The riddle of the sphynx cat

How the creepy-looking — but extremely sweet — breed became the trophy pet for the Instagram generation.

The first time my washer repairman Pete saw my cat Lucien, he screamed. “I’m so sorry,” I said, picking Lucien up so he couldn’t make a run for Pete’s legs. “I didn’t know you were afraid of cats.”

Pete took a step back, making it clear that elevating Lucien to chest height had, if anything, made matters worse. He looked me in the eye and spoke gravely: “I am not scared of dogs, cats, or indeed any animal. In my work I touch all types of rodent. Even once, I had a job that involved standing in a river filled with snakes and rats. I was not scared then, but this thing” — he gestured at Lucien — “is deeply unnatural.”

He’s definitely right about that. Lucien is a grey sphynx — he is, like any purebred animal, the result of decades of genetic experimentation and inbreeding, as there are no sphynxes in the wild. Instead of fur, his skin is covered with a layer of grey stubble, like a shaved head. He also has bat-like webbed paws, huge ears and eyes, the long grey tail of a giant rat, and, for some reason, a pot belly. I describe him to friends as looking like: “The most beautiful version of something that evolved on another planet.” But even I have to admit, he also kind of looks like a monster.

Lucien, the author’s sphynx.

Lucien, the author’s sphynx.

The personality and maintenance requirements of a sphynx are very different than most cats: their dog-like affection for humans borders on clinginess, and their naturally oily skin means they need to be bathed around once a week, ideally using baby shampoo. But despite being weird and high maintenance, sphynxes are the perfect trophy animal for a generation used to documenting success via Instagram, and living in tiny apartments. Since getting Lucien last year, I’ve become increasingly attuned to how they’re suddenly everywhere — a feeling that’s born out by research, and not just my feed.

Let’s start with zeitgeisty celebrities. Rick Owens is a recent addition to the sphynx club, as pictures of a marble-skinned sphynx stalking round his Paris studio started appearing on his Instagram over summer. Zayn Malik has had one living in his penthouse since last year, Euphoria star Barbie Ferreira has taken hers to interviews, Lena Dunham famously has several, and the DJ Martyn posed with his for a MixMag photoshoot last month. Clara and Esther McGregor (the model daughters of Ewan) even caused a furore recently when their sphynx managed to get loose in Los Angeles, because their lack of fur means these cats can’t be outside for long because they get cold. (Yes, even in LA.) One sphynx even made a cameo in Succession, scurrying around the mansion of the Pierce family, aptly referred to by Logan Roy as “those blue-blooded fucks.”

In the celebrity world, the considerable maintenance requirements of a sphynx are probably assigned to a staff member. But the trend also extends to people like you or me. The Cat Fanciers’ Association (the body responsible for monitoring pedigree animals in the US) says the number of registered sphynx has increased by about 50 percent in the past 5 years, from 9,719 to 14,734. By their estimate, around 1,300 sphynx kittens have been registered this year.

Although they are still rarer than most other breeds, the sphynx is also one of the most Instagrammed types of cat, with posts tagged over 4 million times. Anecdotally, sphynxes are especially popular among people in their 20s and early 30s; Candice, a sphynx breeder based in California, who sells mostly through her Instagram account @stellar_sphynx_ said in an interview that most of her customers are in their 20s, with an average age of around 25. “I have noticed a lot of people who buy from me say they live in apartments, so they aren’t equipped to deal with the maintenance of a dog, or sometimes not allowed to have one,” she said, adding that the hair build up caused by other cats can be especially noticeable in a small apartment.

Candice pointed out that, like any pedigree animal, the sphynx is ultimately a status symbol: “The popularity recently has a lot to do with them being cool. They’re almost creepy in a sense, and people like to be different.” Traditional trophy pets, such as greyhounds, dalmatians or huskies, would be walked around and shown off to the outside world, a place most sphynxes will never go. But now, thanks to social media, young people usually advertise status objects to their friends from the comfort of their own home. Pets are no different.

When I spoke to young sphynx owners, several said they had been inspired by Instagram in some way. Karman, a 25-year-old nurse living in the UK, had never met a sphynx in real life, but she followed the account of a friend who had one, and soon found herself viewing more and more sphynx content. “I followed the hashtags and it ended up taking me on to other profiles and discovering all the different types (sphynxes come in as many colours as there are types of regular cat hair),” she said over the phone. “I ended up seeing so many pictures by the time I bought one.” She set up an Instagram for her sphynx, Lotus, before even getting her home.

