Although pretty rare, dwarfism can be found in cats, caused by genetic deformities that limit the kit’s growth. Typically referred to as munchkin or midget cats, they may be super-cute but that adorable ball of fluff is also susceptible to a host of health problems. And, while there are conditions that cause dwarfism in cats, there are also a few breeds selectively bred to be a diminutive size.
We take a look at feline dwarfism and give you the lowdown on everything you need to know about the dwarf cat.
What is Feline Dwarfism?
Technically a genetic mutation, dwarfism – or achondroplasia – in cats is a condition that causes disproportional and undersized felines. Dwarfism leads to stunted growth in a kitten and is typified by short, stout legs, a larger head as well as a squashed face. Dwarf cats can lead a full and happy life and are attractive at pets because of the tiny size and cute features, but the condition can also bring a lifetime of health problems.
The Three Types of Dwarfism in Cats
There are three types of dwarfism in cats – two naturally occurring genetic disorders as well as selective dwarfism, where breeders deliberately encourage the genetic mutation to create tiny cats.
- Osteochondrodysplasia – this is a genetic disorder which results in abnormal bone and cartilage development. For a kitten to acquire the condition, only one parent needs to carry the faulty gene and that parent may be full-sized. The main signs of osteochondrodysplasia are a full-sized body with short legs. The cat’s head will also be slightly larger than normal but with a small jaw that appears ‘undershot’ and with crooked teeth. Other possible signs include thick-looking joints, bowlegs and a curved spine.
Dwarf kittens with osteochondrodysplasia will not develop at the same rate as normal-sized cats and the symptoms may vary from cat to cat, with some kits only presenting a few signs of dwarfism. Cats with osteochondrodysplasia are susceptible to a host of health problems, including heart, lung and neurological. Mobility issues caused by the feline’s limited stature and physical abilities are also common. Cats with this form of feline dwarfism can also suffer from osteoporosis, where their bones become brittle, and will need lifelong veterinary monitoring and care.
- Pituitary dwarfism – the second naturally occurring genetic reason for dwarf cats is pituitary dwarfism and is caused by a shortfall in the growth hormones produced by the pituitary gland. This can be caused by an underdevelopment of the pituitary, or a cyst, tumor or infection affecting the gland. A midget cat with pituitary dwarfism will not grow at the same pace as other kittens and in most cases will have a head and body out of proportion with each other. Cats with pituitary dwarfism will also keep their baby fur and their teeth will develop slowly and remain softer than an ‘normal’ adult cat.
Pituitary dwarfism is rare, and the symptoms can be confused with a kitten with congenital hypothyroidism – a test by your vet to measure your pet’s levels of growth factors will soon confirm the condition. Unfortunately, cats with pituitary dwarfism often don’t live a full life span and will have other hormonal abnormalities and health problems. There is likely to be some cognitive dysfunction as well.
- Selective dwarfism – with selective dwarfism, breeders actively encourage the genetic mutation to produce short-legged, dwarf cat breeds, such as the Munchkin and the Minskin. The selective breeding of dwarf cats rose in popularity in the 1980s and is a controversial topic, with concerns about the health issues related to what some consider to be ‘unethical breeding’. Although recognized as a breed by The International Cat Association (TICA), other organizations such as the Cat Fanciers Association (CFA) and the American Cat Fanciers Association officially do not.
Selective dwarf breeds look cute and adorable, and often have normal sized heads and bodies but with short legs but there are health risks associated with these breeds, including arthritis caused by the stress of a cat’s body weight on their shortened legs.
Whether it’s due to a naturally occurring genetic disorder or via selective breeding, a cat with dwarfism is going to be vulnerable to a host of health conditions which means they will most likely need regular veterinary monitoring and care.
All cats with dwarfism are prone to obesity because of their out of proportion bone structure so it’s essential to keep your dwarf cat at a healthy weight. Dwarfism can also be painful for a cat and so a pain management plan is important to ensure they have a good quality of life, particularly if they are experiencing mobility issues.
Other ‘structural’ health problems a dwarf cat can experience include curvature of the spine, arthritis and osteoporosis as well as some feeding issues, if the jaw and teeth are affected. The lungs, heart and other internal organs are vulnerable to poor health in a dwarf cat, who can also demonstrate cognitive and neurological issues and limitations.
In short, dwarf cats may look super-cute, but their adorable pocket size hides a host of lifelong health conditions that will need to be managed with special and ongoing care.
Breeds Associated with Feline Dwarfism
With selective breeding of dwarf cats, the tiny feline is now a breed you can choose to bring into your home. This selective breeding is a hotly debated topic but there are several dwarf cat breeds that are now making the mainstream, including:
The Munchkin – considered the original dwarf breed, the Munchkin is characterized by its short legs and more conventionally sized body.
The Bambino – the result of cross breeding a Munchkin with a Sphynx cat, this is a pretty much hairless dwarf cat, with the Sphynx-typical large, stand up ears and the shorter legs of a dwarf cat.
The Dwelf – a combination of the Munchkin, Sphynx and the American Curl, the result is a hairless tiny cat with a muscular, short body and stunted legs, plus large ears and a whip-like tail.
The Lambkin – one of the newer selective dwarf cat breeds, the Lambkin is a mix of the Munchkin with the Selkirk Rex. This gives a short-legged puss with a long, soft and curly coat.
The Lowdown on Owning a Dwarf Cat
Feline dwarfism can be super-cute but the abnormal development of these types of cats means there are health and mobility issues which any pet owner will need to be on top of if they choose to bring a midget cat into their family.
Personality-wise, dwarf cats are affectionate, playful and are a joy to share your life with. But their limited stature, propensity to pain and complicated health means it is not always going to be an easy cat-owning ride.