Before You Breed: Inside
the Breeding Business
Originally published in CATS Magazine,
August 1997 by Barbara C. French. Reprinted with permission.
Author's Note: I have added a few
things to this article that did not appear in the original
magazine version. These notes are in blue.
There is much more to breeding than the
cat + cat = kittens equation. To flesh out my experiences
and knowledge about the business, I polled 102 breeders
from the United States, Canada, Europe,Australia and South
Africa. Similarities in their early breeding activities
and their thoughts, ideas and advice to the prospective
breeder have convinced me that breeders share common knowledge
and beliefs both in this country and around the globe.
Ethical, responsible breeding involves
the careful selection of cats on the basis of health, temperament,
conformation and history for the purpose of producing offspring
better than their parents. Some breeders speak about preserving
a distinct breed, others about improving the breed. And
they care enough to stand behind their breedlines by registering
their cats, maintaining the integrity of their pedigrees
and keeping up on the latest research in all matters pertaining
to cats and breeding. Of the breeders surveyed, 98 percent
regularly entered their cats in cat show competitions.
In contrast, a person who puts two cats
together without considering whether this pairing will contribute
positively to the breed is a "kitten producer" not a cat
breeder. Some producers sell supposedly purebred cats without
registration papers. Other producers have allowed their
unaltered, mixed-breed cats to get pregnant and produce
What is the importance of papers? A cat's
papers guarantee the cat is a bona fide member of its breed.
Just because a cat resembles a particular breed of cat does
not mean that he or she is one. For example, not all blue
cats are Russian Blues, nor are all colorpoint, longhair
cats Himalayans. I saw a colony of barn cats in rural New
York with several tailless members. Tail or no tail, none
of these cats was a Manx. The cat's lineage, proven by its
papers, is the key to breed affiliation.
Here are three important reasons why you
must never breed an unpapered cat:
- Papers are written proof you stand behind your lines.
Without papers, you may be asked uncomfortable questions
by potential buyers--and the answers you give will only
be excuses. Registration is inexpensive--less than $100
to register a cattery name, and less than $10 to register
a litter. If you can afford to breed, you can afford
- Papers allow the animal to be shown. An unpapered
kitten can never be shown, no matter how perfectly it
meets the written breed standards. Imagine the heartbreak
of producing the perfect kitten that can never be recognized
by any cat association.
- Papers open the door for stud service. No breeder
will allow his or her papered stud cat to mate with
a cat lacking papers.
come in two forms. The first type is when a person registers
a cat for the first time. In CFA, this slip is blue, so
it is called (understandably enough) the "blue slip". The
second type is when a cat is already registered and the
person is transferring ownership. This registration slip
shows the cat's registered name and association registration
Reputable breeders live by these guiding
Define your priorities and responsibilities.
"First and foremost, remember that [your breeding cats]
are living, breathing, dependent creatures," says Else-Carine
Risberg, a Canadian breeder of Tonkinese and Korats. "They
deserve your best efforts on their behalf."
A responsible breeder puts the emotional
and physical needs of the cats first--before financial considerations,
before convenience, and particularly before the breeder's
ego. Sometimes this means making difficult choices.
Spaying a cat who produces show-quality kittens may be the
best choice if she's an inattentive mother, or if she's
had difficult, dangerous labors and births. One Abyssinian
breeder altered her entire cattery after learning some of
her older cats were showing symptoms of a hereditary--and
fatal--kidney condition. This decision cost her thousands
of dollars, but it was the right decision, nevertheless.
Ultimately, you'll be judged by other
breeders based on your motivations, not just on the cats
you produce. "Really think about why you want [to breed],"
advises Barbara Stewart, an Arkansas Ocicat breeder. "Your
answer is very important. You won't make money at this and
heartbreak is unavoidable, but if you really love the breed
of cat you have chosen, the rewards are wonderful. It is
there in the joy of a new owner's face, the results on the
show circuit and, most of all, the love [you receive] from
"Know that breeding is hard work and something
you have to do every day," says Jill Keating, a Ragdoll
breeder in Maryland, "and not just when you choose to take
the time to do it. Cats need to be cared for daily, whether
you're busy, sick, tired, etc."
An ethical breeder feels responsible
for the kittens he or she brings into the world, even if
this means rescuing them years later. Unfortunately,
some people do return kittens or cats they've purchased--and
not always for reasons you find credible. But those reasons
aren't as important as keeping your unspoken promise to
the cat. "We feel a lifelong responsibility for every kitten
we see into the world," said Gene Rankin, former CFA Abyssinian
breed council secretary. "We think that breeders who do
not are--quite bluntly--contemptible."
