The explosive rise of pedigree-cat breeding in Hong Kong

A growing band of hobbyists in Hong Kong are breeding pedigree cats to enter into shows. Despite the big investment of time and money, it's really a labour of love

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 August, 2015, 3:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 August, 2015, 10:03am

When insurance agent Phebe Low Yin-ling turns the keys to open her apartment door, several black shapes immediately hurtle, ninja-like, towards her. But although they are nimble and stealthy, they're not spies or assassins. They're black cats - and Low lives with 10 of them.

Low is a cat lover and hobbyist breeder who specialises in raising Burmese and Bombay cats (the two are related breeds, the latter being the result of breeding black American Shorthair cats with Burmese, a copper-haired domestic cat from Southeast Asia).

She's among a band of enthusiasts in Hong Kong who breed pedigree felines in home "catteries" and enter them into cat shows.

Cat fanciers are usually captivated by particular types of felines, and build their breeding programmes and cat show entries around their favourite variety. And where Low is concerned, Bombays are the cat's whiskers: she loves their playful nature and sleek, dark fur.

"I think of them as my children," she says. "[As a breeder] you're essentially helping to continue their lineage. If nobody controls the breeding, then the specific profile and traits of that breed won't be passed down."

There are now 514 catteries in Hong Kong registered with the Cat Fanciers' Association (CFA), a US-based global registry for pedigree cats.

This number is about triple the figure it was five years ago, says CFA vice-president Dick Kallmeyer, who also chairs its international division.

What's more, Hong Kong cats have won 11 annual awards from the CFA in the past 15 years.

"This is very significant based on the number of cats from Hong Kong," Kallmeyer writes in an email. "[The number] is small, but carries a big stick."

According to Kallmeyer, the community of cat fanciers in the city and the mainland has grown rapidly to 10,051 registrations in the past show season, with Hong Kong making up 10 per cent of the total, and China 20 per cent.

While millions of pet felines are a mix of genes from cats that have come together at random, pedigree cats are bred to display a certain colour or look - usually physical traits such as folded ears, long coats or flattened noses.

Those with a pedigree have a record of their ancestry, and owners must apply for recognition from a cat registering association, which maintains information on the lineage of pedigree cats, authorised breeding cats, breed descriptions, catteries, judges, ownership and more.

Cat shows hosted by clubs affiliated with cat registry organisations give owners a chance to show off their prize pets. Certified judges are invited to adjudicate, and organisers often use the occasion to run activities and seminars on relevant topics such as appropriate veterinary care.

Low says that because cats are constantly kept indoors in Hong Kong and have few opportunities to interact with other felines, the world of cat fancying (and contests) provides an outlet for the felines to socialise and for owners to connect and share tips.

"Cat shows are a safe environment for cats," she says. "And winning a show is a sign of recognition for owners. It means that you took exceptional care of your cat in regards to its health and grooming. It encourages people."

There are several local cat clubs registered with the CFA, among them the Hong Kong Shorthair Cat Club, the Persian and Exotic Cat Club, United Feline Odyssey and the Hong Kong International Cat Club.

A new affiliate is the Hong Kong Black Cat Club, which Low launched last year. Since then, the club has already hosted two cat shows - in February and June this year.

Low is an old hand, having served as CFA's Asia representative before starting the club and helped run the association's international division.

Like most hobby breeders, she runs her small-scale cattery from home. Her Chapter Cattery is made up of five breeding cats and three kittens, along with two cats that have been retired from the programme. They have delivered 14 litters so far.

Low typically stays with her cats through the birth: like a midwife, she comforts them during contractions and watches over the delivery until it is complete. Inevitably, that experience brings breeders' close with their cats.

[As a breeder} you're helping to continue their lineage. If nobody controls the breeding, then the specific profile and traits of that breed won't be passed down
Phebe Low

"During the birth, I'll talk to the cat, soothe her and tell her to 'add oil'," Low says. "When you see a kitten being born, you can't help but think this is amazing - the world is so miraculous. You see the little things move, and you're so happy."

To improve the odds for a safe delivery, her cats are taken to the vet for check-ups and ultrasound reports but not all births are successful. "It's sad, but that's life," Low says.

Complications may occur during delivery so it's important to help the cat every step of the way, she says. "Sometimes the kittens don't come out head first. [Without help] there's a good chance they may suffocate."

Each cat can produce between two to three litters a year and up to eight kittens per litter. But Low makes sure her cats don't mate for about six months after delivery to allow more time for recovery.

Aside from those that Low decides to keep, the kittens are mostly sold or given away for adoption, a process that requires interviews with potential owners and multiple home visits.

Danny Tai Chun-yip is another cat fancier who has turned part-time breeder. The financial controller of a regional company, Tai also runs Hoobee cattery, which breeds Persians and exotics.

He started Hoobee in 2006 not only because he was passionate about those breeds but also to promote proper cat care.

Improper breeding, between closely related cats, for example, can cause offspring to inherit traits or conditions that can affect the animal's health, he says.

"Back then, Hong Kong didn't have much knowledge about pedigree cats. A lot of pet shows featured pedigree cats that weren't that healthy, and the standards weren't high enough," says Tai, who is currently training to be a CFA judge for long-haired breeds.

Hoobee is now home to 12 breeding cats, along with a few retired felines, which have free run of five rooms, and Tai and his partner employ two helpers to care for the furry crew.

Running a good cattery requires a large investment of time and money, Tai says. "The expenses are quite high. And for people who have heavy financial burdens, it is hard."

Show cats can become nervous during competition and at exhibitions because of the stressful environment, so owners need to maintain healthy relationships with the felines and ensure that they get ample playtime and stimulation, Tai says.

To prepare his cats for a show, Tai usually lets them listen to music and exposes them to different sounds such as that of a vacuum cleaner to get them accustomed to the noises.

"My cats aren't scared of the sounds any more because they're used to it," he says.

One problem with the swelling band of Hong Kong cat breeders, however, is that it's difficult to know whether an organisation has systems in place to screen for genetic diseases and provide proper care, says Fiona Woodhouse, deputy director of welfare at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Some newer types of cat, like the Scottish Fold, are bred for characteristics that developed from genetic defects, Woodhouse says. The breed's signature downward folding ears are the result of a defect in cartilage development, which can also cause problems in their joints. Similarly, selecting for other extreme physical traits - such as having very short noses or no tail - may also affect the cat's health.

There's a sense of companionship. My cats bring joy into my life
Phebe Low

But catteries are not required to obtain breeding licences in Hong Kong, Woodhouse says, and those who wish to sell animals are merely expected to get a trading licence. This presents a legal loophole that allows commercial operators to run kitten or puppy mills while masquerading as hobby breeders.

"We think all breeding operations should be regulated, even if you're not selling the animal," Woodhouse says, citing sanitation issues and untreated diseases as main concerns regarding breeding sites.

The SPCA official advises animal lovers wishing to own pedigree cats to do their research, and either adopt or get them directly from breeders rather than pet shops.

Robert Chen Sen-lay, owner of the Rockarags cattery, urges people to visit the breeder if they are thinking about getting a pedigree cat.

Checking out the cattery allows you to assess the cat's living environment "because you can usually see multiple generations of cats", Chen says. "At a pet shop, it's an impulse buy."

For cat fanciers like Low, their cats are ultimately a part of the family. Even her mother, who wasn't too fond of the cats at first, grew to love them - so much so that she would give them lai see packets to mark Lunar New Year, Low says.

When her mother became ill, it was the cats that brought her solace before she died in 2012. "There's a sense of companionship," Low says. "My cats bring joy into my life."