Mental Floss

7 Short Facts About Munchkin Cats

Kirstin Fawcett
Munchkin cats are tiny but pack a big cuteness punch.
Munchkin cats are tiny but pack a big cuteness punch. / rukawajung/iStock via Getty Images

With its short little legs and low-slung torso, some people view the Munchkin cat as the feline version of a Dachshund. Here are seven facts about the stubby-limbed kitty.

1. The Munchkin breed arose from a genetic mutation.

Like many unusual cat types (the Cornish Rex and the Manx, to name a few), the Munchkin breed arose from a spontaneous genetic mutation. The Munchkin’s short legs are caused by an autosomal dominant gene, which causes the long bones in a cat's legs to grow shorter. A cat only needs one copy of the gene to inherit short legs and to pass the trait along to its kittens.

One warning to breeders: The Munchkin gene is sometimes referred to as the "lethal" gene because if a Munchkin cat embryo receives one of these genes from each parent, it won't survive. That's why breeders don't mate two short-legged Munchkin cats together. Cats born with long legs can carry the Munchkin gene, and they're often mated with each other, or a short-legged Munchkin cat, to produce a litter of healthy, stubby-limbed kittens.

2. The first American Munchkin was a pregnant stray named Blackberry. 

Throughout the 20th century, various individuals documented sightings of short-legged feral cats in Great Britain, Russia, and New England. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that people officially began breeding the “Kangaroo cat,” which some people called the kitty because its forelegs were shorter than its hind legs.

The modern-day American Munchkin cat is descended from a short-legged pregnant stray, rescued in Rayville, Louisiana in the early 1980s by a music teacher named Sandra Hockenedel. The cat birthed similar-looking kittens, and Hochenedel gave one of them to her friend, Kay LaFrance. Since LaFrance let the cat roam around outside, her property was soon filled with short-legged cats.

Hochenedel and LaFrance believed they had a new breed on their hands. In 1990, the two connected with Solveig Pflueger, a cat show judge and chairperson of The International Cat Association's (TICA) genetics committee. Pflueger and other experts examined the cats to evaluate the inheritance and expression of their short-legged trait.

The geneticists were worried that the Munchkin would have problems with its spine, similar to short-legged dog breeds. They didn’t find any deformities in the cats’ joints or backbones, but, since the breed was so new, some critics didn’t believe that these studies were definitive.

3. It's unclear how the Munchkin cat got its name.

The Munchkin cat is presumably named after The Wizard of Oz's munchkins, but there are two conflicting tales as to how they received the moniker. According to one account, LaFrance gave Pflueger a few of the short-limbed cats, and one of them turned out to be pregnant. Pflueger's daughter named one of them Mushroom the Munchkin, and voila, a breed was born.

But another story states that Pflueger's short-legged kittens were asked to appear on Good Morning America. The show called her and asked the name of the breed, and Pflueger quickly chose "Munchkin" in honor of the classic film and novel.

4. The Munchkin cat is a controversial breed.

In 1991, the Munchkin cat was formally introduced to the public via a nationally televised cat show, sponsored by TICA and hosted at Madison Square Garden. By 1994, the Munchkin was proposed as an official breed, and was accepted into TICA’s New Breed development program.

The Munchkin wasn’t met with outstretched arms, but with unsheathed claws. Some members of the public were horrified over the cat’s physical shape, and one of TICA's judges even resigned, calling the breed “an affront to any breeder with ethics.”

Today, many people argue that breeding the Munchkin is unethical because it perpetuates physical deformities. Experts say that Munchkins are fine, health-wise. However, due to the controversy, the Cat Fanciers Association (CFA) and the American Cat Fanciers Association (ACFA) won't recognize the Munchkin.

5. Munchkins can have health problems (but the jury's out on whether they're breed-specific).

Aside from their slightly funny walk (and a difficulty jumping onto high surfaces), Munchkins are considered to be a relatively healthy breed. Typically, they live from around 12 to 15 years. Some kittens do, however, suffer from lordosis—a condition in which the spinal muscles grow too short, making the spine sink down into the cat’s body. In worst-case scenarios, this condition can be fatal. Munchkins are also sometimes afflicted by pectus excavatum, a deformity that’s also called “funnel chest” because it causes the cat’s breast bone to sink inwards. But since other cat breeds are afflicted by lordosis and pectus excavatum, many Munchkin breeders argue that it’s not specific to their beloved short-legged kitty.

6. Munchkin cats come in all kinds of shades, patterns, and colors.

The Munchkin’s most distinguishing feature is its legs, which are bow-legged and typically half as long as a regular cat’s limbs. Aside from its stubby appendages, the Munchkin looks and acts exactly like a normal, medium-sized feline, and comes in a variety of patterns, colors, and fur lengths.

7. A Munchkin is the world's shortest living cat.

In 2013, Guinness World Records named Lilieput, a tortoiseshell Munchkin cat from Napa, California, the world’s shortest living cat. The diminutive kitty stands a mere 5.25 inches tall from the bottoms of her paws to the top of her shoulders.