Life as a cat breeder

Mary Jones, who breeds Selkirk Rex cats in Wisconsin, has been showing and breeding cats since 1969. “It all started with a Siamese cat bought for me as a gift,” she said. “She was an award winner. The president of the cat club came to visit and convinced me to have one litter (she had a grand champion male). So I had 1 litter – three kittens – and I was talked into showing.”

In 1996, Mary acquired a Selkirk Rex, and she never looked back. The Selkirk Rex, an American breed characterized by long, curly fur, was discovered and further developed by geneticist and Persian cat breeder Jeri Newman, of Montana, in 1987. By 1992 the breed was accepted by The International Cat Association (TICA).

Ragnar, a Selkirk Rex owned by Jennifer Anderson, receives an award from Bob Zenda (who has judged cat shows for 40+ years). Contributed photo

The Selkirk Rex is still quite a rare breed, with few breeders in the Midwest. But once Mary Jones got “Lambsie,” her first of the large-boned, curly-haired cats, she was soon showing and breeding them.

“Being a breeder is not that hard,” said Mary. “You just have to keep things financially straight. And mainly, it’s an expensive hobby.”

As Amy Hoppe, who breeds Siberian cats near St. Cloud, said, “You only make money as a breeder if you have a lot of cats – and we don’t.”

There are plenty of costs associated with breeding cats including veterinarian costs, good quality food, cat litter plus cat “furniture” and toys.

It can also be time-consuming. Amy takes photos and videos each week to send to the families who are waiting for their kittens. In addition, there is brushing, grooming, and getting the cats and kittens to their vet appointments.

Mary Jones also listed the cost of DNA testing. She is very careful, as are the Hoppes and most breeders, not to breed cats with any genetic problems or diseases.

Amy and her husband, Glen, began breeding Siberians when Amy found out she was allergic to cats.  They had owned rescue cats in the past, but when their aged family cat passed away, Amy went through a battery of tests and found that her cat allergy was quite pronounced. Worried that her children might also have feline allergies, since they are often passed on genetically, Amy began looking for hypoallergenic cats.  After adopting their first Siberian, “Daphne,” the Hoppes “fell in love with the breed” and began breeding Siberians in order to share them with others.

Although Mary Jones feels that showing is important in order to “build a bloodline with credentials,” Amy and Glen Hoppe have decided not to show their cats. They feel that they don’t need to show, since they are primarily breeding for “the chance to provide wonderful low-allergen pets to others with feline allergies.” And, since showing can also cause some anxiety in cats, they have chosen not to expose their own cats to the show ring, although they do attend shows in order to “stay in step with breed standards and meet other breeders.”

“We’re not interested in ribbons or trophies,” said Amy. “We’re not attempting to be ‘breeder of the year’ or win accolades for our cattery, we just want to raise friendly, healthy pets for families to enjoy.  So while we appreciate the effort many breeders put into showing their cats, that route is not for us.”

The Hoppes enjoy their breeding activities. They keep their cats and kittens in the house with them as much as possible and raise them to be as comfortable around people as they can be. The exception is the male, “stud,” who mainly has to stay in another, special room which the Hoppes added on to their home.  “We do bring him out when we can,” said Amy, who found “stud pants” to put on the male so he can come into the rest of the house. They are like a diaper so that if he sprays it stays in the pants.

Becky Beckmann, who breeds Bengal cats – as well as border collies and Australian Shepherds – with her partner Steve Burdine in Stacy, Minnesota, said raising cats is “about 100 times more difficult than raising dogs.”

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Becky.

Benjie, a Bengal cat. Contributed photo

Perhaps some of the difference in experiences is due to the type of cat, as the Bengal is a high-energy cat that likes to climb and jump. They are very spunky and love to play.

“The Internet,” said Becky, “has portrayed Bengals as a tiger or jungle cat that will sit in your lap while you pet it. But Bengals are busy, high-energy cats. They are not as likely to sit on your lap as many other breeds.”

Breeding “is a lot of hard work,” said Becky, who wants people to understand what they are getting into.  “Scooping cat litter and cleaning cages, taking them to the vet, there is plenty of work involved.”

Bengals look very much like a leopard or like their distant ancestor, the wild Asian leopard cat, but they are fully domesticated. Their gorgeous markings and playful personality makes them a wonderful pet.  Becky found Bengals after a much-loved cat had passed away.

“They do have a distinctive temperament, though,” said Becky, who makes sure to ask prospective cat owners if they have researched the breed. “Bengal cats,” for instance, “love water.” Becky once had a kitten returned by a new owner who was upset that the kitten was playing in water. “But that’s what they do,” said Becky.

Bengals also are so energetic and intelligent that, if they do not have enough toys to play with or are left alone too long, they can become bored and perhaps destructive. For this reason, Becky recommends that new pet owners may want to get two kittens if they are going to be at work all day. “They need playmates, just like kids,” said Becky.

Xannie, a Siberian cat owned by Dede Barsness.

Dede Barness, who raises Siberian cats in the south central town of Webster, Minnesota, works at home and keeps the kittens with her while she works. “Most of my kittens are raised running around my art room, where I spend most of my day,” said Dede, “and their evenings are spent in the family room with my husband and myself.” The kittens are raised “to fit into a busy home situation,” she explained, as she always keeps in the back of her mind that they will soon be leaving to fulfill someone else’s dreams.

“Siberian cats,” said Dede, “are kind in nature, intelligent and love to be near you.” They make wonderful companions, said Dede, who enjoys painting them, as well as raising them.

“This is truly the most heartwarming and yet challenging job I personally have ever had,” exclaimed Dede, adding, “It’s quite a commitment taking on the responsibility of the health and welfare of multiple cats and their kittens, as well as making yourself available to buyers and potential buyers.”

“My job,” said Dede, “doesn’t end when a kitten goes to their new home. I make myself available to answer questions and offer guidance if needed. I view my job as a way that I can be of help to those dealing with allergies and longing for a cat.”

Jennifer Anderson, who owns a cat grooming salon in Richfield, Minnesota, has done some breeding, but mostly considers herself “a groomer who loves to show my cats.” Her Selkirk Rex stud, Ragnar, recently won prizes at the Saintly City Cat Show in St. Paul. However, after moving her cat grooming business to a different location, Jennifer felt she did not have enough space to keep Ragnar as a stud.  So Ragnar was neutered, and Jennifer’s female “queen” was spayed and then re-homed.  (“Retired” queens and studs are usually spayed or neutered and then are often given or sold to a new home once their days of reproduction are over.)

Jennifer, who has also raised standard poodles and silken windhounds, said she found it harder to sell kittens than puppies. When she sold puppies, she used an online application and did a phone interview with prospective owners in order to make sure they would be going to a good home. But selling kittens seemed to be harder. Jennifer is not sure if she will breed the one kitten she has remaining – although “she really is beautiful!”   

“But – I am really more on the hobby side,” said Jennifer.

Epic is a mink Bengal owned by Becky Beckmann and Steve Burdine. Contributed photo

As Mary Jones pointed out, people get into breeding for all different reasons. And – people stop breeding for many reasons, also.  Some find it is too time-consuming or even too costly.    

But for Mary and her family, showing and breeding cats is an important part of their lives. “The show cycle has been a good way of teaching young people about good habits and good sportsmanship, since they can be thrown out for bad behavior,” said Mary. Children also learn about the work that goes into showing cats, like how to disinfect or wipe out the cages in between showings. Getting paid for their work was also a good experience for them.

Having involved her family in her passion, Mary has been pleased that her daughter, Julie, and her grandchildren have continued to be involved. As Mary said, “It is something you get dedicated to.”