Cats can suffer from genetic diseases just like other animals. They tend to be more common in pedigree cats vs crossbreed/moggy cats. This is because purebred cats tend to be selectively bred, and even in-breeding of closely related cats occurs to maintain particular breed traits. Some genetic disorders may be obvious from birth, whereas others develop later on in life.
There are many genetic or inherited diseases. However, some of the more common in cats include:
Polycystic Kidney Disease
Breeds that have a higher risk of Polycystic Kidney Disease include Persians, British Shorthair and Exotic Shorthairs, as well as Ragdolls, Devon Rex and Birmans. This is due to a defective gene that is present in these breeds. Polycystic kidney disease causes large cysts to develop in the kidneys, which results in kidney failure. Symptoms include increased thirst and urination, weight loss and lethargy. However, the problems often only appear in early middle age, making it difficult to know which young cats carry the gene without testing.
Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy is the most common type of heart disease in cats. The heart muscle becomes very thickened and affects the contractility of the heart. This can cause sudden death in some circumstances, while others develop heart failure relatively early in life. A genetic mutation has been identified in Maine Coon and Ragdoll cat breeds.
Spina Bifida (or Manx Syndrome)
The Manx cat is known for its characteristic short tail, but this is actually a genetic mutation. The length of the tail can vary within the breed, with some cats having a normal looking tail, while others are completely tail-less. The shortening of the tail, unfortunately also affects the spinal cord and the nerves that run from it – which can result in a form of Spina Bifida. This is a developmental defect that can cause urinary and faecal incontinence, and can result in difficulty moving and even paralysis of the back legs.
Osteochondrodysplasia (or Scottish Fold disease)
The Scottish Fold cat is known for folded forwards ears, which gives them a rather characteristic look. This is caused by a genetic mutation that affects cartilage development. Sadly, it doesn’t just affect the cartilage in the ear, but also affects the cartilage that surrounds their bones. This results in poor bone development and leads to crippling, severe arthritis, often from a young age.
A syndrome causing inherited congenital deafness (symptoms present from birth) is seen in white-coated cats. The deafness is caused by a genetic defect that affects coat, eye colour and the development of the ear. Cats with a white coat and blue eye colour are more likely to be deaf. The deafness may affect one ear or both.
Hypokalemic Myopathy is an inherited genetic condition that causes muscle weakness and bending of the neck, seen in Burmese and Tonkinese breeds. The symptoms can be intermittent. Some cats can present with severe weakness, unable to lift their heads with their chin tucked down to their chest, or even seizures. Treatment is possible with potassium supplementation.
Other inherited conditions
In some diseases there appear to be very strong breed predispositions which suggests that the disease may be inherited, but the gene mutation involved has not yet been discovered.
Examples of these include:
- Diabetes – Burmese Cats, Norwegian Forest Cat
- Lymphoma and Small Intestinal Adenocarcinoma (cancer) – Siamese Cats
- Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease – Persian
- Asthma – Siamese
- Strabismus (cross eyed/squint) – Siamese
- Spinal Muscular Atrophy – Maine Coons
A really good list of genetic conditions in cats (as well as other species) is available on the OMIA website.
How can we manage genetic diseases?
Any cat with genetic disease should not be bred from. Many breeds have been purposefully bred to develop extreme characteristics, but unfortunately these are heritable traits that can compromise the welfare, and ultimately health, of the cat.
Before considering purchasing a cat from an at-risk breed, do your research. Ensure you are purchasing from a reputable breeder. it is advisable to make sure that both parents of the kitten have been tested and are negative for the gene causing the genetic disease.
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