D. E. Larsen, DVM
The day was almost over when Vicki came through the door. Vicki and Doris made up the local cat rescue organization called KATA. KATA stood for the Kitty Angel Team Adoption.
“Doc, I have a couple of questions,” Vicki said as she walked into the clinic’s treatment area.
“Sure, what do you have?” I asked. “You picked a good time, and we are just cleaning up to close this place down for the day.”
“I have a lady who swears she has a male calico kitten,” Vicki said. “Have you ever seen one?”
“Nope, I have to admit I have never seen one,” I said. “But, they happen, and I have talked with people, professional people, who have seen several.”
“I am pretty excited about this,” Vicki said. “I have heard that they are very valuable.”
“How old is this kitten?” I asked.
“It’s only a few days old,” Vicki said. “The lady mentioned that he didn’t have his eyes open yet.”
“Have you seen this kitten?” I asked.
“No, I just talked with this lady on the phone,” Vicki said.
“Do you know how often I am asked to look at a kitten and tell people what sex it is?” I asked.
“I know; people always seem to have problems with that, don’t they?” Vicki asked.
“And not only in kittens,” I said. “RMM, Ralph M. Miller, DVM, was a veterinarian who started writing cartoons during vet school to earn extra money. He has many books published and is very popular among veterinarians. To really enjoy his humor, you almost have to be a veterinarian or at least have a close association with the profession. A lot of his cartoons display episodes that are almost universal to all of our experiences. In his cartoons, he had a society. The society of veterinarians who have spayed tomcats, or something close to that.”
“That’s funny,” Vicki said. “Is that something that happens?”
“If a veterinarian is conducting his practice like he was educated to do, it should be exceedingly rare,” I said. “But people get busy, and it is probably a common error.”
“How could that happen?” Vicki asked.
“People get a kitten and think it is a female,” I said. “They give it a female name, they present it to a busy clinic, the pre-surgical exam becomes just a glance over, and the sex of the cat is not determined until the surgeon can’t find the uterus in the abdomen. So he has someone check under the drape, and there are the testicles.”
“What are you trying to tell me?” Vicki asked.
“Don’t get excited about a calico male until you know for sure that it is a male kitten,” I said. “I would never believe someone’s determination of a kittens sex unless I knew that the person knew what they were looking at. And even then, I wouldn’t believe it for something like this until I saw it myself.”
“So you think I should bring it in for you to look at?” Vicki asked.
“I would look at it for you,” I said. “You surely have heard my saying before, but when you are in a barn and you hear hoofbeats, look for a horse, not a zebra.”
“Okay, it might take me a couple of days, but I will bring the kitten by for you to check,” Vicki said.
Several days later, I noticed Vicki sitting in the reception area with an older lady. The older lady was holding a towel bundled in her lap. I could only assume that a kitten was buried in that towel.
I motioned Vicki and her friend into an exam room.
“I am guessing now, but everything tells me that there is a kitten somewhere in that towel,” I said.
“Yes, we are worried about exposing this little guy to the clinic environment,” Vicki said.
“Kittens get their immunity from their mother’s first milk,” I said. “He is well protected.”
“This is the guy I was telling you about,” Vicki said as she dug into the tangle of the towel for the kitten. “I looked at him, and he sure looks like a boy to me. But we decided we better get your take on things before we start celebrating.”
I took the kitten, turned him around in my hand, and lifted his tail to get a good look at his plumbing.
“He is definitely a male and calico to boot,” I said. “That is interesting.
“I know you have a simple explanation on how to tell the sex on these little guys, but could you explain it one more time, just so I know if I’m telling people the right stuff?” Vicki asked.
“The problem people have is the testicles are so small early in a kitten’s life,” I explained. “So what you want to do is just look at the openings. If the two openings are close together, it is a female, and if they are spaced a half centimeter or so, it is a male. Otherwise, time will tell you as they get older.”
“And how valuable is this guy?” Vicki asked.
“I was wondering what you were celebrating?” I said. “The sad truth is he is a curiosity, and that is about all. When I was practicing in Washington, a doctor with the state hospital in Buckley had a research colony of male calico cats. He would purchase those cats. I don’t know what he paid for them, but I know he lost his funding for that project the year I was there, and that colony went away.”
“So the high value is an old wives tale?” Vicki asked.
“As far as I know, he has no special value,” I said. “I guess you could advertise him, but I doubt if you are going to get any big offers.”
“We’re not sure we understand how this happens?” Vicki asked. “Why are they so rare?”
“In the cat, color is a sex-linked gene,” I said. “That means that it is on the X chromosome. Females have two X chromosomes, so they can be multi-colored. Males have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. If we are talking about yellow and black, males can be black or yellow, but not both in a mixture like on a calico cat. So to get a male calico cat, there has to be a non-disjunction, like we see with Down’s Syndrome. Only instead of the twenty-third chromosome, it is the X chromosome. Genetically, this little kitten is an XXY. In man, that makeup is called Klinefelter’s syndrome. But color is not sex-linked in man.”
“Is there anything we need to do with this guy?” Vicki asked.
“I think you want to neuter him when he is old enough,” I said. “Just treat him like a cat.”
“Is this XXY thing going to affect him later?” Vicki asked.
“Vicki, this is the first male calico I have seen,” I said. “I don’t have much of an experience base to draw a conclusion from. Other than a brief mention of the occurrence in school, it was never discussed. I am sure it was assumed that most of us would never see one.”
“So I guess we treat him like any other kitten,” Vicki said, looking at the old lady.
“And I thought I had a golden egg,” the older lady said.
Photo by Amy Larsen.