After multiple reader requests, I did some looking into Lykoi cats - the "Werewolf Cats" that have been popping up on social media as a new 'weird pet' fad. I fully expected to have to report that they're not cute or healthy and that you shouldn't support the breeder... and I was happily surprised! The Lykoi project is actually a prime example of a responsible, dedicated breeding program; they focus heavily on health testing (including before they decided to breed any of their animals), they're transparent about their methodology, they put a lot of effort into outcrossing and keeping the genetic diversity high in their population, and best of all, they make a point of finding loving homes for the cats that don't meet the breed standard just as much as they do all their black roan 'ideal type' cats. The breed still runs the risk of going the way of the doodles - picked up as a fad and badly bred by backyard mills - but at the moment, they're a pretty great project.
No, they're not a wolf-cat cross. Or an opossum-cat, or an opossum-wolf. (Yes, these are questions the breeders apparently get asked). They're 100% domestic cats.
What is most impressive about this breeding project is it's transparency. Although their new website isn't entirely complete yet and is a bit hard to follow at times, the information contained within is more than most breeders ever offer up front. It covers:
- Origins of the founding animals.
- Health testing done to ensure founders were healthy to breed.
- Information on the lykoi mutation.
- The important of outcrossing for genetic diversity.
- Incorporation of feral lykoi cats to prevent inbreeding.
- The gene that controls the weird partial coat of Lykoi cats is a naturally occurring mutation.
- The reasoning behind the choice to breed for black roan coats specifically.
- The importance of valuing all lykoi cats, even those that are not black roan or are carriers that do not express it.
The Lykoi look appears to be a caused by a natural mutation in domestic shorthair cats that results in screwy hair follicles. Some cannot produce hair at all, so Lykoi lack an undercoat. Others are unable to sustain correct hair growth, which leads to the patchy Lykoi coat and their tendency to molt or 'drop coat'. The two pairs of founder cats were both found by rescue organizations and were born to apparently normal domestic shorthair mothers. Since the announcement of the 'breed' a few years ago, multiple other Lykoi cats have been found in feral populations around the world and adopted by the cattery after health sceening to introduce new genetic diversity into the population. That's one of the things that makes the Lykoi project so unique: the founders have a strong dedication to producing healthy - not inbred - cats and the experience to do so successfully.
The people who run the Lykoi cattery, the Gobbels, both have strong appropriate backgrounds for making their project successful and ethical. Johnny Gobbel is a practicing DVM with a specialized background in population genetics; his wife Brittany is a long-time Sphynx cat breeder who has focused heavily on outcrossing.
Upon receiving the first pair two pairs of founding lykoi kittens (who were then assumed to be some sort of sphynx mixes), the Gobbels decided it was important to make sure their coat was not a result of a disease or a disorder. The healthy of the four founder cats were tested in a number of clinics across the country, each looking for a different thing: in-clinic (infectious disease, cardiac scans), UC Davis (DNA test for Sphynx/Rex genes, genetic disease, color, blood type), and University of Tennessee (skin testing). When these tests were complete, the Gobbels and the scientists they worked with were comfortable declaring that the lykoi appearance is caused by a natural and seemingly harmless mutation. The only potential problem that lykoi cats might be more prone to than a normal domestic shorthair would be skin issues from sun exposure. While there's no evidence for it being an issue so far, a statement by the breeder that the cats tan and freckle easily in from short sun exposure (and then lose the pigmentation over time) makes it seem reasonable that with old age might come complications.
Once the cats were vetted as being healthy to breed, the Gobbels worked to develop the breed standard and a healthy population of cats. The decided 'breed standard' desirable coat was picked to be a 'black roan' because it makes the 'wolfy' characteristics stand out. Black roan is defined as a dark black coat with white interspersed in it - lykoi black roan cats can have up to 70% white hairs to still fit that standard. Interestingly enough, due to the screwy hair follicle that cause their unique look, the coloration of a lykoi cat's coat can change with each time it drops coat and grows it back in.
However, a preference for a black roan coat doesn't mean that the Gobbels are only breeding black roan lykoi. Instead, they're breeding any color of lykoi that happens to arise in feral populations (they've taken in cats from feral colonies in at least six states) with their lykoi cats and outcrossing only to normal black domestic shorthairs. That choice means they can encourage the prevalence of black cats in their population while not limiting the genetic diversity by only breeding select lykoi out of an already small number of options.
All kittens are found homes - black roan or not - and the breeders encourage responsible spay and neuter practices. (They have an entire section on their website dedicated to discussing spay and neuter practices, informed by Johnny's veterinary practice and years of working with feral cat colonies). Their females purportedly only have a few litters of kittens in their lifetime, and are always rehomed as family pets after their time as colony queens. They've stated that they keep the placed ex-queens as local as possible to ensure their ability to keep up with their health and provide support to the families, which is a great level of continued involvement in the welfare of their cats. They're only just starting to place out kittens into pet homes - until now, all of their offspring were placed with other breeding colonies to expand the gene pool.
It's obvious that the Gobbels are very into education and outreach regarding their cats. The website contains more information than you see from most breeders, and they also put together this 14-page e-magazine that goes into much more detail about their cats. If you're curious about the breed standard of a lykoi aside from 'black', the publication actually goes through all the desirable structures and what is faulted. For a newly created breed that's only just taking off, that's a huge amount of accessible information.
If you think you want one? Well, you better get on a waiting list now, and they're upwards of $1100 a kitten. They're well-bred, well-cared for cats, but they're still definitely designer pets.
There is some concern in the breeding community that the odd-looking lykoi cats will become the next 'designer breed' fad and be taken over back unscrupulous backyard breeders. This isn't inconceivable, since lykoi cats do occasionally show up in feral populations naturally. The man who created the Labradoodle mix has removed himself from the breed and regrets having ever started the craze, due to the number of unhealthy and poorly bred doodles being churned out by profit-motivated breeders to satisfy the demand for his gimmicky cross-breed. On one hand, there's good reason to worry about any new designer animal becoming too popular and having their health compromised for popularity - but lykoi cats also allow fanciers to have a 'unique' and 'visually remarkable' cat without going to so far as hybridized exotic animals.
No matter what you think of the hairless and 'wolfy' look of the lykoi cats, it's nice to at least know that for the moment they're healthy and well-bred animals coming out of a well-run cattery. The people who run the project are experienced in not just animal care but population genetics and have created their pet project with foresight and consideration. This one, you can share as cute.