The initial reaction was horror at the appearance of these oddball kittens. Where had they come from and where were they going? Were they outcrosses, deliberate or accidental? The stage was soon set for controversy.
The original discoverer acted commendably. Test mating was done with Devon and Cornish Rex. considering what was to happen later, this was a brave move. There is always a lot of resistance to crossing pedigree breeds, and, with Maine Coons, all outcrosses are unapproved. The outcome of these limited test matings was negative to inconclusive, but they indicated quite strongly that Maine Coon rex was not a result of a recent outcross.
Pedigree analysis and other research pointed to three cats which had been imported into Britain but this was circumstancial evidence only based on cats which appeared more frequently in rex pedigrees. Key cats were dead, neutered or unavailable for testing and nobody out of Britain was reporting any rex sightings. The pattern of inheritance was clearly recessive rather than dominant, which makes it difficult to be certain about inheritance paths.
One test which has never been done which is essential to be more certain of the genetics involved is a rex to rex cross. This is needed to indicate whether a single recessive gene is involved. This is often assumed, but is not certain. The appearance of rexed Maine Coons varies widely, encompassing fairly tightly curled coats to almost straight hair and this indicates that more than one gene is involved. However, I have a theory which might explain this while assigning the basic rexing to a recesive gene, but might also relate it to an essential Maine Coon characteristic.
The late Roy Robinson was extremely helpful as he usually was in all matters concerning cat genetics, and he suggested that rex may be caused by an incompletely dominant gene as there are a number of anomalies in the traced pedigrees. This is where the trouble bagan. Some likely inheritance paths included cats which were claimed to be "rex Free". Wild theories began to spring up.
A crucial decision had to be made. Was the known information to be made public, shared between affected breeders or, or should it be kept confidential? This is a question which arises any time an inherited defect appears. How it is handled is crucial.
The first option, to go public, seems sensible and scientific. The only problem is that many cat breeders are not either sensible or scientific. Half understood or totally misunderstood genetic principles are used to rubbish other breeder's cats or to promote their own. The simple mathematics of dividing by two is not appreciated and any cat with any supposed carrier in its pedigree is marked down as a carrier itself although its risk factor may be acceptably low. Breeders panic about their breeding stock being declared tainted and nobody wanting their kittens. The pressure not to tell is overwhelming.
Option two, to tell just the breeders who may have affected animals may seem to overcome objections of an overall panic. Except, once it is known that some people have the information, it is very difficult to tell the others they can't have it. This option accord with the noble British Art of Compromise which has stained history from the early Colonists to the present day. Most of the World's trouble spots today have had a British finger poked in the pie at some time or other, but I digress. I am an ex-colonial type. There is a worse option than this one - see below.
Option three, to keep everything under wraps, is still not the worst option, At first sight it seems the most pragmatic. What the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve over. Much. It's pragmatic till you involve cat breeders and their grapevines. Gossip abhors a vacuum and invention fills the vacant ecological niche. With this option, the combination of ignorance with invention is very productive and I will forebear from reproducing the most lunatic of the theories that were invented.
There is of course a fourth option for those who are able to anticipate the dilemmas inherent in the first three, but it must be taken up from the very start. Option four is to declare the new gene a minor problem and acceptable at a low incidence level. This defuses all but the most virulent troublemakers and, if everyone could have the gene which didn't matter anyway, nobody's cats will be rubbished by invented stories.
One of the more damaging was an accusation that an early breeder had deliberately or accidentally (which is worse? - cluck cluck) crossed Maines with Cornish Rex. This also assumes that that breeder falsified pedigrees. Apart from the testing which failed to astablish a link with Cornish, this breed looks nothing like a Maine, and nothing that looks like an outcross or throwback has ever been seen. It was convenient that a certain breeder was by now out of the running and could be safely slandered.
It is however impossible to completely eliminate a rumour like this, like a recessive gene, and one can only hope to reduce it to less harmful levels. I am not suppressing information by not listing the even sillier ones, but if anyone really wants to do more lasting damage they will have to take the trouble of inventing their own malice, like computer virus writers.
But just imagine the glee of the Conspiracy Theorists when a cat which later proved to be a rex carrier turned out to be called Cornish Cream! Boy oh boy.
Did I say I had the answer? Nope. Such is the way of smartypants. But I hope I can make out a case for how not to do it and here comes the worst option of all - option three followed after a suitable interval by option one. Oh what fun you can have if you are not involved!
I first got involved in 1993, when I took over a huge queen and her eight kittens from another breeder. I did not know at that stage that the father of the litter, Cornish Cream, was a rex carrier, and if anyone did know, they weren't saying. Option one was in full force at that time.
Factoids were leaking out thick and fast. I had heard of rex by now but was confused by conflicting disinformation and decided to make my own decisions. My new litter was doing well and two lads in particular were catching my eye. A sister was a lovely pale silver and I didn't know Maines came that pale. I studied the pedigree long and hard and concluded that any cats that I had heard were associated with rex were a long way back and the risk was very small. I kept a boy with white boots and the silver girl and sold the big tabby as a stud.
I made no secret of the fact that I had selected these three for breeding with the assumption that they were low risk. The clucking tongues at that stage still didn't reckon rex was a disastrous problem - not yet. Nobody but nobody came forward to say I shouldn't use these kittens, but I kept asking. A rumour surfaced that Cornie may have fathered two rexed kittens by an unnamed queen but it was only a rumour and any information reliable enough to take action over was not forthcoming. With hindsight, those that knew just weren't going to say, and they still haven't said.
