DNA Study Traces Cat Breed Origins

The UC Davis study analyzed 39 genetic markers from feral cats, domestic cats and 22 different breeds.

A study of feline DNA by researchers at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis revealed some surprises about the origins of some popular cat breeds, the Washington Post reports. The study revealed that the Japanese Bobtail does not appear to be genetically similar to cats from Japan, while the Persian actually may have originated in Western Europe — not Persia.

Over the course of five years, Leslie A. Lyons and her colleagues examined the DNA of more than 1,100 cats, a sample that included 22 pedigreed breeds as well as feral cats and domestic pets from the United States and 14 other countries. While most of the participating pedigreed cats came from the United States, samples from feral and pet cats were taken in Korea, China, Kenya, Israel, Turkey, Vietnam, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Egypt, Italy, Finland, Germany and Brazil.

By analyzing 39 genetic markers, researchers first confirmed a study from last year that found that domestic cats originated in the Fertile Crescent 10,000 years ago. “Our data support the Fertile Crescent, specifically Turkey, as one of the origin sites for cats,” Lyons told the Post.

While examining the feline DNA, Lyons and her team learned more about some popular cat breeds. “We wanted to see whether the breeds actually came from what was thought to be their geographical origins,” Lyons said.

The study produced some surprises. For example, the Persian appears to have originated in Western Europe and not Persia. Similarly, the Japanese Bobtail may have come from somewhere other than Japan. “Either it didn’t originate in Japan or there’s been so much Western influence that they have lost their initial genetic signal,” Lyons said.

Researchers also examined the genes of distinct breeds to see how closely related — or not — the breeds actually are. In many cases, they did not find any significant differences.

Persians and Exotic Shorthairs cannot be distinguished from one another by their genes, nor can Burmese and Singapuras, or Siamese and Havana Browns. Lyons attributes the breeds’ prominent differences in appearance to variations in a single gene, which does not differentiate the cats genetically.

The research also indicated that genetic variation among individual cats within a breed is becoming precariously low. “That could have consequences for the cats’ health,” Lyons said. “The more genetic variation, generally the healthier the population will be. So some cat breeders need to be careful that there’s not too much inbreeding going on.”

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