Do your homework. Breeding means
a lifelong commitment to learning. Information changes as
veterinarians and scientists learn more about the needs
of cats. "The serious, professional, ethical breeders are
contributing to the pool of knowledge and experience," said
Ann Segrest, an Oregon Korat breeder. "In addition to the
medical aspects of breeding, you must learn about genetics,
animal husbandry, midwifery, feline nutrition, sanitation
and exhibiting."Research takes time, but there's no reason
to rush into breeding. "I know showing and breeding can
be exciting and addicting, but it takes time to make a truly
informed decision. Study the cats, learn their peculiarities
and find a reputable breeder and a mentor to work with,"
say Noelle Bowles and Michael Thompson, new breeders of
Colorpoint and Oriental Shorthairs.
Read everything you can about breeding
(see "Resources") and your chosen breed. Each breed has
its potential rewards, challenges and problems. You need
to understand how the feline reproductive system works.
For example, female cats (unlike dogs) will cycle repeatedly
until bred. A cat allowed to cycle is at risk for a life-threatening
uterine infection called pyometra. Refusing to let her breed
for a few years simply is not an option; you can endanger
your cat's life. If you're uncertain of your breeding future,
you may not wish to take on the responsibility.
Understand that cats, like people,
can have inherited traits and disorders, which may be more
prevalent in some breeds than in others. This doesn't
mean pedigreed cats are less healthy than random-bred cats,
but because breeders have access to a cat's genealogy, it's
easier to track inherited diseases. Know which heritable
problems have been known to occur in your cat's breed--and
more importantly, know how to avoid them.
Get your family's support. Experienced
cat fancy folks know at least one person who's lost a relationship
due to the time, emotional stress and expense of breeding
and showing cats. While your spouse or other family members
don't necessarily have to perform breeding duties, they
still need to understand your breeding commitment will take
lots of your time. Family vacations may have to be scheduled
around important shows or kitten due dates, or postponed
because of illnesses. And your tax refund check may go directly
to the vet's office to pay outstanding bills.
"My husband likes cats, but in no way
is showing and breeding part of his world," said Sandra
Churchill-Reis, an Ontario breeder of Persians and Exotic
Shorthairs. "Marriages have been lost to this hobby. Not
mine, but it could have been." In fact, five of the 102
breeders surveyed cited their involvement in the cat fancy
as a reason for their own divorces.
Be realistic about finances and physical
space. Anyone deciding to breed cats to make money will
be very disappointed. Although a few hundred dollars per
kitten sounds like a lot of money, most breeders don't even
begin to break even for several years. Only 12 percent of
the surveyed breeders indicate they break even or make money
regularly, and 95 percent of these breeders have been in
business more than 15 years. About half of the surveyed
breeders feel they were financially prepared for breeding
at the outset, but over 75 percent of them had worked with
animal breeding before in some capacity. The remaining half
believe they were either totally unprepared or weren't as
prepared as they should have been. Lisa Aring, an American
Curl breeder living in Spain, sums up many breeders' thoughts
on the subject. "I knew [breeding] was expensive, but not
that expensive. Of course, I choose to buy top-quality food
and run to the vet if they sneeze, but that is part of being
a good breeder."
Expenses add up quickly. A breeding-quality
queen--and stud fees--may cost from several hundred to several
thousand dollars, depending on the breed or pedigree. Add
vet costs for prenatal care, postnatal care, kitten checkups
and vaccinations, extra food, litter and equipment, and
you probably have exceeded the amount of money you'll get
back from kitten sales. These costs don't cover emergency
medical care, early spay/neuter if practiced, petsitting
fees or tax advice, or the enormous expense of showing.
These costs may level out over time as you stop buying cattery
equipment and you have a stable stock of queens and studs,
but the initial financial investment can be significant.
Other expenses crop up. Over half of the
surveyed breeders indicate they've spent over $600 in one
veterinary visit (10 breeders spent over $1,000). Some of
these expenses were for parasites or illnesses that swept
through a cattery--which can happen, even in spotless conditions--or
one cat's catastrophic illness. "Even if I charged $1,000
for every kitten, I wouldn't break even," admits Nancy Eckert,
who breeds Norwegian Forest Cats, Persians and Exotic Shorthairs.
New breeders often have trouble selling
kittens because they don't yet have the knack for networking
in the business or at shows, or the knowledge to effectively
market their cattery and kittens. Some may find it difficult
to sell their kittens in their geographic area--perhaps
because there are too many local breeders of the same breed,
or the market just isn't there for their particular cat.
Breeders who rent their homes or apartments
have other difficulties. Landlords may refuse to rent to
owners of intact cats, especially a stud cat who sprays
urine to mark his territory. However, don't think you're
safe if you only have females! David and Melanie Morgan,
who've been breeding Egyptian Maus for over two years, found
this out the hard way--their first intact female sprayed
and ruined their new leather sofa.
