Caturday felid trifecta:Top ten cats in literature; man who thinks he’s a cat; science using gene-editing technology to create hypoallergenic cats

April 9, 2022 • 9:00 am

The books section of the Guardian lists its choice of the top ten cats in literature (click on screenshot). I’ll just give some of the introduction by author Lynne Truss and then list the cats and the books where they appear (there’s a description of each cat, but you can read that for yourself.


A couple of months after I took up my post as literary editor of the Listener in the autumn of 1986, I decided to write a review for the Christmas double issue: a review of two books about cats. I wrote it, marked it up for the typesetters, sent it off, and thought nothing more about it until one of the subeditors brought the corrected galley proof through to my office. “Lynne,” she said solemnly, “you won’t publish this under your own name, will you?” I replied cheerfully that I had been intending to, yes. Which was when she explained a great truth to me – that once a literary woman associates her name with cats, no one will take her seriously again.

I have been haunted by that conversation ever since. In my heart, I know that she was right. But on the other hand, cats are such good material. When I was asked to write a gothic novella three years ago, I did not hesitate to propose a funny one about evil, talking cats.

And now I’ve written a follow-up: The Lunar Cats. This time, we meet a ginger kitten mob boss who talks like Barbara Windsor and a mild scientific cat from the 18th century who voyages on the Endeavour with Captain Cook. It seems obvious to me that cats are clever and totally lacking in altruism. This means you can believe almost anything of them.

The following are masterworks by people who were bravely prepared to take the risk of being associated with cats. Noticeably, though, nearly all of them are male, so perhaps the subeditor’s warning should still stand.

1. Tobermory by Saki (HH Munro)
Talking cat

2. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Superior cat

3. Edward the Conqueror by Roald Dahl
Reincarnated genius cat

4. The Silent Miaow translated from the feline by Paul Gallico
Guru cat

5. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot
Criminal mastermind cat

6. Thomasina, the Cat Who Thought She Was God by Paul Gallico
Mystical cat

7. A Case of Murder by Vernon Scannell
Avenging cat

8. Felidae by Akif Pirinçci
Sleuthing cat

9. The Cats’ Protection League by Roger McGough
Dangerous cat

10. Why Cats Paint by Heather Busch and Burton Silver
Aesthetic cat

Each link goes to a shop or a review. I’ve read #2, 4, 5, and #10, which is a must-read for cat lovers. You may think Why Cats Paint is a cheesy title, but it’s a wonderful satire of the pretentiousness of much art criticism.

But Truss has a serious omission: one of the most famous and appealing cats in literature: Behemoth the pistol-packing cat in the wonderful novel The Master and Margarita by Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov. He’s not only a cat to remember, but the book is one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve read in several years (it satirizes Soviet Russia).


If humans acted like cats, this is how they’d behave.  One lacuna: “Cat Man Chris” doesn’t stick his butt into anyone’s face!

When somebody tells me they can’t own a cat or even pet a cat because they’re allergic, my impulse (which I stifle) is to say, “Get over it. It’s worth the allergic reaction!”. But soon people may not have that excuse. This new article from Gizmodo (click on screenshot) shows that SCIENCE is coming to the rescue:

The tool used will be CRISPR, the method of gene-editing for which Jennifer Doudna and Emannuelle Charpentier won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry two years ago. Here’s how it’s done:

Allergies are most associated with the fur and dander that cats shed into the environment, but those aren’t the true culprit. A protein produced by cats called Fel d 1—which ends up in their saliva and tears and, by extension, the fur that they’re constantly cleaning—is thought to cause over 90% of cat allergies. This has made the protein an appealing target for scientists trying to reduce the burden of cat allergies, which may affect up to 20% of people.

Researchers at the Virginia-based biotech company InBio (previously called Indoor Biotechnologies) have been working on their own approach. They’re hoping to use CRISPR, the Nobel Prize-winning gene editing tech, to produce cats that simply make little to no Fel d 1. In their latest research, published Monday in The CRISPR Journal, they say they’ve collected evidence that this can be done effectively and safely.

Here’s the free paper, which is only suggestive:

The authors show that they can achieve in vitro inactivations of the gene in tissue-cultured cat cells, but they have not produced living cats with the inactive gene. Nor have they shown that knocking out the gene has no harmful effects: this is an extrapolation from lab work showing that the protein is tolerant of many substitutions among different felid species, which to them implies that the protein itself is not essential for viabilty. That’s not a logical conclusion, though they may be right. The article goes on, restating what I just said:

Analyzing the DNA of 50 domestic cats, they found regions along two genes primarily involved in producing Fel d 1 that would be suitable for editing with CRISPR. When they compared the genes of these cats to those from eight wild cat species, they also found that there was a lot of variation between the groups. That could indicate, as other research has suggested, that Fel d 1 is non-essential to cat biology and can thus be eliminated without any health risks. (Some cat breeds, like the Russian blue and Balinese, are often touted as being better for people with allergies because they may naturally produce less Fel d 1.) Lastly, the team used CRISPR on cat cells in the lab, which seemed to be effective at knocking out Fel d 1 and appeared to produce no off-target edits in the areas they predicted that edits would most likely happen.

The upshot is that we’re a long-long way from producing hypoallergenic cats, and gene editing, as Matthew shows in his new book, can have all sorts of unexpected and dire consequences (it’s prohibited in humans).  I’d say to just tolerate the allergy or get a Russian Blue. It’s worth the sneezes!

h/t: Dan, Ginger K.

