The term "genetic mutation" invokes a vision of something weird and scary in our minds, thanks to sci-fi movies and tv. What research has shown is that in many cases, mutations are good things. Scientists say a naturally occurring, mutated gene in the feral cat population led to the unusual, unique-but-loveable lykoi cat. A hairless face and leathery ears and nose combined with some dog-like behaviors led to its name, a variation on the Greek word for wolf.
The lykoi or "Werewolf Cat" is a small to medium-build feline with a lean, muscular body and long, slender legs. Their most prevalent feature is a facial mask — an absence of hair around the eyes, nose, muzzle, chin, and back of the ears — which gives them their wolf-like appearance. Some lykoi have completely hairless bodies or patchy coats, while others have fairly normal fur patterns. Although they may have visual similarities with sphynx cats, there is no genetic connection between the two.
Cat experts discovered hairless kittens in feral litters in the U.S. in 2010. These became an inspiration for the lykoi. Researchers conducted genetic testing and identified a recessive gene that was unrelated to other hairless mutations, though not necessarily new. Additional tests showed that the unusual lykoi hair growth pattern was not caused by disease, infection, or disorders. The research proved that lykoi genes are unlike those of any other breed.
Lykoi kittens are often born hairless, though some are born with a black coat. The original lykoi bloodlines molted most of their coats throughout adulthood. However, newer breeding lines have thicker, more stable coats that molt less. Cats in cooler climates may develop slightly heavier coats, but not always. One of their most unusual features is their pink skin. Light and heat turn the cat’s pink skin dark, or “tans” it. Some even freckle. After a couple of weeks away from sunlight, the skin turns back to pink.
While most of the photos you see of lykoi cats show a sparse, grayish coat, there are several other coat colors that can change after molting. From long and short-haired, black roan “wolfie colors,” to red roans, whites, tabbies, and tortie shades, the soft, silky lykoi coat can be just about any solid or bi-color. Some colors are quite rare and hard to find due to the limited gene pool — there are fewer than 1000 lykoi cats in existence.
Cat fanciers may be a bit confused by the lykoi personality. Instead of cuddling on the couch, they’re highly active and prefer playing all day long. They not only look like wolves, but they have dog-like personality traits, as well. The lykoi has a strong prey drive similar to that of a hunting dog. When lykoi cats get together, they behave like a pack of puppies, chasing after anything that resembles prey. Owners say these cats are extremely loyal and intelligent pets that are outgoing and friendly. Before accepting a new situation, however, they’ll size it up in a very cat-like way.
Some cats do fine outdoors in cooler weather without any adverse effects, but not the lykoi. They lack the protective undercoat that keeps other feline breeds from the cold, and they risk hypothermia. Indoors, the lykoi is most comfortable at temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees. They love laying anywhere they feel warmth — near sunny windows, curled up under blankets, or stretched out across your cable box or game console.
Breeders have identified no specific genetic health issues in the breed, probably because of its diverse gene pool. However, they are a natural mutation of the domestic shorthair cat, which is a mix of various breeds, so the lykoi could share some of the same health concerns. A hereditary disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) is one health issue for domestic shorthairs, and hip dysplasia is another common ailment for domestic cats.
Because it is new, breeders continue to learn more about this unusual but fascinating breed.
A veterinarian and two other breeders officially founded the lykoi name in 2011. The International Cat Association (TICA) officially recognized the breed in 2017. The black roan color is the only color that is eligible for championship competitions, though the TICA accepts other coat colors for breeding and registration. A set of standards designates the ideal behavioral and physical characteristics of the breed.
The development of the lykoi breed hasn’t been without controversy. Some cat lovers say they are just another designer breed and the genetic mutation is a cruel reason for breeding them. Breeders argue that most cat breeds created over the last 150 years are genetic mutations and every breed has at least one trait that can be unpredictable.
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