Several surveyed breeders declared personal
bankruptcy at one point, partly due to their involvement
in the cat fancy and heavy reliance on credit. You must
have the liquid assets to deal with all contingencies. A
few of the surveyed breeders have pet health insurance,
but insurance on the whole isn't widely available and some
policies don't cover breeding-related expenses.
Know your emotional threshold.
"The true reward for me is when I watch babies I've raised
go off and fill their new homes and families with the love
that they hold in their little paws," says Linnea Danielsen,
a Florida Scottish Fold breeder. "Getting the wonderful,
glowing reports back of how happy they and their new families
are--that's what smiles are made of."
Breeding has its emotional highs--and
lows. Cats, like all animals, have an expected infant mortality
rate, and almost all of the breeders surveyed cite this
as the most difficult aspect of breeding. "The first time
you lose a kitten, for whatever reason, or have one stillborn,
may be very hard," notes New York Abyssinian and Somali
breeder Sheila Dentico. "If you are to be a breeder, you
must find a way to deal with this. I don't mean that one
shouldn't cry or grieve or be sad, but ultimately there
must be a way to cope and go on.
I always recoil when people tell me they
want to breed cats to allow their children to witness "the
miracle of birth." You may end up with an unintended lesson
on your hands: explaining a dead or stillborn kitten, a
kitten with severe deformities, or a queen who must be rushed
to the vet for an emergency C-section. Also, wanting this
experience for your children is not reason enough to bring
new cats into the world. If this is your intention, talk
to a local shelter or rescue group about fostering a homeless,
Dealing with difficult people also takes
an emotional toll. If you find it hard to say "no" to people,
you may find it hard to place pets responsibly. Not everyone
who wants one of your kittens may be an appropriate pet
owner. If you feel you cannot refuse someone, even politely,
breeding may not be the pursuit for you.
Learn to network. One of your most
valuable resources will be other breeders, and networking
with them may be the most challenging aspect of starting
your business. Jean Marie Diaz, a California breeder of
Maine Coons and Turkish Angoras, remarks on her experiences
of dealing with established breeders. "Some [experienced
breeders] were genuinely helpful. The majority weren't cold,
but weren't necessarily interested in getting involved with
"It was culture shock," say the Morgans
of their own first breeding experience. "It was really a
study in contrasts. The cat fancy is one of the most closed
societies I have ever encountered. People can be incredibly
cold, political, and, yes, even nasty. Then, there were
people who were unbelievably caring and generous, both with
time and knowledge. Barriers to this field are extremely
Some breeders will try to talk a newcomer
out of breeding, which may be appropriate under some circumstances.
Most people who toy with the idea of breeding don't understand
enough about what they're doing for most established breeders
to take them seriously. Finding a mentor can help break
the initial barriers. About 25 percent of the surveyed breeders
had mentors to start with, and almost all of them expressed
more satisfaction with their early breeding experiences.
One of your most important relationships
will be with your veterinarian. Before you start breeding,
you must find a breeder-friendly vet who is knowledgeable
about cat breeding practices. Your best "find" is a veterinarian
who also is a breeder, a professional I consider myself
very fortunate to have.
Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).
"Before you breed, study the breed and the breeders," says
Keating. "Be very careful from whom you buy your animals
and try to find a trustworthy breeder who can be your mentor."
Some breeders will misrepresent their
cats, inflate prices, over-estimate a cat's potential or
sell sick animals--even to another breeder. Most breeders
have "war stories" of the pet-quality cat sold to them as
top breeder quality, getting a cat with a dangerous illness
or parasite, or being burned financially. Most of us have
taken a lump or two from bad experiences--and have learned
not to make the same mistake twice.You can avoid some problems
by doing your homework. Don't jump into a cat purchase on
impulse without knowing the seller. Ask other breeders to
evaluate the cat before you buy. If you're not sure you
can identify a top example of your breed, take along a more
"Make sure every cat or kitten you buy
comes with a health guarantee," urges Tamara McCall, a Scottish
Fold and American Curl breeder from Georgia. "Make sure
the person you buy it from is someone you can work with."
And take your new kitten to the vet for a complete checkup
as soon as possible.
Know the laws...and follow them.
Breeding will play havoc with your taxes. To make good decisions
about your business, consult a certified public accountant
or tax lawyer to determine exactly what you must do to fulfill
your various tax obligations. You may choose to claim your
cattery as a hobby, which is easier taxwise, but you must
report all income and cannot deduct any expenses. If you
choose to claim your cattery as a business, you'll be able
to deduct some related expenses, but you must show a profit
Keep meticulous records, learn basic bookkeeping
techniques, and save and record every receipt! Neat, well-organized
records--stored in a fireproof box or safe--will save you
time and money if you're ever faced with a tax audit.
