Let's face it. There's only one question when talking about Manx cats: Why don't they have tails? The simple answer is that this ancient breed from the Isle of Man (hence the name) has a genetic mutation in the gene that forms its spine.
It's believed the tailless breed originated on the island but then bred with cats brought along by Nordic explorers – you know, Vikings. Because of the island's isolation and the dominance of the gene, taillessness became a dominant trait among the island's cat population.
Here's what happened: The gene, labeled "M," caused abnormal development of the coccygeal (tail) and sacral vertebrae (the area of the spine just in front of the tail). All Manx have one M gene and one normal gene, with the mutant or Manx gene incomplete dominant, meaning that the two copies of a gene for a particular trait (taillessness, in this case) combine so that neither dominates the other. This translates to the fact that Manx cats are born without tails or with tails of varying lengths. Their tail lengths are classified as:
- The rumpy is completely tailless, with no tail vertebrae. Of the different classifications of Manx, only rumpies are allowed to compete in Cat Fancier Association (CFA) cat shows.
- The rumpy riser has 1 to 7 vertebrae tail vertebrae fused together, with no movement in the tail at all.
- The stumpy has a short tail, or the stump of a tail, usually 2 to 14 vertebrae with normal side to side movement.
- The longy has a nearly normal length tail.
Manx Are More Than Just Taillessness
So that's the tale of the tail. But there's so much more to the Manx. It's a much-beloved breed in the Isle of Man and elsewhere and in 1906 when the CFA formed, the Manx was one of the association's five founding breeds.
Vicki and Glen Webberley own Manx Station Farm & Cattery in Greenwich, New York. They breed and occasionally sell Manx cats and are great fans of the breed. And while taillessness gets most of the attention, Vicki says another striking characteristic is the breed's roundness.
"They're the opposite of the tubular or Siamese, Bengal-style cat," she says. "They've got a short compact body, like a bowling ball. It's often said they're like a bowl of fruit. Their eyes are like cherries, the ear-set is like a slice of melon. The ears are rounded, they're small- to medium-sized and not on top of the head; they're set lower to the side."
The original island cats were shorthairs that bred with longhaired cats. Today Manx can have coats of either type (longhair Manx are called Cymrics.) But whether shorthair or Cymric, both are double coated – which makes it feel like a plush undercoat with coarser outer hairs. And they can come in literally any color and pattern, except pointed (like a Siamese.)
Manx cats have strong hind legs, slightly longer than their forelegs, which gives the backside a jacked-up appearance. They are dense and muscular, and heavier than they look. Webberley says even without a tail for balance they jump well.
In terms of personality and temperament, they might be the most un-catlike cats in the animal kingdom. "They have dog-like personalities and are very bonded to their people," Webberley says. "They come when they're called. They're attentive, they watch you. They want to be with you and wait for you. They'll play fetch. It's like a puppy that doesn't grow up."
Manx cats like to hunt when they're allowed to and will track and capture everything from insects to rodents to birds. They're playful and enjoy company, unlike others of their species who often ignore their human housemates.
To Breed or Not To Breed
Unfortunately there's also a dark side to Manx cats, something called Manx syndrome, a range of serious spinal health issues – predominantly varying forms of spina bifida, when the spinal cord fails to develop properly. Most of these kittens are stillborn, die naturally or are humanely euthanized very soon after birth. However, if this is a known issue, is continuing to breed Manx humane?
"I understand the question and there certainly are groups who feel they shouldn't be, that it's cruel, that the breed shouldn't be perpetuated, and that's one point of view," says Webberley. "The other point of view is that it's one of the oldest breeds, one of the first five officially recognized with the CFA, and they are wonderful cats. And with cognizant breeding you can avoid most of the trouble. Responsible breeders consider the history of the cat, like who they've been bred to and what kind of kittens they've thrown, and look at the two cats in question. The burden is on the breeder to make good decisions, breed carefully and with knowledge."
There's also the uncomfortable issue of docking the tails of stumpy Manx, which some breeders do. Basically, what remains of the tail is snipped off when the kitten is 3 days old. In some places, including Canada, docking tails is illegal.
"Most breeders are breeding for the love of the breed, and the continued health and viability, not to make money," she says. "When you come up against the difficult issues of docking tails or whether [Manx] should exist, I hope people consider we're trying to maintain an ancient breed."