On a sunny afternoon, a middle-aged computer programmer waiting in line for tickets to the Royal Palace was fascinated by the skinny cats playing at his feet. Some of them had tails that were crooked and short, while others had none at all.
Having grown up in 1960s Moldova, he had seen tailless animals before and knew only one explanation: as a child, he heard that owners severed the tails of guard dogs to make them angrier. So when he visited Phnom Penh, he wondered if Cambodians chopped them off too?
It wasn’t the first time Royal Palace tour guide Teoun Lyneath had heard the question. While the domestic cat is one of the most common animals in the world, experts are divided on what breed the Cambodian short-tailed cat actually is and where it comes from.
The history of cats in Cambodia is thought to go back centuries.
Some historians say that cats lived in ancient Angkor, which ruled over present day Cambodia and parts of Thailand and Laos from the 9th to the 15th century.
Angkorian temples and sculptures depict many animals – elephants, crocodiles, lions, fish, horses, monkeys, turtles, cows and even dogs – but not domestic cats.
Nonetheless, the word “cat” is mentioned several times in inscriptions on the stone doors of temples dating back as far as 611 AD, according to Im Sokrithy, a Cambodian archaeologist and the spokesman for the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor (APSARA Authority). These inscriptions refer to servants, who worked in the temples, nicknamed “cat”, he said.
“The common people [at that time], were named after animals, trees, mountains or many things related to nature. There were also servants named ‘dog’,” he said.
Another clue is an Angkorian ceramic in the shape of a cat, probably from between the 12th and 13th century, according to Louise Cort, the curator for ceramics at the Smithsonian museums of Asian art in Washington, DC. The brown-glazed vessel depicts a fat cat with a collar, bell and long tail, held upright.
“One other publication describes similar vessels as representations of dogs, but the tail looks catlike to me,” Cort wrote in an email.
Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, cats began appearing in Cambodian literature, especially in poems, where they were associated with femininity, Sokrithy said.
Also around that time, we can find descriptions of rituals involving cats.
For example, at the end of the dry season, it was customary to hold a procession through the entire village with a cat, to ask for rain. The person who carried the cat stopped in front of every house, and the homeowner sprayed some water on the cat, Sokrithy said.
“Nowadays, this custom is still performed throughout the region of Angkor,” he said, referring to the villages near the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap province.
“That’s why UNESCO listed Angkor as living heritage,” he said.
Cats also play a role in Cambodian house-warming traditions. To bring good luck to the inhabitants of a new house, the woman of the house must walk around the dwelling three times with a female cat in her arms, Sokrithy said.
Finally, cats – especially females with three-colored fur – have a special significance to the Royal Palace. Such cats are used in the kings’ coronation ceremonies, and are believed to bring prosperity to the entire Cambodian nation.
At King Norodom Sihamoni’s coronation in 2004, a cat was carried up the red carpeted steps of the Royal Palace by the king’s entourage, who also brought statues, scrolls and animal horns.
Unfortunately there is no mention – either in the stone inscriptions or in Cambodian literature and traditions – of cats without tails.
Tailless cats are also common to Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Theories about their origins vary from the peculiar – such as boys tying the cats’ tails with rubber bands – to the plausible.
But Arnaud Demarti, a French veterinarian who runs Agrovet, one of the largest veterinarian clinics in Phnom Penh, believes the short or crooked tails of Cambodian domestic felines can be blamed on a recessive gene.
“Two cats with a broken tail can only have a kitten with a broken tail. But a male cat with a normal tail can still have kittens with malformed tails,” he explained. He estimated that 80 per cent of cats born in the city have “a tail problem”.
“It’s rare to find a cat with a normal tail,” he said.
Demarti believes the Cambodian cats are their own, yet unnamed, breed of cats. He also said that the cats with short tails in Thailand most likely carry the same gene as cats in Cambodia.
But Marianne Clark, the secretary of the Japanese Bobtail Breeders Society in the United States, said short-tailed cats in Southeast Asia were most likely Japanese bobtails.
Japanese bobtails (which were introduced to the US from Japan at the end of the Second World War) were brought to Japan from China by Buddhist monks about 1,300 years ago. The monks kept cats to protect their religious scrolls, which were written on rice paper, from rodents in the temples.
“This can explain why there are bobtails throughout Asia. The monks brought bobtailed cats with them,” Clark wrote in an email.
There’s no doubt that Chinese travellers visited Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, as far back as the time of Angkor.
But Leslie Lyons, a geneticist at the University of Missouri in the US who specialises in felines, said we couldn’t be sure about Cambodian cats just yet.
“We have no way of knowing unless someone got some DNA and tested them for the manx mutation as a starter,” she wrote in an email.
“They could be manx [stub-tailed cats from the Isle of Man], could be Japanese bobtail, a new variant at either gene, or a whole new gene.”
Lyons said that a simple DNA test could identify whether a cat was a manx while bobtail cats could be identified by counting their vertebrae in an x-ray.
However, it appears no one has analysed the DNA or the x-rays of any short-tailed cats from Cambodia or any of the neighbouring Southeast Asian nations.
Despite the lack of research on which gene is affecting their tails, life seems to be improving for Cambodian felines.
According to veterinarian Demarti, more Cambodians are now keeping cats as pets – and bringing them to the vet for check-ups.
“Ten years ago when I came to Cambodia, Cambodians didn’t keep cats at all. There were a lot of cats on the streets and in the pagodas,” he said.
“Ninety-five per cent of the visits to my clinic used to be for dogs. Now 30 per cent of consultations are for cats. There are more Cambodians now taking care of cats like of their own family members.”
And so they thrive at the Royal Palace. Far from having their tails chopped off, as that computer programmer from Moldova had suggested, they are taken care of by the staff and fed with leftover rice and fish heads.
There’s even a royal line, of a sort, tour guide Lyneath explained.
Some 15 years ago, she said, someone abandoned two cats without tails: a male and a female. The palace staff began to feed them, and they stuck around, having a litter of kittens also without tails. There are now so many tailless felines living in the gardens that Lyneath has lost count.
“Cats can bring good luck to you,” she said.