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Winged cats is a term for sightings or descriptions of cats with wing-like appendages.
There are three different causes of wing-like appendages. The most common is longhaired cats having matted fur. Felted mats of fur can form along the body and flanks if a longhaired cat is not properly groomed. Less commonly, mats can occur in shorthaired cats if molted fur adheres to growing fur over several seasons. When the cat runs, the mats flap up and down giving the impression of wings. These can be very uncomfortable for the cat and can harbour dirt, feces and parasites. Extensive mats must be shaved or clipped by a veterinarian. This explanation is ultimately untenable as the sole solution to the winged cat phenomenon, for several reasons. Many notable examples of winged cats feature shorthaired specimens. The occurrence of mats in longhaired cats is easily recognisable by experienced cat owners and breeders, but not recognisable to novices. Matted fur is not considered notable and rarely reported, except by those unfamiliar with the condition. Although mats can occur all over a longhaired cat's body, to novice eyes, they are most noticeable on the flanks when the cat is in motion.
The second explanation of reports of winged cats is a skin condition called feline cutaneous asthenia, or FCA, which is related to Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (elastic skin) in humans. In winged cats that are due to FCA, the wings only occur on the shoulders, haunches, or back. Winged cats that are due to FCA can often actively move their wings, suggesting the presence of neuromuscular tissue within the wings, which is not present within clumps of matted fur alone.
The third explanation is a form of conjoining or extra limbs. These non-functional or poorly functional extra limbs would be fur-covered and might resemble wings, as in one winged cat case recently documented by Dr Karl Shuker, in which the wings were shown to be supernumerary limbs.
There are more than 138 reported sightings of animals claimed to be winged cats, though some of these are clearly nothing more than individuals with clumps of matted fur. There are over 30 documented cases (with physical evidence) and at least 20 photographs and one video. There is at least one stuffed winged cat, but this may be a nineteenth-century fake or "grift". An undated taxidermy specimen in poor condition can be found in a museum in the Niagara Valley. It has bony structures near its shoulder blades covered with flaps of skin. These might be extra limbs.
Historical winged cats
During the early 1990s, British zoologist and cryptozoologist Dr Karl Shuker, who has a longstanding interest in the winged cat phenomenon, became the first person to make the link between winged cat reports in the popular media and reports of feline cutaneous asthenia in the veterinary literature. Publishing his findings in a series of articles appearing in several popular magazines including Fortean Times, Fate, Cat World, and All About Cats, he has compiled a comprehensive survey of winged cat cases, many previously undocumented, which he periodically updates and which may be referenced for more information. His articles include coverage of the vast majority of the following examples. In 2008, Dr Shuker published the most comprehensive documentation of winged cats currently in existence, as an extensive chapter within his book Dr Shuker's Casebook (CFZ Press: Bideford), including several previously unpublished cases and photographs. There are some additional, less significant examples in magazines, newspapers and personal accounts by owners, including cases of both FCA and matted longhaired cats.
- The earliest currently known report of a winged cat is from Henry David Thoreau: "A few years before I lived in the woods there was what was called a 'winged cat' in one of the farm-houses in Lincoln nearest the pond, Mr. Gillian Baker's. When I called to see her in June, 1842, she was gone a-hunting in the woods, as was her wont ... but her mistress told me that she came into the neighborhood a little more than a year before, in April, and was finally taken into their house; that she was of a dark brownish-grey colour, with a white spot on her throat, and white feet, and had a large bushy tail like a fox; that in the winter the fur grew thick and flattened out along her sides, forming strips ten or twelve inches long by two and a half wide, and under her chin like a muff, the upper side loose, the under matted like felt, and in the spring these appendages dropped off. They gave me a pair of her 'wings,' which I keep still. There is no appearance of a membrane about them. Some thought it was part flying squirrel or some other wild animal, which is not impossible, for, according to naturalists, prolific hybrids have been produced by the union of the marten and the domestic cat."
- In the 19th century, there was a winged cat at the centre of a custody dispute with one party claiming him to be their cat, Thomas, and the other claiming it to be their feline, Bessy.
- In Animal Fakes and Frauds (1976), S. Peter Dance described a 19th-century winged cat that was preserved and offered for sale in the early 1960s. Its wings had grown when the cat was very young. It had been exhibited during the 19th century by a circus owner, but, when its original owner demanded its return, the cat mysteriously died. It was stuffed but has not been properly examined.
