In May 2021, a cat owner reported to the vet with what she thought was a very sick kitten. The kitten had lost most of her fur and looked skinny and sick. But as it turns out, the cat was just fine — she was just a wolf-cat.
A wolf-cat (or a werewolf cat) suffers from a rare genetic mutation that causes them to sometimes shed most of their hair, up to the point where they almost look like a werewolf. The cats are also sometimes called Lykoi, which means ‘wolves’ in Greek.
The breed only seemed to emerge around 20 years ago in Tennessee, but was officially recognized around 10 years ago. Two pairs of wolf cats were used to found and name the breed. DNA testing confirmed that cats have a genetic mutation, and also showed that the cats do not carry the Sphynx gene — and while their fur may sometimes fall off almost entirely, it grows back.
Since the breed is rare, and wolf cats trigger fewer allergies, the breed has become somewhat popular in some circles. It’s also become quite expensive, so a few breeders are trying to produce wolf cats. The mutation can occur naturally in feral cats, but the mutation gene is recessive — which means wolf cat mutation is less unlikely to appear naturally.
Much of what we know about wolf cats comes from a few recent studies carried out on the species. According to the researchers, the breed exhibits something called hypotrichia — a congenital deficiency of hair caused by a reduction in the average number of follicles. The remaining hair follicles are also less capable of supporting hair. Existing hair is also more likely to be discolored.
Because of these mechanisms, the cats lack an undercoat, and when they molt, they can become almost completely bald — this can happen from time to time, and owners should not be alarmed, the researchers say.
Although this is somewhat similar to Sphynx cats, there is no genetic relationship between them.
The breed is still relatively new and we’re learning about it, there doesn’t seem to be any disease or health problem associated with the mutation.
“The lykoi is a very recently developed novelty breed with a sparse hair coat and black and white hair roaning, hence named from the Greek term lycos for wolf. To maintain diversity in the founding population, the breeders have actively recruited cats with similar phenotypes for the breeding program, resulting in six different “foundation” lineages identified in this study from 16 potential founders. The breed is growing in popularity due to the novelty of the appearance, the lack of concern for health problems and the charismatic name and nature.”
Novel cat breeds are often developed, the researchers note; but new breeds are rarely as striking as the wolf cat — which again, is caused by a natural mutation. However, by breeding them, we are perpetuating a mutation that would likely be weeded out through natural selection.
In addition, the popularity of novelty breeds like the wolf cat can go up and down, and the breeders usually focus on whatever makes the breed unique — not on the individuals’ health (just look at all the health problems developed by pugs, for instance).
“The hair coat of cats and all mammals is a selective advantage for thermal regulation, camouflage, protection from predators, and a barrier to diseases. In cats, coat color and hair quality are often selected as one of the main traits for developing a new breed,” the authors of one study note, adding that it’s not uncommon for breeders to focus on a particular trait such as the fur coat.
“Cat breeds generally are developed by “novelty” selection. A novel trait, often an unusual hair coat, coloration or morphology, is recognized by the public and then cats with this novel trait are crossbred to develop a breed.”
It’s not clear if the wolf cats suffer from any health issues, but it would be very plausible. For instance, Sphynx cats (which don’t have any hair at all) are more prone to lung infections and other respiratory diseases due to their lack of fur. They can also develop skin cancer if they spend too much time in the sun, for the same reason.
Since Lykoi cats are relatively new and there are still few individuals, there have been very few studies on their health, so we don’t know if they suffer from similar or other conditions, but hopefully, with them being recognized as an official breed in 2017, that will soon change.
So far, the wolf cat seems to be a novelty breed enjoying some success among breeders, and with no obvious health issues. They have less fur, which will likely make them more popular with people with allergies, and they’re also pretty cute, in a wolfy, lycanthropy kind of way.
Whether or not wolf cats become more common remains to be seen. But they’re definitely a breed to keep an eye out for. We can only hope that breeders will prioritize their health, not their appearance.