The hottest new fad in the cat world is the Munchkin, a stubby-legged feline with a bounding, ferret-like gait and a sense of humor that owners say makes it one of the most lovable kitties around.
But its arrival has fostered a cat fight between those who hiss that Munchkins are freaks of nature and those who contend they are nature perfected. Opponents howl that breeding for abnormally short legs will create cats plagued with the same joint and back problems that dog some breeds of canines.
What defines the Munchkin are the legs. They are typically half as long as regular cats and their front legs are less than 2 inches long. The front legs may be stunted more than the back legs, giving the cat the appearance of a miniature kangaroo. Kay LaFrance of Bosco, La., played a pivotal, if largely unintentional, part in the development of the breed after taking in what may have been the first and keeping successive generations of short-legged cats. The kittens now fetch prices ranging from $100 to $2,500 each.
Word of Ms. LaFrance's stubby cats reached geneticist and cat fancier Dr. Solveig Pfleuger in Springfield, Mass. She asked Ms. LaFrance for a couple of the cats, and one of them turned out to be pregnant. When the kittens were born, Dr. Pfleuger's daughter, Sigrid Smith, named one of them Mushroom the Munchkin. The breed name was born.