Black Cats Are Not Unlucky at All

Black Cats Are Not Unlucky at All

One of the things that happens after you move to raw feeding is that you begin to question. For many years I fed inappropriate food to my cats because I had never questioned the status quo. It was a shock to realize how much I had taken for granted. I had never asked myself the "why" of what I was doing. I now realize I should have been asking myself a lot more basic questions. Asking why.
 
Now I look for other things I should be asking "why" about. Questioning some of the things we accept as given can lead us to interesting places. We should be more like children when we ask questions. They ask the kind of questions that get at the basic why behind things. Things that adults have stopped noticing. A child will ask "Why is the sky blue?" As adults we think: well, just because it is, that's why — if we think about it all. We take it for granted that it's blue. Always has been, right? But really answering that question leads us into some interesting and basic science about chemistry, physics and the behavior of light.
 
I recently asked myself one of those kinds of questions: Why are there so many black cats?
 
Black colored fur is a naturally occurring mutation in many cat species. Of the 37 felidae species, 11 express the black gene mutation.¹ These include the domestic cat, leopard, cheetah, jaguar, caracal, serval, jaguarundi, lynx, bobcat, Scottish wild cat and Geoffroy's cat. This mutation is called melanism. It appears less commonly in other animals and is usually commented upon when it happens. But people don't think twice about our cats being black.
 
It turns out that there may be a very good reason that so many cats are black. A study conducted at the National Cancer Institute reveals that melanism has developed independently at least four different times, using different gene mutations, among the different cat species.² The mutations for melanism in jaguars and jaguarundis occur in the same gene, MC1R. The MC1R gene belongs to a family of genes that code for receptors that stud cell surfaces. In humans, these receptors are used by certain viruses, including HIV, to break into the cells. People with mutations in these receptors are much less likely to become HIV infected than those with normal versions of the receptor. Because of this similarity, it is theorized that the melanism mutation in cats may give them protection from some viral infections.³
 
Melanism in animals other than cats is seen as a special, rare occurance.Melanism in animals other than cats is seen as a special, rare occurance.The melanism mutation in domestic cats is a two base pair deletion on the ASIP gene. The ASIP gene is the agouti gene, which controls the color banding on the hair shaft. With resistance to some viral infections as a side effect, having a black coat can increase your chances for survival, and your chances to pass along the black fur mutation to your offspring.
 
What started as a chance mutation becomes an evolutionary advantage.
 
 
This makes me curious as to whether black cats in the present have a lower incidence of feline viral infections such as FIV and FeLV. Are black cats more common in feral cat colonies? Might they have an advantage in resisting the infections so common in large groups of outdoor felines? The NCI scientists were so intrigued by the results of their work that a study as to whether black cats were more resistant or immune to FIV was contemplated.
 
So, next time a black cat crosses your path, just think: there goes one lucky cat!
 
Margaret Gates is the founder the Feline Nutrition Foundation.
 
  1. E. Eizirik, N. Yuhki, W. E. Johnson, M. Menotti-Raymond, S. S. Hannah, and S. J. O'Brien, "Molecular Genetics and Evolution of Melanism in the Cat Family," Current Biology 13, March 4, 2003, 448-453.
  2. Adam Marcus, "Black Cats and Genomics Cross Paths," Genome News Network, March 21, 2003.
  3. Marcus, "Black Cats."
  4. E. Eizirik, N. Yuhki, W. E. Johnson, M. Menotti-Raymond, S. S. Hannah, and S. J. O'Brien, "Molecular Genetics and Evolution of Melanism in the Cat Family," Current Biology 13, March 4, 2003, 448-453.
  5. Adam Marcus, "Black Cats and Genomics Cross Paths," Genome News Network, March 21, 2003.
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