“She’s like Elizabeth Taylor,” my mom said about Bonnet, the long-haired calico cat my husband and I had adopted, “So beautiful and aware of her own beauty, but also smart and funny and sweet.” Bonnet was also almost unfeline in her sociability – she loved children (or at least loved being adored by them) and parties and attention, hastening to greet even the UPS delivery with purring affection. Bonnet had a singular way of making everyone feel as though she loved them best, as though she only bestowed this kind of warmth upon them – which seems at least one definition of charm.
Her fur was luxurious and bunny soft, she walked with a coquettish wiggle, and her back legs were so fluffy, she looked like she was permanently wearing a tulle skirt, as white and full as the wedding dress Audrey Hepburn wore in Funny Face. If I’ve already made two Hollywood references, it’s because Bonnet was a star.
I’m also pretty sure she was Turkish. One thing about being a cat owner is that people are always gifting you feline-related merch. Which is how I came to possess the encyclopedic Larousse du Chat et du Chaton, a reference guide to cats and their origins, and a conviction that Bonnet had relatives near Istanbul. In that book, there is a photograph of a cat, a Turkish Van (a common Turkish breed known for exceptional intelligence and a cashmere-soft coat): it was Bonnet’s doppelgänger living near the Bosphorus River in Istanbul. (I should add here that Bonnet was a rescue we adopted in downtown Toronto, not in the Armenian Highlands of Turkey.)
During the pandemic, it occurred to me that I might fact-check the theory of Bonnet’s Turkish lineage. In the midst of one of Toronto’s many lockdowns, I opened my front door and saw a man walking his cat, Steve, on a leash. When I remarked that Steve was exceedingly handsome, his father beamed as if he had birthed him himself, then offered: “Thank you. We’re getting his DNA tested!”
Dog influencers are barking straight to the bank
I immediately longed to pluck some of Bonnet’s exceptionally luxuriant fur and, like Steve’s owner, dispatch it to a lab. But I didn’t get a chance. We lost Bonnet suddenly and devastatingly to liver and kidney failure a few weeks later. I never confirmed Bonnet’s ancestral lineage – she remained a mystery, like most cats (and old-Hollywood stars). We were bereft.
About six months later, after much campaigning from my then six-year-old son, Leo, we adopted a new kitten. Leo called her Bambi which seemed fitting – she was dainty, always crossing her front paws and fawn-like, almost pastel, in her complexion, as if she had wandered off a Renoir canvas. When I took Bambi to get her vaccines, the vet tech remarked: “She is so soft, and her colouring is so gentle and unusual!”
And so I ordered an at-home DNA test for cats from Basepaws, a California-based company founded by CEO and feline-genetics pioneer Anna Skaya who appeared on Shark Tank and is currently building the world’s biggest feline genomic database. The test – the first at-home cat genetics test – decodes your cat’s breed and alerts you to genetic disease markers.
The kit arrived, and my husband and I administered the test (a mouth swab) – something we read takes three (traumatic) seconds. It also takes two human adults. Bambi swung her ears back in extreme irritation, then headed off to convalesce from the seconds-long upset with a six-hour nap, as we dispatched the package by registered mail to Basepaws’s lab in Torrance, Calif. “What’s in the package?” the man at Canada Post asked. “A sample of our kitty’s DNA,” my husband replied with a disarming poker-faced nonchalance, as if he’d done this at least a dozen times before.
Approximately six weeks later – about the same time it takes to get human DNA results – my e-mail pinged: “Bambi’s DNA results are here!” I felt a churn of nervous excitement and agitation, as if I was about to discover some shocking news. (I grew up watching The Young and the Restless, I’m versed in the life-shattering implications of a DNA test.)
Bambi, we learned, is part Siberian, part Maine Coon, part Abyssinian, with a splash of Russian Blue, British Shorthair and a trace of Egyptian Mau. Alongside her results are descriptions of those breeds, their appearance and temperament, a sort of feline enneagram or astrological chart. Bambi is also 20 per cent “domestic polycat” meaning basically that much of her lineage remains unknown, as fuzzy as her tummy fur.
The other day, an outdoor neighbourhood tabby cat, Smoky, came wandering into our backyard, fixing his emerald eyes on Bambi through our glass door. As I witnessed the showdown, I noticed how petite Bambi was next to Smoky, who looked gigantic and powerful next to her.
“Look at Smoky’s muscle tone,” I heard myself say, “and his confidence and athleticism!”
“Maybe he’s part Bengal?” my husband ventured. Then, I told Bambi: “Did you know you’re 17 per cent Siberian? And 0 per cent Turkish, unlike your late sister Bonnet.”
Bambi stretched out on a sunny patch on the floor, and gazed at me inquisitively. “You’re even 2 per cent Egyptian Mau,” I cooed, at which point she closed her eyes, weary with ennui, as if to say, I 100 per cent couldn’t care less.
Tests to try
For cats: Basepaws
A pioneer in feline genetics, Basepaws is the world’s largest feline genomic and oral microbiome database. The Breed + Health Cat DNA test (US$159) can trace your cat’s origins to four different breed regions and 21 breed types.
For dogs: Embark
Embark, partnered with Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, uses research-grade data to sniff out your dog’s makeup from more than 350 breeds and screens for 215 potential health conditions (including genetic mutations that may result in drug sensitivities). The test can also help track your pet’s relatives.