Toronto the birthplace of hairless sphynx cat
Original hairless feline named Prune born in the 1960s among otherwise normal, furry litter of kittens
One of the most peculiar and polarizing pets — the hairless sphynx cat — can be traced back to Canada's largest city.
The wrinkled cat with large, bat-like ears provokes strong reactions. To some, the sphynx is a grotesque, alien-like creature that barely deserves to be called a cat. To others, it's an affectionate companion whose personality belies its looks.
The controversial cat dates back to the 1960s, when breeders say a hairless cat named Prune was born in Toronto in a litter of otherwise normal, furry kittens.
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Riyadh Bawa, a University of Toronto student at the time, has been credited by breeders as the first to identify the hairlessness as a result of a recessive gene. Bawa, in partnership with other breeders, bred Prune with his mother, producing several more hairless kittens.
A brief 1966 article by the Associated Press says Bawa hoped to "develop a hairless line" of cats for allergy sufferers.
While the lack of a full furry coat means sphynxes don't shed, they aren't a totally hypoallergenic breed, since people often react to a protein in cats' saliva rather than the hair itself. And although the cats don't need to be brushed, they have to be bathed every week or two to deal with the oil that builds up on their skin, experts and owners say.
The line of hairless cats descended from Prune has since died out, but the cats Bawa bred represent the first attempts at establishing an official hairless breed.
More hairless cats were later discovered in Toronto and Minnesota, and the sphynx has now been recognized as an official breed by the Cat Fanciers' Association for almost 20 years. Today, breeders sell sphynx kittens for up to $1,500.
Toronto isn't the only place where these cats have been found, but the city has been credited by experts as the location of origin of the modern show breed. Other breeds of hairless cats, unrelated to the sphynx, have also emerged from Russia.
As animal lovers celebrated International Cat Day on Monday, some sphynx fans urged critics to give the often-misunderstood feline a second chance.
LouAnn Vennettilli, a breeder near Sarnia, Ont., who also handles sphynx-related matters for the Canadian Cat Association, says she often promotes the breed's Canadian roots at cat shows.
"Most people, when you say sphynx, they think of them as coming from Egypt, or some far-off land. But in reality, the ones that we know and love today are of Canadian origin," she says.
Vennettilli currently has 10 sphynxes, some for breeding and some she keeps as pets. Such a big group of sphynxes is a handful — they're active and mischievous, and Vennettilli says she's known them to figure out how to remove twist-on lids to get at a jar of cat treats.
"I've been to cat shows where I have people walk by and say, 'Oh my god, those are the ugliest things I've ever seen.' ... But those same people end up circling back around, and I'll say, 'Why don't you just hold one?' If you swaddle them in a blanket they sort of just cuddle right in," she says.
"They have a completely different personality than a regular cat. Pictures don't do them justice."
Alex Latta, a sphynx owner in Toronto, has built an Instagram following of more than 7,000 fans for her one-year-old hairless cat Peaches, who often sports sweaters to keep his furless skin warm.
"Sphynxes are kind of like dogs. They recognize their name, they fetch, they like to be all over you, they like to eat your food," Latta says. "It's a nice middle ground, because you can still go off to work and leave your cat at home — it's still a cat. But they're really friendly."
Latta says she often deals with strange reactions to her cat, but she's also seen him win people over.
"All my friends, they'll see him in pictures and they'll be like, 'That's so weird. Why would you want that?' But then they meet him, and they get it," Latta says. "It's a fun cat."