resemble a kangaroo or the Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur in having tiny front legs, longer hind legs and a preference for sitting upright. The unfortunate Twisty Cats have been dubbed kangaroo cats in the press, however true "Kangaroo Cats" are caused by a different condition altogether.
No-one seriously suggests that kangaroo cats are cat/kangaroo hybrids. Even if you found a cat-sized kangaroo, a cat is a placental and a kangaroo is a marsupial. They simply could not hybridise. The term "kangaroo cat" simply describes a cat which resembles a kangaroo in appearance and behaviour. Cats with moderate to severe RH fit the bill easily.
In "Zoologischer Anzeiger" in 1956, author Max Egon Thiel of Hamburg, Germany, described a cat that he had seen in Stalingrad in 1953. The cat had unusually short legs and was playing with its normal littermates. He had seen it sitting on its hind legs like with its front legs in the air so he called it the "Stalingrad Kangaroo Cat". Nothing more is known of this cat.
There are even earlier reports of kangaroo cats. In England in 1944, 4 generations were documented in the Veterinary Record by Dr. H.E. Williams-Jones. He described four generations of short-limbed cats. He reported the case of an 8 1/2-year-old black female who was described as having lived an extremely healthy life and, other than her short legs, she was reported to be normal in every way. Her mother, grandmother and some of her own offspring were similar in appearance.
In the case reported by Williams-Jones, only the front limbs were affected, while the hind limbs appeared to be of normal size. William-Jones described the cats as having unusually short front legs which bowed outwards, but the cats were otherwise normal. Their gait resembled that of a ferret, exhibiting smooth but hunched-up movements. When they sat back, their posture gave them the appearance of miniature kangaroos. The term "foreleg micromelia" was used to describe these cats, though they were often called "Kangaroo Cats" by the layperson at the time. The cats were reportedly healthy and able to move quickly. The trait was seen to be inherited and occurred in it least 4 litters. Unfortunately, this strain was one of many established bloodlines which disappeared during World War II. Some reports suggest that the few surviving individuals had been neutered. (Reports of these short-legged cats being eaten by starving Britons is probably exaggeration; even in the most prosperous times, many interesting British mutations have simply not been propagated by cat fanciers.)
There are even earlier sightings of kangaroo cats, including sightings of short-legged feral cats in England during the 1930s. A short-legged condition was also described by Schwangart and Grau (1931) and was noted to be hereditary.
According to Katharine L Simms in "They Walked Beside Me" (1954): "In build [the Manx] is higher in the rump than the ordinary cat, for his hind legs are longer than his forelegs. For this reason the Manx is sometimes called the Kangaroo cat, for he has the hopping gait of a kangaroo and a rabbit."
The "Flatbush Mutation" was a localised variety noted (1950s?) in Brooklyn, New York, in the Vanderveer housing project in the neighbourhood of Flatbush (the housing project comprised numerous interconnected basements, bomb shelters and underground garages). A distinctive, peculiar-looking bicolour female stray cat appeared among the Flatbush stray population. She had short limbs, a short tail, a small, low-slung body and a narrow, slightly flattened head with short ears. More cats and kittens with this look appeared as the female produced kittens and several generations of Flatbush cats arose. This was probably a highly local, spontaneous mutation reinforced or fixed by inbreeding i.e. a breed began to evolve in urban Brooklyn. Unfortunately the mutation was lost probably due to new blood arriving in the area in the form of other strays or unneutered pet cats. This is similar to the short-legged cats noted in England in the 1930s
Kangaroo cats apparently disappeared in Europe, but the mutation cropped up again in New England in the 1970ís and then in Louisiana, USA in 1983 and went on to become the Munchkin breed. Since the famous 1983 Munchkin and her offspring, similar unrelated cats have been found throughout the USA and other countries as spontaneous mutations born to normal parents. Munchkins have shortening and bowing of the long bones of the legs, much like Dachshund and Corgi dogs and much as Williams-Jones described in 1944. Unlike RH kangaroo cats, Munchkins have a good quality of life and no locomotory problems except for the inability to jump great heights (contrary to some reports, they are not "unable to jump"). They are, however, prone to two abnormalities: lordosis (curvature of the spine causing chest compression) and pectus (also affecting the chest). In addition, litter sizes are smaller than average, suggesting that some embryos die early.
