Cat Cloning Offered to Pet Owners

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
Updated March 25, 2004
Pictures of the first cloned cat >>
How a cat was copied >>

Now cats may have more than nine lives. The company that funded the first successful cloning of a domestic cat two years ago has gone commercial.

An e-mail sent in early February to the company's gene-banking clients offered to clone up to six cats. The cost? U.S. $50,000 each. Clients had less than a month to take advantage of the offer, which ended Friday, February 27.

A cloned cat is a unique, newborn animal that shares genes and possibly behavioral tendencies with its genetic predecessor.

Ben Carlson, vice president of communications for Genetic Savings and Clone, said four clients signed up to duplicate their cats, and work to reproduce the pets will begin immediately. The privately held company based in Sausalito, California, plans to present the clones to owners in November.

Three cats owned by the company will also be copied. The cats and their genetic donors will be displayed at the American Veterinary Medical Association conference next year, Carlson said, to give veterinarians an opportunity to see them and learn about the technology.

The company is also working on duplicating dogs—specifically, a husky mix named Missy, whose owner, Arizona entrepreneur John Sperling, has pumped millions of dollars into the cloning project since it began in 1997. Missy died at age 15 in 2002, but tissue samples of her have been saved for cloning purposes.

Dogs have proven more difficult to clone than cats. Still, Carlson said, the company is "probably as close to success" as they've ever been. "I wouldn't be surprised if we produced a dog clone this year," he said.

Health Risks

According to a 2002 survey published in the science journal Nature Biotechnology, 23 percent of all cloned mammals produced by nuclear transfer—transplanting the nucleus of one cell into another—failed to reach healthy adulthood.

The survey showed that health problems in cloned animals range from mild to fatal, including obesity, anemia, heart defects, liver fibrosis, and respiratory failure.

The first cloned mammal—Dolly, a sheep—was euthanized last year because of a virus-induced lung tumor. The Roslin Institute in Scotland, which produced Dolly, said there is no evidence that cloning was a factor in the six-year-old sheep contracting the disease.

Since Dolly's creation in 1996 a variety of other animals have been duplicated, including a caracal cat and an African wildcat.

The two wildcats were duplicated last year by scientists at the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans, Louisiana. According to a spokeswoman, both cats are doing well and will be on display this spring at the Audubon zoo.

"There have been species-specific variations in the health of cloned animals, and it may be that cats are among the animals that have better results, even with this young technology," Carlson said.

Carlson reports that Genetic Savings and Clone's first cloned cat, named CC, is now two years old and healthy.

To calm fears of possible cloning-related health problems, Genetic Savings and Clone guarantees their cloned cats will be "completely healthy and strongly resemble the genetic donor." If not, owners will get a full refund.

Exact Replica?

Animals and their clones, though, don't always look identical. Take CC, for example. She has a different coat than her genetic donor, Rainbow, a calico domestic shorthair. The company says calico cats are an "unusual case" and "will always look different from their donors."

Curt Youngs, an associate professor in the Animal Science Department of Iowa State University in Ames, says people may be unhappy with a cloned pet when they realize it's not an exact replica of the animal they've lost or will soon lose.

Genetics and environment play a role in how an animal ultimately looks and acts. There is strong underlying genetic control over an animal's coat coloring or pattern, he said. But an animal's coat can be influenced by changes that occur while the animal is in the womb—for example, if the surrogate mother gets sick or if there's a sudden change in nutrition.

Plus, Youngs said, the conditions in which the original pet was raised cannot be duplicated.

"I think people are going to be disappointed that Fluffy neither looks the same nor acts the same," Youngs said. He teaches a class to veterinary students that covers the science and bioethics of nuclear transfer.

Ethical Issues

In most cases, owners want to clone their pets because they're experiencing difficulty dealing with the loss, or eventual loss, of those pets, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), an animal-protection group based in Washington, D.C.

But given that shelters kill roughly four million animals each year because they're not adopted, HSUS feels cloning new pets should not be done. The group encourages people who want a cat or dog to adopt one from a local shelter.

On the legislative front, the launch of commercial cat cloning hasn't caused much of a stir. No federal or state legislation is currently proposed to ban or regulate it.

A few months ago Glofish, the genetically modified zebra fish that glow fluorescent, went on sale in the United States. Regulators in California, citing ethical concerns, prohibited the fish from being sold in the state.

Veterinary associations are apparently keeping quiet on the issue of the cloning of pets. The American Veterinary Medical Association, representing more than 69,000 veterinarians nationwide, did not respond to three requests for comment.

Genetic Savings and Clone plans to display its three cloned felines and their donors at the association's 2005 conference.

The American Animal Hospital Association, a national organization made up of more than 29,000 veterinary care providers, has not taken a stance on the issue.

The Cat Fanciers' Association, based in Manasquan, New Jersey, believes that it should be a personal decision on whether or not to clone an animal.

"In general our feeling about how people obtain a cat is that it should be a matter of their choice," said Joan Miller, a board director for the organization. The association promotes the interests of breeders and exhibitors of pedigreed cats.

Last fall CC, the cloned cat, was on display at an international cat show in Houston, Texas.

"I think in general cat fanciers are intrigued by the idea (of cloning), but I don't think that any of them feel that it is going to be something that's an asset to any breeding program," Miller said.

Miller doesn't believe that cloned cats will contribute to the pet overpopulation problem. She said studies show that less than 1 percent of pedigreed cats wind up in shelters.

All the publicity about cloning shows the public just how important and valuable pets are to owners, she said. "It may encourage people to bring a cat into their lives, and possibly adopt from a shelter."

For more cloning news, scroll down for related stories and links.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.