- A "flying cat" was reported in India in 1868. It was shot by Mr Alexander Gibson, and the skin was exhibited at a meeting of the Bombay Asiatic Society. Gibson believed it to be a cat, but others claim it to be a bat or flying fox.
- In August 1894, a cat with wings resembling those of a duckling was being exhibited by Mr David Badcock of Reach, Cambridgeshire, England. It was later stolen and turned up in Liverpool, England, but had shed its wings.
- In 1897, a tortoiseshell cat with pheasant-like wings projecting from each side of its 4th ribs was shot and killed in Matlock, Derbyshire. The story was reported in the High Peak News of Saturday, 26 June 1897. Witnesses claimed the cat used its wings outstretched to help run faster.
- In 1899, London's Strand Magazine reported a winged cat or kitten belonging to a woman living in Wiveliscombe, Somerset, England. Cat show judge HC Brooke also described it in the weekly magazine Cat Gossip in 1927: "This cat had growing from its back two appendages which reminded the observer irresistibly of the wings of a chicken before the adult feathers appear. These appendages were not flabby, but apparently gristly, about six or eight inches long, and place in exactly the position assumed by the wings of a bird in the act of taking flight. They did not make their appearance until the kitten was several weeks old." Someone attempted to cut off the wings, with fatal consequences for the cat.
- In 1933 or 1934, a winged black-and-white cat was captured in Oxford, England by Mrs Hughes Griffiths. She claimed it used its six-inch wings to aid in jumping long distances. It was exhibited for a while at Oxford Zoo.
- In 1936, a winged cat was found on a farm near Portpatrick, Wigtownshire, Scotland. It was a white longhair, and the wings were flaps 6 in (15 cm) long and 3 in (7.5 cm) wide on its back. They flapped up and down when the cat ran. This is consistent with badly matted fur.
- In 1939, Sally, a black-and-white cat with a 24-inch wingspan from Attercliffe, Sheffield, England, was sold to a Blackpool museum of freaks.
- During World War II, an overweight black-and-white cat in Ashford, Middlesex, became a local attraction because of the wings which sprouted from its shoulders. This also seems like a case of matted fur.
- In June 1949, a 20-pound cat with a 23-inch wingspan was shot dead in northern Sweden. Professor Rendahl of the State Museum of Natural History said the wings were a deformity of the skin which happened to take the shape of wings.
- In 1950, a tortoiseshell cat called Sandy with "sizable" wings was exhibited at a carnival in Sutton, Nottinghamshire. Sandy had not previously grown wings, so this seems a case of matted fur.
- In either 1950 or 1959, Madrid papers reported that Juan Priego's grey Angora cat, Angolina, had grown a pair of large fluffy wings.
- In May 1959, a winged Persian cat was caught near Pinesville, West Virginia. The finder, Douglas Shelton, named it Thomas, but, after the cat made headlines, Mrs Charles Hicks claimed it was her lost cat, Mitzi. When the cat was produced in court, her wings had fallen off and turned out to be extensive mats of fur.
- In 1966, a winged cat from Alfred, Ontario, Canada, was killed and was examined by scientists at Kemptville Agricultural School. The wings were nothing more than matted fur. The cat was also suffering from rabies.
- In the October/November 1967 issue of the Cats Protection League's periodical The Cat, Cecily Waddon reported a matted Persian whose felted fur resembled wings and flapped when the cat moved.
- In 1970, J. A. Sandford of Wallingford, Connecticut saw a winged cat in a neighbor's garden. The orange-and-white longhaired cat was "positively waddling due to large wing-like growths hanging from its midsection." The owner claimed it was how the cat shed its fur in summer. The fur was matted into rectangular pads about five inches long by four inches wide. Some claim it to be a case of feline cutaneous asthenia, but it is a textbook case of matted fur.
- In 1975, the Manchester Evening News published a photograph of a winged cat which had lived in the Banister Walton & Co builder's yard at Trafford Park, Manchester, England, during the 1960s. It had a pair of 11-inch-long fluffy wings projecting from its back. The skin of its tail was flattened into a broad flap. Workmen reported that the cat could raise its wings above its body, suggesting the deformity contained muscle as well as skin. This sometimes happens with cutaneous asthenia.
- In 1986, a winged cat was reported in Anglesey, Britain, and later shed its wings, suggesting they were mats of fur.
- In April 1995, Martin Millner spotted a fluffy winged tabby in Backbarrow, Cumbria, England.
- In 1998, a black winged cat was found in Northwood, Middlesex. Its wings were 2-3 inches back from the shoulder blades, 8 inches long, 4 inches wide, 1 inch thick and flapped as the cat ran.