10 thoughts on “Caturday felid trifecta:Top ten cats in literature; man who thinks he’s a cat; science using gene-editing technology to create hypoallergenic cats

  1. The ‘cats in literature’ somehow overlooked Charlotte in “Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Terror and Tenure” by James Hynes.

  2. Tobermory from Saki’s The Chronicles of Clovis was mentioned below the line just the other day. An excellent story.

  3. I am so glad you mentioned The Master and Margarita! It is a great and very vividly weird book, and the cat character is a star. That book is beloved by almost everyone who reads it, but I didn’t even hear about it until I was in my 20s. It would be really hard for me to pick the best Russian novel, but Master and Margarita should be in the top ten, and it’s for some reason less widely known and less widely taught (at least when I was in school) than other Russian classics. I think young people would really love the book, and it could easily be taught in high school. It’s a great and exciting story, and the characters in it are unforgettable.

    1. I’m convinced – one to add to the l-o-n-g list of books I really must read. Thanks, Désirée (and PCC(E), too).

      1. It delights me to second a book recommendation on here! I’ve had so many good books recommended from readers and writers of these posts.

  4. It seems obvious to me that cats are clever and totally lacking in altruism. This means you can believe almost anything of them.

    Well, a lot of things. That total lack of altruism would rule a lot of different things out of consideration though.
    I can’t say that I’ve read more than one of those books though, and I’ve only heard of a couple more. Obviously Truss’s reading choices and mine don’t overlap much.

    science using gene-editing technology to create hypoallergenic cats

    And what’s in it for the cat? (Don’t give me the “existence” line ; these are obviously going to be bred pretty much to order. If sales in November are likely to be down, the breeding program will be decreased in April-May.)

    Nor have they shown that knocking out the gene has no harmful effects

    At least they’re considering the issue from the cat’s point of view. but the more likely outcome from producing the knocked-out cats would be that they find an aspect of the actual biology of cats for which Fel d1 is essential. Unless, of course, you’re going to claim that we fully understand the biology of this protein that all cats have, but whose use we don’t know.
    Surely a less-challenging strategy would be to find a member of the cat clan whose analogue of Fel d1 is less stimulating to sensitive humans and see if substituting that version into F.sylvestris (var) produces a sufficiently hypo- (sense: low, lower) allergenic cat, rather than the an-(sense: none, whatsoever, not a molecule, jot or tittle) allergenic cat. There’s a better chance that the for-cat effects of the Fel d1 analogy would still be present. Of course, that would also illuminate the cat-biology aspect too.
    (As I type, the TV is playing Slartibartfast’s speech to Dentarthurdent about how the Earth was built for the Mice. And I wonder, why did the mice include cats in the job spec? Or did some colleague of Slartibartfast have a thing for cats, parallelling his thing for fjords, even when working on coastal Africa?)

    gene editing, as Matthew shows in his new book, can have all sorts of unexpected and dire consequences

    … and that’s in systems that we think we understand, not ones which we admit that we don’t understand.

    it’s prohibited in humans

    As if that would even slow down someone who can persuade a sufficiently high-up politician (or a rich enough businessman, who can buy enough politicians : functionally indistinguishable) that there is sufficient profit to be had there.

    1. Reading TFP :

      Natural levels of the allergen vary significantly between cats (>100-fold) and even within the same cat.

      Well, finding out what manages that is likely to not have such significant consequences as going straight for obliteration. Scalpel, or chainsaw?

  5. And from Archy and Mehitabel:

    this is the song of mehitabel
    of mehitabel the alley cat
    as i wrote you before boss
    mehitabel is a believer
    in the pythagorean
    theory of the transmigration
    of the soul and she claims
    that formerly her spirit
    was incarnated in the body
    of cleopatra
    that was a long time ago
    and one must not be
    surprised if mehitabel
    has forgotten some of her
    more regal manners
    i have had my ups and downs
    but wotthehell wotthehell
    yesterday sceptres and crowns
    fried oysters and velvet gowns
    and today i herd with bums
    but wotthehell wotthehell
    i wake the world from sleep
    as i caper and sing and leap
    when i sing my wild free tune
    wotthehell wotthehell
    under the blear eyed moon
    i am pelted with cast off shoon
    but wotthehell wotthehell

    do you think that i would change
    my present freedom to range
    for a castle or moated grange
    wotthehell wotthehell
    cage me and i d go frantic
    my life is so romantic
    capricious and corybantic
    and i m toujours gai toujours gai

    i know that i am bound
    for a journey down the sound
    in the midst of a refuse mound
    but wotthehell wotthehell
    oh i should worry and fret
    death and i will coquette
    there s a dance in the old dame yet
    toujours gai toujours gai

    i once was an innocent kit
    wotthehell wotthehell
    with a ribbon my neck to fit
    and bells tied onto it
    o wotthehell wotthehell
    but a maltese cat came by
    with a come hither look in his eye
    and a song that soared to the sky
    and wotthehell wotthehell
    and i followed adown the street
    the pad of his rhythmical feet
    o permit me again to repeat
    wotthehell wotthehell

    my youth i shall never forget
    but there s nothing i really regret
    wotthehell wotthehell
    there s a dance in the old dame yet
    toujours gai toujours gai

    the things that i had not ought to
    i do because i ve gotto
    wotthehell wotthehell
    and i end with my favorite motto
    toujours gai toujours gai

    boss sometimes i think
    that our friend mehitabel
    is a trifle too gay

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