Then the axe fell. One particular rumour monger who I have no time for came out joyfully with the news that Cornie was a carrier as he had fathered another two rexed kittens. I checked back with someone who was very reliable and she said she'd heard it too. I had not handed over the young stud by then but had cashed the cheque. I cancelled the sale and returned the money.
Now I was in limbo. Cornie had been sold and the loudmouth told me he was about to be neutered. I tracked down the new owner and pleaded for his entirety over a whole weekend, but he was neutered. I gathered they were really upset by being told that their new purchase wa a rex carrier and I could only sympathise although I saw the last chance of verifying his status disappear. Cornie has fathered a number of top show winners and I am still upset that a cat of his stature was lost to the Breed. No point crying over lost whatsits.
I set out to tell of the history of Rexed Maine Coons but in the context of (mis)handling unwanted genes. The above digression could be repeated and has been repeated with other genetic abnormalities, faults, defects, whatever you like to call them. But what you call them or how you rate them is important. Refer to Roy Robinson's book and he gives two "acceptable" levels for genetic abnormalities, 5% for less serious ones and 1% for severe ones. I had assumed that a curly coat was a nuisance that would be better not there, but not nasty enough for elimination to 1%.
Roy was the High Priest of Cat Genetics, and I love the common sense in his book. While it's open, Let me quote: "Instances are known [...] where a much admired and widely used animal has subsequently been found to be a carrier of a recessive anomaly". On the nose! "Inter-breeding [...] will ultimately bring into being a rash of the same anomaly." Rush out and buy this book! "Breeders may suddenly find themselves confronted with the twin problems of preserving the breed and of eliminating the gene causing the anomaly." Prophesy indeed!
In Britain it seems some breeders hadn't read Roy Robinson. On the basis of one or two unexplained and unautopsied early deaths, the "rex gene" was declared to be deleterious and the "post nutritive substance" was set to hit the cooler.
After having operated secrecy option three for long enough for the rumour mill to get into full production, full disclosure option one was invoked and a list of known carriers published. Breeders with any of the listees in their pedigrees were targeted and their cats rubbished. Many gave up what had ceased to be a happy hobby. Others imported "rex free" stock. The reputation of the original British Maine Coons was brought to an all-time low. The rumour mill had burst into flames.
At the same time, in 1994, it was decided to neuter all known male carriers but only to restrict known female carriers. All other cats were free to breed on. There was one exception made; males could be kept entire for test mating.
Details of Cornie's rexed kittens never surfaced and it became likely that the second two kittens reported was just a retelling of the original two. I decided to test mate Cornie's son, the boy with the boots, now a magnificent big untarnished silver tabby who would become Grand Champion Addinlo Meddybemps. I didn't need to test him, but it seemed to me the responsible thing to do. He proved to be a carrier and I stopped using him except for test mating. This also gave the final evidence to prove Cornie was indeed a carrier.
I still have Meddy's sister who has been tested to well below 1% risk as is Meddy's son, and these two have given me the first UK true Shell (Tipped) Maine Coon, a red girl, (MCO ds 12) in the UK. This is a vindication for all the trouble I have had clearing rex from Cornie's excellent silver line which is otherwise lost to the breed.
Meanwhile, the Club has announced that no more rexed kittens have been born. Problem beaten? Hang on a bit.
Elevate your knuckles from ground scraping level to about brow altitude and think. How many male carriers are now in use? How many female? The answers are: almost none, and quite a lot, respectively, It takes two to make a rex, so if all the carrying studs have been eliminated, no rexed kittens will be born to carrying queens.
Hang on, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, surely? Not at all. If there is a sprinkling of carriers across the breed, estimated at about 10%, male carriers will show up much more quickly than queen carriers. This is because studs meet many more partners than queens. Queens have about six to eight matings in a lifetime, often to the same stud, but a popular stud could be doing his best work once a month for six years, mostly with different queens.
Put all this together, and it is unlikely that a queen will ever meet a carrier at random, while a stud is very likely to mate with one or more carrying queens so male carriers are very likely to be shown up and eliminated.
This policy of eliminating male carriers does nothing to limit any unknown female carriers or to stop them passing on their rex genes. But surely the proportion of carriers halves each generation? Yes, but if more than two kittens per lifetime are used for breeding, then the total number of actual hidden carriers will go up on average each generation until they eventually resurface and cause a whole new rex panic in the future.
If you ban test mating, the last chance of ever discovering any new carriers is virtually nil, and any recessive gene is here to stay.
What would be an alternative policy? If you're happy to live with the gene, say so from the start and tolerate the occasional affected kitten. At its peak at about 1% of kittens born, rexed kittens were well outnumbered by runts and kittens with worse anomalies. I believe I have shown that rex is a benign trait which does not disadvantage a domestic pet cat in the same way as other short haired or Rex breeds.
Allowing the occasional rexed kitten to be born at least allows rex to be tracked and avoided within the Breed. The preferred option to ban test mating is in effect a policy guaranteed to allow rex to reproduce unseen for years.
Remember option four above? Accepting the gene and deciding to live with it? If breeders had decided on this as a policy years ago, what a lot of acrimony could have been avoided! Breeding Maine Coons could have been a happy hobby for all and they would not have lost a first class Shaded Silver line.
Unfortunately, it is far too late to implement option four but it could have happened. The final irony is that I have heard that Rexed Maine Coons have been shown on the Continent and have been awarded certificates. What a beautifully healthy attitude to a genetic curiosity and what a contrast to our bitter and damaging attitudes in Britain.
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Copyright © 1996 David Brinicombe
Last updated Sept 04