- In 2004, at Bukreyevk (near Kursk), Central Russia, a winged ginger stray tomcat named Vaska was drowned by superstitious villagers, according to the local Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.
- In 2007, in Xianyang, Shaanxi province, China, a one-year-old tomcat grew ten-centimeter-long wings with bones in just one month; they first started out as bumps. The owner, Feng, believed it was because the cat had been sexually harassed by other cats. The story appeared in the newspaper Huashang.
- In May 2009, a winged cat was reported in China, with the story appearing on MSNBC.
- In 2011 a winged cat was reported in Tatarstan, Russia, becoming a famous due to YouTube video. It was informally called Aq Bars, a winged snow leopard from Tatarstan's coat of arms.
Feline cutaneous asthenia
Cutaneous asthenia ("weak skin") is a skin deformity characterised by abnormal elasticity and stretching of the skin. Pendulous wing-like folds of skin form on the cat's back, shoulders and haunches. Even stroking the cat can cause the skin to stretch and tear. The flaps may include muscle fibers allowing some movement, but the cat cannot flap them in a bird-like manner, though the wings may bounce up and down when the cat moves.
Cutaneous asthenia is caused by a collagen defect. Collagen is the protein that binds the cells of the dermis together. It is also called dermatoproxy, hereditary skin fragility or cutis elastica ("elastic skin") and is found in humans (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, or EDS), dogs, mink, horses, cattle and sheep. In cattle and sheep, it is called dermatosparaxis ("torn skin"). In horses, a similar condition is called collagen dysplasia. The skin is also abnormally fragile. The skin flaps peel or slough off very easily, often without causing bleeding. This explains why cats with the condition suddenly "molt" their wings.
A recessive autosomal (non-sex linked) form of feline cutaneous asthenia has been identified in Siamese cats and related breeds. In the homozygous state, it is apparently lethal.
- In 1970, Peter Pitchie, a vet in Kent, England, attempted to spay a five-month-old female tabby cat. When he injected the anesthetic, the cat's skin immediately split. When he shaved the cat's flank for the spaying incision, the skin split again. Further splits occurred when he tried to sew up the first two. He eventually sutured all the splits using a round-bodied needle, and, despite their dramatic formation, they healed without complications.
- In 1974, a four-year-old tomcat with fragile skin was taken to Cornell University's New York State Veterinary College Small Animal Clinic for investigation. Dr DV Scott noted that its skin was exceptionally thin and velvety in texture. It was hyperextensible (extremely stretchy) and had a criss-cross network of fine white scars from previously healed tears. When fur was clipped from a foreleg to gain a blood sample, the skin peeled away. Peeling was found to occur whenever the slightest pressure was applied anywhere to the cat's skin. Investigation showed that the collagen fibres in the cat's skin were abnormal.
- In 1975, an adult female cat examined by W.F. Butler of Bristol University's Anatomy Department was found to have very fragile skin on its body. It had abnormally low levels of collagen in the skin of its lower back.
- In 1977, Drs. Donald F. Patterson and Ronald R. Minor of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine studied a young short-haired gray tomcat which had severely lacerated its skin through normal scratching. Its skin was found to be delicate and easily torn. It was also abnormally elastic, and the skin of the back could be extended to a distance above the backbone equal to about 22% of the cat's entire body length. They wrote a paper on the subject and included photos of the cat with its skin gently stretched into "wings". Because of the difficulties in caring for a cat with an incurable skin fragility problem, they donated it to the veterinary school. It was mated to four long-haired female cats, and several of the offspring inherited cutaneous asthenia.
An undated veterinary report describes a six-month-old non-pedigree tomcat which presented with two skin wounds on the right side of its body. The skin on the affected areas and on its back was hyperextensible, smooth and easily torn by just a small amount of pressure. Microscopic examination revealed abnormally low levels of connective tissue.
Cats with the condition cannot be grasped by the scruff, as this may tear away. The syndrome is also linked to slipping joints. Dietary supplements may be needed to promote skin healing and regrowth. Antibiotics may be needed to combat infection when skin has split or torn.
Winged cats in popular culture
- A Kircher engraving from 1667 depicted a demonic creature with a cat's head, bat's wings and human torso. Cats and bats were both associated with the devil (in Christianity), and demons were sometimes depicted as bat-winged cats.
- In the 1980s and 1990s, the Forgotten Realms role-play game and related fantasy novels depicted shy winged cat-owl hybrids as the pets of wizards. The Forgotten Realms winged cats are called tressym.
