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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 kittens.

Papers

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:

  1. 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 to register.
  2. 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.
  3. Papers open the door for stud service. No breeder will allow his or her papered stud cat to mate with a cat lacking papers.

Registration 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 number.

 

Guiding Principles

Reputable breeders live by these guiding principles:

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 your cats.

"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, pregnant cat.

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 a newcomer."

"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 high."

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 experienced eye.

"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 periodically.

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.

Resources

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.

 


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