Compared to dogs, cats don’t have a whole lot of physical variety. They’re roughly the same size and shape and come in a relatively small range of colors and patterns. You may have noticed walking down the street a cat that has part of one of their ears gone or their tail is completely missing. Is that cat supposed to look like that? If you can believe it, there is a reason for it. There are many little physical changes that can make a cat stand out!
In this short guide, we’re going to stick to things you might find in “garden variety” cats, rather than features that are usually the result of selective breeding, such as the short legs of a munchkin cat or the flat ears of a Scottish fold. There’s plenty to choose from!
Very short whiskers
This is one you won’t normally see in adult cats, but if you find or foster a litter of kittens, you may notice that one or more looks like someone trimmed their whiskers. You may assume this was done by a human out of cruelty or some weird cosmetic preference, but that’s not usually the case! Mother cats and young kittens will sometimes chew their babies’ or littermates’ whiskers off. To find the culprit, just look for the kitten who still has luxurious whiskers while their siblings are sporting little stubs.
This may happen as a result of stress or boredom or simply an overzealous baby still developing his grooming skills. Whisker chewing may seem a little alarming, but it’s not generally harmful. The whiskers will grow back and start to shed normally once the kittens are separated from their siblings or mom and most kittens grow out of whisker-chewing behaviors eventually.
What happened to that cat’s eyeball? Well, it could be a number of things! It’s unusual, but some cats are born with only one eye or with one of their eyes small and underdeveloped. Most of the time, though, if you see a one-eyed cat, the eye was surgically removed.
Upper respiratory illnesses and eye infections are common in cats and can sometimes result in painful or irreversible eye problems. Cats do just fine with one eye, so the simplest and most effective solution is just to pop that sucker out. Once it’s gone, the cat is nearly always happier, healthier, and in a lot less pain than before. They may have to give up on their dreams of becoming a professional cat pilot, but they can still jump, climb, and live a normal cat life.
Sometimes, you may encounter a cat who has the top of their ear missing- cut off in an obviously intentional straight line. Who would do something like that and why?
Well, an “ear tip” is something that’s done for community cats or outdoor cats who are part of a trap/neuter/release program also known as TNR. Because there are often many cats in an area and they may not be friendly with humans, an ear tip allows the people who care for them, trappers, and anyone concerned to see which cats have already been spayed or neutered.
For cats who are not comfortable being handled, the process of being trapped, transported, and sedated is pretty stressful. And for a female cat, that may include being opened up again if her spay scar healed especially well or she was spayed as a young kitten. Ear tipping saves the cat from that extra stress and grief and saves trappers and vets (who are already stretched way too thin) from wasting resources trying to spay the same cat repeatedly.
So why might you see an ear tip on a pet cat? Well, things don’t always go perfectly as planned. Cats living in a feral colony or an area with a lot of feral cats may be trapped, neutered, and released, but they may not all be completely feral. Also, even feral cats have a wide range of personalities. Some may always be wary of humans, while others eventually come around. An ear tip in an adoptable cat is a badge of bravery and something to be proud of.
So what about when it’s not a clean line across the ear, but a whole jacked-up mess? One or both of a cat’s ears may have a crumpled or folded look or one may just look smaller and a little funny. Is that cat supposed to look like that?
This is the result of some kind of injury to the ear. Cats have delicate ears- on a light-colored cat, you can see the little veins through the skin. It’s great for sensitivity, but not so great for withstanding injury. Some cats get their ears injured by fighting or being beaten up by other cats on the mean streets, but often, the cat does it to themself. A cat with chronic or untreated ear infections or ear mites may scratch ferociously at their ears and, in doing so, cause themselves injury. That injury may result in an ear hematoma, or pocket of blood. When left untreated, the ears can become misshapen and scarred, leaving them with a “cauliflower ear.”
Once the hematoma heals, the scarred cauliflower ear is, by itself, primarily a cosmetic issue. It can become an issue if the ear canal becomes blocked or severely narrowed and, if you have a cat with a healed cauliflower ear, you should be especially vigilant for any signs of ear infections and address them quickly to avoid any further trauma to the area.
Once you go poly, you never go back! A typical cat is born with five toes on each front foot (four on the main portion of the paw and one dewclaw) and four on each back one. But for some cats, that’s just not enough toes. Polydactyl cats, sometimes known as “Hemingway cats” because of Ernest Hemingway’s fondness for them, are born with extra toes!
This is a result of a genetic mutation- a polydactyl mother will likely have some polydactyl babies and probably had some polydactyl siblings herself. A “poly” cat may have just one little extra claw or they may have a whole bunch of toes and appear to have “thumbs.” It’s not harmful for a cat to have extra toes, although you should consult your vet about your individual cat. If you’re lucky enough to have one of these excellent felines, keep an eye on their claws and make sure they stay neatly trimmed and aren’t going rogue.
A Stubby tail
If you see a cat with a little bunny-butt tail or nubbin, you may wonder- where did that tail go? Did his mother chew it off? Was it docked by cruel humans? Did he leave it on the school bus? Is he a Manx?
It could be a variety of factors! One is simple genetics- it’s not uncommon for a regular domestic cat to be born with a stub tail. As with the polydactyl cats, it may be that mom and siblings have similar tuchuses. However, the tail may also be amputated as a result of an injury of some kind.
Cats with no tails are usually completely healthy, but there are some problems that can arise. Tailless kittens may be born with spina bifida or other spinal issues due to the underdevelopment of the last few vertebrae. Moderate or severe cases are usually evident when a kitten is young, but mild cases may not be so obvious.
Cats’ tails also serve a few purposes. They help with balance and with nuanced communication between cats. So a cat with no tail may be a little bit clumsy or socially awkward. But then again, so can a cat with a full tail!
Striped or solid, fluffy or smooth, there’s no such thing as a “boring” cat and we’re here for all of them! Planning a trip? We’ve got you and your favorite feline covered. Check out our “services” page for more details!
Janie founded 4-Legged Kids, Inc in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1997 and provides education through her PetBizHIVE podcast and her PetBizMBA membership and courses. She is a Certified Professional Animal Care Operator, Fear Free certified and a Certified Professional Pet Sitter. Learn more about the Founder, Janie Budnick.