- In Marvel Comics, a subspecies of the Light Elves called the Cat Elves have winged cats that serve as their steeds.
- In video games, some creatures may resemble winged cats.
- In Final Fantasy V, many random enemy encounters have such creatures.
- In the Lunar series, two supporting characters, Nall and Ruby, resemble flying cats for most of the game and even have stereotypical feline tendencies, like fish being a favorite dish.
- Myau of the first Phantasy Star game eats a nut that gives him wings.
- In Beyblade, the Bit-Beast Venus is a winged cat.
- Winged cat angel figurines are popular among cat owners in the USA.
- Winged kittens, called flittens, were created by Laura H. Von Stetina. A book about flittens, Mewingham Manor, Observations on a Curious New Species, was published by the Greenwich Workshop Press, and a line of flitten figurines are also produced in the USA by the Greenwich Workshop. These show cute kittens with butterflies' wings. Bradford Editions produces "Almost Purr-fect Angels" winged cat figurines.
- Catwings, a series of children's picture books by Ursula K. Le Guin, features several winged cats.
- A winged cat also appears in the chapter "Brute Neighbors" in Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
- "Extraordinary Capture at Winster: A Tomcat With Wings", High Peak News (26 June 1897).
- "Can a Cat Fly?", Strand Magazine, vol. 18: 599 (November 1899).
- Dance, S. Peter. Animal Fakes and Frauds (Sampson Low: Maidenhead, 1976).
- Butler WF. "Fragility of the skin in a cat". Res Vet Sci 19:213–216, 1975
- Collier LL, Leathers CW, Counts DF. "A clinical description of dermatosparaxis in a Himalayan cat". Feline Practice 10:25–36, 1980
- Cornelison L, Cook C. Feline Cutaneous Asthenia (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome), Seminar, Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine October 9, 2002
- Counts DF, Byer PH, Holbrook KA, Hegreberg GA. "Dermatosparaxis in a Himalayan cat: I—biochemical studies of dermal collagen". Journal Investig Dermatology 74:96–99, 1980
- Freeman LJ, Hegreberg GA, Robinette JD, et al. "Biochemical Properties of Skin and Wounds in Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome". Veterinary Surgery 18:97-102, 1989
- Freeman LJ, Hegreberg GA, Robinette JD. "Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome in Dogs and Cats". Seminars in Veterinary Medicine and Surgery (Small Animal) 2: 221-227, 1987
- Freeman LH, Hegreberg GA, Robinette JD. "Cutaneous Wound Healing in Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome". Veterinary Surgery 18: 88-96, 1989
- Holbrook KA, Byers PH, Counts DF, Hegreberg GA. "Dermatosparaxis in a Himalayan cat: II—ultrastructural studies of dermal collagen". Journal Investig Dermatology 74:100–104, 1980
- Patterson DF, Minor RR. "Hereditary fragility and hyperextensibility of the skin of cats". Lab Investig 37:170–179, 1977
- Scott DW. "Cutaneous asthenia in a cat resembling Ehlers–Danlos syndrome in man". Veterinary Medicine Small Animal Clin 69:1256–1258, 1974
- Sequeira JL, Rocha NS, Bandarra EP, Figueiredo LMA, Eugenio FR: "Collagen Dysplasia (Cutaneous Asthenia) in a Cat". Veterinary Pathology 36:6, 1999
- Weber A. "Cutaneous asthenia in a young cat". Kleintierpraxis 28, 331-334, 1983
Historical information and winged cat case reviews:
- Shuker, Karl P.N. "Cat flaps". Fortean Times, No. 78: 32-33 (December 1994-January 1995).
- Shuker, Karl P.N. "On a wing and a purr". Cat World, No. 210: 14-15 (August 1995).
- Shuker, Karl P.N. "High flyers". Wild About Animals, 7: 13 (October 1995).
- Shuker, Karl P.N. "Wonderful things are cats with wings". Fate, 49: 80 (April 1996).
- Shuker, Karl P.N. "Flights of fantasy?". All About Cats, 4: 44-45 (March–April 1997).
- Shuker, Karl P.N. "If cats could fly". Fortean Times, No. 168: 48-49 (March 2003).
- Shuker, Karl P.N. "Cats with wings - and other strange things". Beyond, No. 1: 36-42 (October 2006).
- Shuker, Karl P.N. Dr Shuker's Casebook (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2008), pp. 13–29.