English translation of an excerpt of my article in Ryska Posten nr 1-2012.
January 21st 2012 was a beautiful winter’s day in Helsinki. The Finnish capital was covered by a thick layer of light snow. Suomen Venäjänsiniset ry arranged breed seminar on Russian Blue, the second in a row, on the occasion of the club’s 20th anniversary.
Everyone interested in Russian Blue, judges as well as breeders and cat owners, was invited. The seminar brought together 30 or so enthusiastic participants from Finland, Estonia, Sweden and Norway.
The chairman of Suomen Venäjänsiniset ry, Marianna Ripatti, opened the seminar with a presentation of the club and its history. The first litter of Russian Blue kittens in Finland was born in 1964. In 1985, Rådbackens Ofelia was imported from Sweden. This cat is regarded as the foundation for the Russian Blue breeding in Finland. Cats were mainly imported from Sweden, but also from other countries such as Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.
The breeding of Russian Blue boomed in the 1990s and Suomen Venäjänsiniset was established in 1992 to support the breeding of Russian Blue and to make the breed known. Around this time it became common to see Russian Blue at cat shows. New breeders and increased import and export of cats characterized the 2000s. More recently, the Internet and email has led to increased contact with breeders abroad.
Suomen Venäjänsiniset ry has profiled itself as a club for breeders as well as cat owners. Marianna Ripatti showed pictures from the club’s activities from board meetings to presentation shows and the annual summer party by the sea. The club also has a registry for kittens and sires and publishes a member’s magazine Siniset Sanomat. She concluded her talk by pointing out some challenges for the future including the development of the breed, health issues and the small number of sires.
Biologist Jaana Tähtinen then held a very interesting lecture on the breeding of Russian Blue in Finland from a statistical point of view. Due to limited space, I can only include a few key points from Jaana’s lecture in this article.
She began with a quick introduction to Genetics. In a cell there are two copies of each gene, one from the father and one from the mother. These varieties of the same gene are called alleles. She first defined the term inbreeding coefficient, hereafter COI, which most of you probably have encountered in Pawpeds.
Relationship between cat X and Y is defined as the number of the same inherited alleles in the total genetic material that they have in common. A kitten inherits 50% of the genes from the father and 50% of the genes from the mother. Shared alleles and relationship to each parent is thus 50%. The inbreeding coefficient of the offspring can be calculated by dividing the parent’s relationship with 2.
A cross between parent and offspring will give offspring with a COI of 50/2 = 25%, the same as a cross between siblings. A cross between half-siblings will give offspring with a COI of 25/2 = 12%, the same as a cross between grandparents and grandchildren. For comparison, a cross between cousins will give offspring with a COI of 6.25%.
Upon question from the audience whether it was correct that genes farther back than four generations had no significance, Jaana said that the genes in the last 10 generations were most important. I was probably not the only one in the audience who was exited to hear that as I too have cats with Skvallergränds Olga Aleksandrovna further back than four generations. Jaana also stressed that the most damaging was the inbreeding in the first five generations.
COI does not tell the whole truth about damaging inbreeding. If you cross two cats which are not related, COI of the offspring will be 0% even if there has been inbreeding on both sides. Jaana therefore introduced the concept of Ancestor Loss Coefficient, hereafter ALC, expressing possible genetic variation in the individual. ALC will be the inverse of the loss of genetic variation. When calculating the ALC the highest number you can get is 100%, indicating that no one of the ancestors occur in more than one place in the pedigree. This means that the loss of genetic variation is 0%. ALC is a measure of the number of different ancestors on both mother’s and father’s side. ALC is calculated by dividing the actual number of different ancestors by the total theoretical number of ancestors over a number of generations. It is common to go back 5 generations, because inbreeding in these generations is considered the most harmful. If you go back 5 generations in the pedigree, the maximum is 62 different ancestors. If you can count 31 different ancestors spread over the 5 generation, this will result in an ALC on 31/62 = 50%. This means that half of the possible variation in the total genetic material has been lost. Jaana stressed that breeders should use both COI and ACL as these numbers together give better information.