I encountered this Mexican kangaroo cat in 1993. "Pedro", a mackeral tabby male, was a former street cat imported to Britain by its finders. The hind legs were of normal, but the forelegs were shortened, thickened and appeared slightly twisted with the paws turned outwards. Like Williams-Jones' cats, only the forelegs are affected. The picture on the left shows how his chest rests on the ground when he crouches. The cat also exhibited the hunched-up gait described by Williams-Jones, but could run, jump up onto surfaces and proved to be an excellent hunter not in the least inconvenienced by his deformity.
The earlier kangaroo cats may possibly have had a mild form of RH, but the description of their smooth ferret-like gait and the absence of any reports of extra toes suggests they had a type of dwarfism (achondroplasia) like modern Munchkins. While earlier kangaroo cats had "foreleg micromelia", modern Munchkins have "foreleg and hindleg micromelia" so that both the front and hind legs of the cat are shortened.
Munchkins should not be confused with Twisty Cats (Kats). The Munchkin condition is due to a form of dwarfism as described in Dwarf and Midget Cats and is classed as cosmetic (not affecting quality of life). The Twisty Cat trait is due to Radial Hypoplasia, a condition which mimics polydactyly in its less severe form (Polydactyl Cats) and is a debilitating condition (causing crippling).
Short-legged cats have been observed several times throughout history. The historical kangaroo cats were probably early examples of the Munchkin mutation or possibly early observations of a mild degree of radial hypoplasia though the lack of mention of extra toes suggests the former rather than the latter. So-called squittens are also either longhaired cats of the Munchkin type or longhaired RH cats. Spontaneous Munchkin mutations continue to occur around the world.
Before the proper study of genetics, people - including naturalists - had explained these cats in terms of hybrids between cats and other animals. This seems fanciful by today's standards, but the genetics knowledge we have today would seem truly fantastic to those naturalists of old!
Grey squirrel and domestic longhair cat showing the size difference between them - it is a real squirrel!
In January 2002 I received an email about squittens and cats crossbreeding with squirrels (I've edited out the stronger language, but left everything else just as I received it).
"I want to write to thank you for your article which is interesting but you obviously dont know anything about real squitten cats. My parents used to have barn cats which chased squirrels. The male used to kill squirrels but most times the female always tried to play with them. One fall, the female had a litter of kittens which were fluffy gray and white with fluffy tails just like a squirrel. The mother was black and white with short fur and the male had short fur but all black. The only way she could have fluffy gray babies like that was if she had done the biz with a squirrel. The kittens were good tree climbers like squirrels. One was killed by a farm dog which got loose and one got hit by a car half a mile from the farm but the last one grew up and its squirrel side mustve got the better of the cat side because it went to live in the wood with the squirrels and we didnt see it after about a year. They had all normal legs too, not short front ones like you say. The cats had more kittens since then but no more gray ones and no more with squirrel tails so this proves she did the biz with a squirrel to get gray kittens and they all had their father's tail."
In fact the grey colour is easily explained by feline genetics. Grey is caused by a recessive gene for dilution. A recessive gene only shows up if a cat has 2 of those genes. If a genetically black cat has one gene for dilution, it is black. If that cat has 2 genes for dilution its black colouration is diluted to grey. Both of the farm cats must have had carried the recessive gene and the three kittens all inherited 2 copies of that gene, one from each parent. Quite likely the parent cats were closely related, possibly brother and sister, which is common in farmyard colonies. The long (fluffy) fur is inherited the same way. A shorthaired cat can carry the recessive gene for longhair. If both parents carried the gene for longhair and all the kittens inherited 2 genes (one from each parent) then the kittens would be longhaired. Many longhaired cats have plumy or brush-like tails like a squirrel or a fox.
It is unusual for all three kittens to have inherited the same genes for colour and longhair so it is possible that the free-ranging female farm cat mated with a cat from a neighbouring farm e.g. a grey longhaired cat (possibly a closely related cat wandering into the area, maybe even her own father since cats do not observe incest taboos). This would increase the chances of having all grey longhaired offspring. The fact that her later litters were neither grey nor fluffy suggests that they were fathered by the black tomcat she lived with or with other wandering tomcats. The kitten which went to "live with the squirrels" was most likely a male. Far from moving in with squirrels, he was probably driven away by his father and went to establish his own territory elsewhere.
Certainly they could not have been fathered by squirrels. Squirrels are rodents and are genetically incompatible with felines. Grey squirrels are not the same sort of grey as most grey cats - their fur is ticked (banded with colours) and their face, ears and paws are generally a reddish colour.
