News & Politics

On the Catwalk

Dogs aren’t the only pets who show off in the judges’ ring—cats can get competitive, too.

Dell’s career as a show cat didn’t get off to a good start. The four-month-old Egyptian Mau kitten had never left the house before his first competition in July 2008.

“He and his brother clung to me like monkeys and screamed all the way down the hall,” says Melanie Morgan, a media consultant who started showing cats 15 years ago. “People looked at us like we were crazy. I kept saying, ‘Believe me, he’s going to be great!’ ”

Dell—whose registered name with the Cat Fanciers’ Association is Emau’s Dancin Inthe Dark of Mautrix—spent the next nine months traveling the East Coast for competitions. He’d show off by jumping to the top of judging-ring scratching posts and strutting on the tables. “As soon as he realized people were there to see him, he started figuring out his routine,” Morgan says.

By his fourth show, Dell had made a name for himself, eventually taking home a national title: Best Kitten 2008–2009. “He’s elegant, long-legged, graceful,” says Morgan, who lives near Charlottesville. “He’s just a born show cat.”

Show cats don’t have a Westminster—cat competitions don’t get much TV time—but they do have a loyal following. The Cat Fanciers’ Association, which kicks off its season this month, puts on about 350 shows a year. More than 9,000 people showed up for the National Capital Cat Show last September at the Dulles Expo Center, where 430 cats were grouped by gender, coat length, and age.

“Dog shows lend themselves better to being televised,” says Morgan. “Cats don’t like doing what you tell them—they’re not going to go on a leash and be predictable.”

Purebred show cats are judged on how well they fit the standards of their breed. An Egyptian Mau has to have “gooseberry green” eyes, like Dell’s. An ideal Persian has a long, thick coat that stands off from the body as well as small, round-tipped ears.

Mixed-breed cats can compete. Joe Pitt, an IT consultant, started the cat-show circuit in the American Cat Fanciers’ Association’s household-pet division. Household cats are judged for their uniqueness.

“With pedigreed cats, they’re judged like you would a product,” says Pitt, who lives in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. “Household pets are judged for personality: Is this a cat you’d like to live with?”

The life of a show cat can be demanding. Dell’s workout regimen included chasing his favorite plastic dragonfly toy up and down the stairs—he went through 15 of them during his winning season. “I play with [the cats] three times a day, minimum,” says Morgan, who also judges shows. “I take them out and do heavy running, jumping, and twirling so they’re really muscular and fit.”

Warrenton flight attendant Susan Cook Henry, who’s been showing Persians for more than 40 years, blow-dries her cats inch by inch with a brush and comb, separating each piece of hair until each cat is “a giant puffball.”

“To get a cat in top show condition doesn’t happen overnight,” says Henry.

When competitors aren’t in the ring, they’re housed in elaborately decorated cages. “Cage drapes” prevent cats from being agitated by other cats. Morgan uses a cotton print patterned in gold hieroglyphics.

Entry fees at most shows are $50 to $75 a cat, Morgan says, and with three or four shows a month, expenses add up. Monetary prizes are rare—winners take home ribbons and bragging rights.

“There is nothing like putting a cat like Dell in the ring for the first time, seeing him in all his glory,” Morgan says.

After competing for a year, Dell is retired. A yearlong career is typical for an unaltered cat, Morgan says, as most exhibitors are eager to start breeding their champions. Dell’s first litter just started competing.

Dell now spends much of his time perched on a chair in Morgan’s home office, where he’s separated from her seven female cats, batting at his owner’s hair and watching the cursor on the computer screen that inspired his name. He hasn’t lost his show-cat confidence. Says Morgan: “Dell thinks the world is all about Dell.”