Why do people pick pedigree cats with flat faces? (Research)

People with flat-faced (brachycephalic) cats don’t realize the health issues associated with the breed, study shows.

Why do people pick cats with flat faces? A traditional doll face Persian is pictured; the breed standard now calls for a much flatter face
A traditional doll face Persian cat. See a modern Persian cat in the photo below.
Photo: chrisdorney/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Whereas many dog breeds have their roots in working dogs, pedigree cats are bred purely for their looks. There are now more than 70 cat breeds, yet moggies (as non-pedigree cats are affectionately known) remain very popular. What makes someone decide to get a pedigree cat rather than a moggy?

We can find some answers in a study by Dr. Liran Plitman and Dr. Petra Černá (The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies) and colleagues that was published last year in Animals. The results of the online survey show that there are two main types of cat owner, and there are indeed differences between those who pick a moggy rather than a pedigree. As well, those who choose Persians and Exotic Shorthairs – both breeds with extreme flat faces (technically known as brachycephaly) – seem to have different considerations than those who pick other pedigree cats.

The results are especially important because of the popularity of two cat breeds with extreme brachycephaly: the Persian cat and the Exotic Shorthair.

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Unfortunately for brachycephalic cats, those flat faces come with risks to health, and can affect the eyes, face, teeth, breathing, and reproductive systems, just like brachycephaly in dogs. Earlier research showed that while most people prefer cats with a normal or slightly long skull shape, people who have a brachycephalic cat show a strong preference for this feature in other cats, something the researchers called ‘brand loyalty’.

Because breed standards describe the desired features of pedigree cats, over time these features can become more extreme as breeders aim to ensure they match the standard. With the Persian cat, although the traditional doll face (pictured above) shows mild brachycephaly, a far more squashed face (the 'Peke' face) has now become the breed standard (see the Persian cat pictured below). 

A Persian cat with the traditional flat face, known as brachycephaly. Why do people pick these cats or other pedigrees?
A Persian cat. The very flat 'Peke' face is the breed standard & is associated with health issues.
Photo: Ewa Studio/Shutterstock

The scientists write that,

“The findings of this study suggest that BC [brachycephalic] cat owners (and possibly other pedigree owners) are not fully aware of the potential health problems of their cats and/or underestimate their severity, jeopardising their cats’ health and welfare. This highlights the need for educating owners, breeders and veterinary professionals about responsible pet acquisition, conscientious breeding, BC-related disorders and cat welfare.”

The results of the study showed that cat owners split into two main groups. A younger cohort, aged 25-34, was much more likely to have a non-pedigree cat. An older cohort, 45-54 and older, was much more likely to have a pedigree cat. People with moggies were also more likely to be first-time cat owners and less likely to have done research before getting a cat, perhaps because moggies are so easy to get.

Owners of pedigree (excluding brachycephalic) and brachycephalic cats were more likely to have done research, and often did their research by asking a breeder. Interestingly, those who got a brachycephalic cat (Persian or Exotic Shorthair) were less likely to have asked questions about how their cat was born (some kittens must be born by caesarean section as a result of breeding issues) and about the health tests that had been done. These are important questions to ask, and a good breeder will be happy to discuss them. (The survey did not ask if people had asked questions about the socialization of kittens, which is another important thing to find out). 

A non-pedigree cat, aka a moggy. What makes someone choose a particular kind of cat?
A non-pedigree cat, aka a moggy. Photo: Nailia Schwarz/Shutterstock

Non-pedigree cats most often came from shelters and rescue, friends and neighbours, or simply by being found. As you might expect, pedigree cats were much more likely to come from a breeder, with 71% coming from this source. However, amongst people with extreme brachycephalic cats (Persians and Exotic Shorthairs), only 54% came from a breeder, with shelter/rescue accounting for 16.5% and friends/neighbours for 11.8%.

We know that for the owners of some brachycephalic dog breeds, appearance is an important factor in their choice of breed. Amongst the cat owners in this study, appearance and companionship were the main reasons given for picking a particular type of cat, and there were no particular differences between those with brachycephalic cats and other pedigrees. 

All of the participants said their cats were healthy. Those with brachycephalic cats had lower ratings for their cat’s health, but despite this were still very satisfied with their cat, suggesting a possible disconnect with their cat’s health and welfare. Separately, we know that people with brachycephalic dogs such as Pugs and French Bulldogs often don’t recognize their health issues or consider the issues ‘normal’ for the breed. 

People with brachycephalic cats were less likely than other cat owners to say they would recommend this kind of cat to someone else. Persians and Exotic Shorthairs need to have their eyes cleaned every day because the flat face means their tear ducts are often deformed and do not drain properly. The face needs to be washed because extreme brachycephaly causes skin folds in which yeast and bacteria can easily grow, and the nostrils need to be kept clear from discharge, especially since these breeds are at particular risk of breathing issues. Persian cats also need daily grooming to keep their coat from getting tangled and matted. These issues were often given as reasons for not recommending these two breeds of cat. 

Interestingly, the scientists note that the need to wash the faces of these breeds of cats was not seen as a health problem, but as a maintenance issue, even though it is due to the breeding. They write,

“Unfortunately, while many BC [brachycephalic] breed clubs recommend regular face washes as part of routine care, they do not regard it as a conformational problem that needs to be dealt with at the breed level.”

The participants were recruited via Facebook and are not representative of cat owners as a whole. But overall, these results give us some insight into the reasons why people get particular kinds of cat. 

The results suggest that people with brachycephalic cats are not fully aware of the health and welfare issues affecting these breeds, and that more education on these issues is badly needed. One takeaway for people considering a pedigree cat is to not just speak to a breeder but also to research more widely to find out more about the breed and any potential health issues associated with it.

The paper is open access (link below).


Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

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Reference

Plitman, Liran, Petra Černá, Mark J. Farnworth, Rowena Packer, and Danièlle A. Gunn-Moore. "Motivation of owners to purchase pedigree cats, with specific focus on the acquisition of brachycephalic cats." Animals 9, no. 7 (2019): 394.

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