Be aware of local ordinances affecting
breeders. Your community may have anti-breeder laws, and
some towns, villages or cities may limit by law the number
of animals kept in a residence. If you live in a condominium,
townhouse or planned community, your homeowner's association
may have rules restricting or forbidding breeding. State
or county health regulations also may come into play. For
example, the New York State department of health requires
a license to purchase hypodermic needles--a consideration
if you plan to do your own vaccinations. Many states forbid
anyone except a veterinarian from administering rabies shots.
Although laws and regulations may be cumbersome,
you must follow them to the letter. Breeders who don't obey
the law give everyone in the cat fancy a bad name and make
it harder for newcomers to get into the business.Learn the
ropes with a show alter. Even if you aren't planning to
show your cats regularly, working with an altered cat can
reveal the charms---and foibles--of the breed. Plus, show
experience helps you gain credibility among other breeders.
Try showing before breeding. "Show
the cat, talk to breeders and decide through experience
if this is the breed and/or hobby for you," advises Kendall
Smith, an Abyssinian and American Shorthair breeder who
has shown cats for over 20 years. One thing Smith learned
from alter showing was that kittens of his first breed choice
were very difficult to place as pets at that time. He chose
to work with his second breed choice because he felt more
confident the offspring would find loving homes.
Realize some cats aren't winners. Churchill-Reis
recounts this early breeding experience. "I purchased a
pet [Persian] from a pet shop, and the learning curve began.
I thought that since I had paid $800, I was getting a cat
that must be of breeding quality. I asked a fellow breeder
to evaluate my Persians... Well, she felt terrible about
having to tell me that they were [not breeding quality]
and I really should just alter them."
Breeding is about improving the quality
of the cats you produce, not simply producing pets.
While that will be the destiny of the vast majority of your
cats (and a wonderful destiny it is!), you want to be sure
you're creating the most healthy, even-tempered and lovely
cats possible. Start out with the best breeding stock you
can find and afford.
Research the pedigree. An old adage
says a good breeder spends five minutes looking at a new
cat and five days studying the pedigree. "Health is first,"
says Diaz. "There aren't enough rosettes to compensate for
the first time you have to take back (or worse, euthanize)
a kitten for an inherited problem that you were told was
common in your breed, that you could have eliminated, but
didn't. There are more than enough nasty surprises in breeding;
don't let yourself [suffer] preventable heartbreaks."
The pedigree is the key that unlocks the
knowledge of heritable diseases, which is why only cats
with pedigrees should be bred. Without the pedigree, the
breeder has no way of knowing what genetic anomalies and
heritable conditions may be lurking in the cat's background.
While not a complete fail-safe against problems, the pedigree
can eliminate much needless suffering.
Don't be afraid to ask other reputable
breeders what they think of a pedigree. An experienced breeder
can help you judge the quality potential of cats based on
pedigree information alone. Also, try to locate the breeders
of cats in the pedigree to get first-hand information about
the health and soundness of your cat's ancestors. This is
where networking becomes important.
And One More Thing...
"There was an old woman who lived in a
shoe, she had so many cats she didn't know what to do!"
If this sounds familiar, you've ignored the last caveat
of cat breeding: keep it small and manageable.New breeders
can easily find themselves with too many cats because they've
given in to the urge for "just one more cat." Nearly 80
percent of the surveyed breeders cite "letting kittens go"
as one of the more difficult aspects of breeding. But a
responsible breeder knows his or her limits. You may be
neglecting your cats' emotional needs if too many felines
must compete for your attention. And, the larger the cattery,
the greater the risk for diseases and parasites, which can
be very difficult--and expensive--to deal with.
"Some people start out wanting to be breeders;
they breed one litter and can't stand to place any of their
kittens, then neuter and spay every one, and call it quits,"
says Diaz. "There's nothing wrong with this, as such. The
'wrong' would be to discover that you can't stand to part
with your babies, and you continue breeding anyway."
A small, reputable cattery may have only
one to three breeding queens. Many breeders recommend not
acquiring a stud (and spraying) cat until you've been in
the breeding business for at least five years.
"Looking after cats and kittens takes
a lot of time and effort," says Val Anderson, a Russian
Blue breeder in Great Britain and a judge in the Governing
Council Of The Cat Fancy (GCCF). "Lots of people have problems
when they start off in too big a way. They buy several females
of different breeds and end up with a house full of kittens
and without the experience to look after them properly.
To me this is not really breeding, just kitten production."
If you start slow and keep your cattery
manageable, cat breeding can become a rewarding and fulfilling
part of your life. It's hard--and occasionally heartbreaking--work.
But joyous, too. Enter the business, not lightly on little
cat's feet, but with a clear sense of the risks and rewards,
and with your feet firmly planted in reality. Who knows?
You may become the proud breeder of a "Best Of Show" cat...or
the show-stopping kitten who wins a new owner's heart.
While there are many excellent resources
on cat breeds, breeding and care, the following books constitute
a good core library for anyone considering the breeding
business. You can find these books on the Breeding page
of the FBRL Bookstore.