Dog Breeds Diversity Verses Cats Breeds Explainer

With Puppy Bowl on the horizon in a few days and the Westminster Dog Show right around the corner, we couldn’t help but wonder about the diversity of dog breeds lately. Turns out, we’re not the only ones pondering the unmistakable variety of puppies and show dogs when it comes to traits like size, shape, weight, height, coat color, texture and many more variables.

Case in point: There’s a huge difference between a tiny Pomeranian and a giant English Mastiff (more than 100 pounds!), yet not so much between a small Munchkin cat and a large Maine Coon (maybe 10 — 15 pounds).

Business Insider released a video this week addressing that very topic, while simultaneously addressing the lack of variety in the world’s cat breed population. According to the American Kennel Club, there are currently 192 different recognized dog breeds in the U.S. (and that’s not even counting all the designer mix breeds and other varieties of mixed dogs out there; the World Canine Organization recognizes 340 breeds), while there are only 42 distinct cat breeds. How did this come to pass and why?

As seen in the above video, and expanded upon by Live Science, in domestic species of both dogs and cats, “breeds represent lineages that were carefully monitored and manipulated over time through selective breeding to consistently produce animals with certain traits,” says Professor Leslie Lyons of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Missouri.

Variations in the way an animal looks (as well as behavior) often develop naturally through genetic mutations. However, these changes are further exacerbated by the human selection process; people who find the new traits appealing continue to perpetuate them when raising forthcoming generations of animals.

This is where we come to our first difference between dog breeds verses cat breeds: According to Prof. Lyons, the various cat breeds seen today have only been around for approximately 75 years, when humans started selecting for unique traits and raising unique types of felines. However, a 2008 study called “The Ascent of Cat Breeds: Genetic Evaluations of Breeds and Worldwide Random Bred Populations” released by the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health further explains that most cat breeds were developed within the last 150 years, mostly in Europe and the U.S.

Although there are distinct genetic clusterings of cat breeds depending on their origins (the Mediterranean basin, Europe/America, Asia and Africa),  the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) has specified 16 breeds as “foundation” felines: Persians, Russian Blues, Siamese and Angora cats, for example. While they are distinct from each other, the purebreds are still very similar structurally to the random or wild-bred cats of their regions. As people continue to breed them, their overall groupings remain quite close genetically speaking.

Meanwhile, dog breeds have been developing for hundreds or even thousands of years. According to Elaine Ostrander, chief investigator in the Cancer Genetics and Comparative Genomics Branch of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, the domestication of dogs began at least 19,000 years ago (vs. cats 10,000 years ago). Although both species played roles helping early humans, dogs have been responsible for a number of different tasks or “working jobs,” while cats mostly just controlled vermin or acted as companions. Felines performed these limited tasks just fine in their original form, whereas dogs were literally shaped to mankind’s various needs. This difference is key.

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“Our data shows that very deliberate crossbreeding and selection for particular traits played the biggest role in the amazing diversity we see running around the dog park today,” Ostrander said.

So, in our modern day where cats are working different jobs too — from firehouse pets to city mayors — will feline breeds ever catch up to their canine brethren?

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Not likely, reports Business Insider. Carolyn Vella, a former CFA member, told the outlet that cats were mostly bred to be admired, and besides, “We have an awful lot of people who are against pedigreed animals of all kinds because we have a situation where we have a lot of shelter animals. They are very much opposed to breeding animals because they want the shelters to be empty.”

Vella’s comment alludes to groups like PETA, which are against breeding due to the health issues often associated with the practice. Bulldogs have breathing problems, German shepherds often suffer from hip dysplasia and wrinkly faced shar-pei’s skin folds may harbor infectious bacteria. Similarly, pedigree cats are also associated with higher risk of joint and kidney problems, as well as cancer.

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Prof. Lyons says the AKC and CFA are keeping track of scientific research about both cat and dog breed genetics. “[They] are trying their best to not allow bad things to happen with the good things they want as well,” Lyons said.

On that note, you can count on more designer dog breeds in the coming years. Stanley Coren, author of the 2008 book The Modern Dog, says “Dogs are constantly evolving as we’re continually building variants of dog breeds.”

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