The result of inbreeding is that genetic variation is reduced. The effects of recessive gene combinations appear as homozygous alleles become more common. This causes genetic defects and diseases that have previously been held in check by healthy alleles to appear. Fewer alleles also mean less ability to adapt to environmental changes, thus cat breeds with a narrow gene pool have less chance to survive in the future. Inbreeding can lead to inbreeding depression, characterized by reduced litter size and birth weight and an increase of stillborn kittens and deformations. Moreover, it can cause problems with reproduction, slower growth in kittens, and reduced size of adult animals. Resistance to disease is reduced and allergies may increase.
Why have some breeders made use of inbreeding? The aim has been to develop a consistent quality of the cats with a look that also reflects the homogeneous qualities. There has been an attempt to allocate the good genes. Individual successes of inbred litters have created an illusion that this is a good way to breed. One has concentrated on appearance and forgot about the other genes. In the long run, inbreeding has proved to cause health problems in many dog and cat breeds.
Jaana concluded by advising us to put the greatest emphasis on health, then temperament, fertility and appearance of the breed.
Outi Niemi then gave a lecture on the collection of health and breeding data. Outi has experience with the collection of data in the Korat club. There are many benefits of collecting data. When objective health data exists for the breed, it is easier for breeders to evaluate their breeding program and to inform kitten buyers about the health issues of the breed. It can also be quicker and easier for veterinarians to give the correct diagnosis. Many of the DNA tests currently available have been developed with the help of breed clubs.
It is often difficult or impossible to create a sample that is representative of the population. In reality, it will be up to the cat owners and breeders if they want to participate in the survey or not. It is possible that breeders who have encountered health problems are over-represented among the respondents. If the survey is not anonymous, it is also a risk that the respondents do not answer the questions truthfully. It is also important to consider the age structure of the cats in the study, since many diseases are first diagnosed at an advanced age.
Outi concluded by saying that even simple calculations and statistical tables can provide interesting information. Health data can answer many types of questions, such as the percentage in an age group with a given diagnosis. One can also discover correlation between a particular condition and other characteristics such as age, gender, colour and pedigree. Breeding data can be used to calculate the average litter size and weight, kitten survival rate and frequency of problems at birth, to name a few applications.
Then it was time for lunch. We were served a warming chicken soup with bread. There was also time to meet with old friends and make new acquaintances. It was especially nice to meet Katja who owns S * Vatulands Iines-Mariya, litter sister to my Igor.
After lunch Kai Ruonala gave a lecture about the standard from a judge’s perspective. Kai has 20 years of experience as a judge in FIFe. He has previously bred Russian Blue, but has now gone over to the Burmese.
How should we read and understand the Russian Blue standard? Kai began his talk by reminding us that the standard describes a PERFECT cat and errors that exclude certificates.
First, the cat must have a clearly visible angle. The forehead should be flat and the nose should be straight and short. The combination of a long nose and a round top makes a bad oriental!
The head should be broad. When you consider the cat from the front, it should not look like a cod (fish) you just caught! The chin should be strong.
Regarding whisker pads, it is important that the judge feels the bone structure. There should be a straight line behind the whisker pads, anything else is considered a fault.
Unlike the GCCF standard, the ears of the FIFe Russian Blue should have a broad base. There should also be ample space between the ears. Viewed from the front, the ears should be nearly vertical.
There is only 10 points for shape and color of the eyes. The colour should be intensive green. All other eye colours than green are disqualifying for certificate.
The eyes should be slightly tilted. This can best be observed when the cat is sleeping.
The coat should be short and plush.
Finally, Kai mentioned coat colour. The standard accepts only one color – blue. All other colours are disqualifying for certificate. The judge should bring the cat to the window, to see the cat daylight. Does the coat still reflect blue? Or does the coat reflect pink or brown?
A cat show is a beauty contest. The cat’s condition will vary over time. Of course, everybody wants to win. Kai Ruonala will choose the cat that best meets the standard, regardless of the cats’ owner or breeder.