FOOTNOTE 2: RH CASE STUDY
The following report is from Carolina Cats, P. O. Box 210705, Columbia, SC 292221 following the progress of six kittens, four of which had twisted forelimbs. This was written when the kittens were 8 weeks old.
Of the six kittens born, two with deformed legs died right after birth, and the white kitten with deformed legs died on the fourth day, although until that point it appeared to be doing as well as those who survived. One kitten, the last one born, appears normal in every way - four good legs, all the toes, and even his heart checks out OK! He's a pretty blue boy, and we will probably find him a home this week. The two surviving kittens with deformed legs did not need any help so far. Mama hooked her paw around Tiggeroo, the male brown tabby with no front legs worth speaking of, and he also boosted himself up on his sister or brother's back to get at a nipple to nurse. Perhaps if all the kittens had absolutely no front legs or Tiggeroo had been the only survivor the milk wouldn't have come in, but since the normal kitten, Blue, was able to treadle normally and even the female, Misty, could stimulate the milk to a certain extent, milk flow wasn't a problem. The owners of the cats did not want to give them up until the kittens were weaned, if they survived. Athough they were nonchalant about spaying or neutering, they did feed the cats properly and they were never let outside. We decided the kittens needed the mama cat, and they were well-provided for temporarily.
As they grew, the deformed kittens quickly learned to compensate. They were sitting up on their hind legs before they were four weeks old, although they also use their legs to get about. Mysti, the grey and white female, who has one almost-full-length leg with severely twisted bones and one half-length leg, each with two digits, was able to get into and out of a regular-height litterbox by five weeks of age. The kittens were weaned easily at 5 weeks to dry food. Tiggeroo, the boy with tiny stubby front legs, didn't make it to the box at first, but during the past week did get there on occasion.
I have corresponded with various people about adoption, some of them from the time the kittens were born. One of these was Dorene Schultz in New Jersey, and on Thursday Dorene's friend donated her frequent flyer mileage to her, and Dorene flew down and adopted the kittens. We decided that if she felt she could handle two, it would be better to keep them together and to only have to arrange transportation to one location. The two deformed kittens do gravitate to each other as if they know they each are similar, and different to their fully-formed brother. (I myself have a cutaneous asthenia kitty who wears clothes to prevent his skin from tearing, and a liver-shunt kitty, both of whom are very small for their ages, and although they aren't related they often sleep together or cuddle together, as if they relate to each others' problems). Mysti and Tiggeroo moved into the motel room we booked for Dorene for a one-night stay and acted as if they were quite at home. They hammed it up for the newspaper, who came to write a story about them. Tigger was particularly interested in admiring himself in the mirror.
Our vet examined all three kittens carefully, and could not find anything else wrong with them. We are aware that some defects do not begin to manifest themselves until kittens are 8-12 weeks, but hope nothing else shows up in these little ones.. Mama and Dad are FeLV and FIV negative and seem perfectly healthy - they are not related, and are each about a year old, totally indoor cats. They produced a healthy litter of 7 in December. We had daddy cat neutered 2/28/02. The deformed litter was born May 4. This would be 65 days from the day Asher was neutered. Of course, he may still have been viable for up to 49 days after neuter, according to the literature. Did the neuter/anaesthesia cause the defects? We will probably never know. The owner is certain Angel, the mama cat, did not get into anything (she has a child in diapers, another 4 years old and six children altogether, and I am sure is careful not to expose them to toxins, let alone the cats). The home is clean and tidy. Angel is being spayed on Tuesday, by the way!
Dorene is a former nurse with experience with nursing newborn children with disabilities, as well the elderly disabled; she has worked for veterinarians, does trap-neuter-release of ferals and has a CH (cerebellar hypoplasia, spastic) kitty in a wheelchair cart and an older kitty, a former feral, who has a heart condition. She wanted a companion for Scooter who was not too mobile and who would keep him company, since he can't move much at all. He especially likes kittens, so we think this will all work out very well. So far we have not seen any sores or calluses developing on the kittens' abbreviated legs. One of Tiggy's legs is slightly longer than the other, and he can actually move both of them in towards each other, and he tries to use them to cover what he does in the litterbox, even though they are so short. Dorene is prepared to get them specially-designed carts (we thought maybe one wheel up under the chest, velcroed on?), prostheses, booties, splints, or whatever may help them. We will keep all the e-mail addresses just in case Dorene finds that one or other of the kittens needs more individualized attention once she really gets to know them and starts working with them, but she doesn't really see that happening."