“We knew when we got a sphynx that they’re like part dog and part monkey, and we wanted a cat that was social.”
Nick, sphynx owner

Gerritt, a student from Germany who owns a black and white sphynx named Ragner with his girlfriend, said they were looking for an animal that wouldn’t shed hair. His interest was aroused by @the.dark_lord, a sphynx account with around 188,000 followers which posts from the perspective of a medieval lord/devil. (Don’t ask.) “I started following the dark lord on Instagram and I really liked the idea of the sphynx from the beginning, because they look different,” he said. Gerritt also started an account for his own sphynx, creating a persona similar to @the.dark_lord. Antonia, a 23- year old stylist from Canada who now lives in Berlin, said her and her partner Emerik did not think about adding their sphynx to Instagram before they got him, but now: “He's such a big part of our life, so he's obviously on it.” Others spoke of being inspired by the handful of sphynxes in pop culture, like the matching pink ones that sit on the laps of Dr Evil and Mini Me in Austin Powers, or Kat Von D of LA Ink’s edgier grey sphynx.

Natalya Berezovskaya, the breeder behind an account called @sphynx_cattery, said selling via Instagram is an important part of her business: “Instagram is important because a lot of buyers are really young people, and these are the main users of Instagram.” It’s true that sphynxes are natural content creators, because of their friendliness and distinctive looks. Whenever friends visit my apartment, Lucien usually appears on their social media accounts later. Even Pete took a picture on a more recent visit and posted it to his Facebook. He showed me the caption: “What is this?!!”

The popularity of sphynx videos on Youtube is also a testament to this, as some sphynxes with big Instagram followings have their own channel. The dark lord, for example, has around 31,000 Youtube subscribers, and his most watched video — How high maintenance is a sphynx cat?? — has been viewed more than half a million times. Several vloggers have uploaded widely viewed sphynx videos. On MARS, a channel started by a young woman recovering from cancer, by far the most popular video, with 2.3 million views, is of her bathing her sphynx. Another channel, Abs & Kandy, has videos with mostly a few hundred views each, but one of the vlogger washing her sphynx in a kitchen sink has been watched 3.9 million times.

The sphynx owners I spoke to all said they had done a lot of research before buying one, and were prepared for the work involved in looking after them. Unfortunately, as the breed has gained a higher profile, it occasionally doesn’t work out. In 2012 a group of volunteers set up Sphynx Open Arms Rescue (SOAR), a United States wide organization dedicated to rehoming the increasing number of sphynxes turning up at animal shelters.

Dawn Sanchez, a SOAR volunteer, said they have noticed a trend of sphynxes being left at shelters when they are around four or five years old, and have already passed through a few homes. “Some people buy them for the novelty and, if that wears off, they try to sell them to make some of their money back,” she said. (A sphynx costs around $1,000.) “This may happen several times and the sphynx then develops behavioral problems.”

She stressed that SOAR do not advise adopting a sphynx as a first option, unless people are very aware of the cost and extra responsibility involved in looking after a rescue sphynx. “Rescue is only a good idea for someone who is truly in it to rescue, not because it’s a cheap way of getting a novelty cat,” she said. SOAR move sphynxes from shelters only when they have found a suitable home for them to go to, meaning there are usually a few sphynxes waiting to be taken on. So far they have rehomed around 20 sphynxes; Sanchez herself has adopted four on top of this. One they are currently working with has been difficult to place due to his expensive medical bills: genetic illnesses like heart problems, respiratory and stomach diseases, herpes and skin rashes are becoming more widespread in sphynxes, as inexperienced breeders, hoping to cash in on the trend, do not perform regular health checkups on their cats.

Sanchez said some owners, inspired to buy a sphynx in recent years due to their higher profile, did not know what they were getting themselves in for in terms of the breed’s unique personality. From personal experience, having read a lot of sphynx advice forums before getting Lucien, I was still surprised by how much he craves human company. My boyfriend and I are only really able to have him because I work from home. Even as I write this, he is sitting on my knee, facing the computer with his legs crossed, watching the words appear on the screen. If he’s not sitting on top of me he usually drags a blanket up behind me and lies directly behind the wheel of my chair. When I go to the bathroom, he follows me and bangs on the door with the urgency of a detective. And in the morning, when I go to feed him, he wants to be picked up and held more than he wants food, and usually tries to climb up my legs, often pulling my trousers down in the process.

It can be a lot, although ultimately this is what makes sphynxes so perfect for people who want a pet that’s affectionate, but can’t really look after a dog. As Sanchez said: “Their personalities are why we love them, they are so much different than a normal cat.”

Yana Kolesnikova, a breeder from Russia who sells sphynxes internationally via @holisticcats, said this borderline clinginess is one of the first thing she tells anyone purchasing a sphynx, but it rarely seems to put young people off. “They are like shadows, you're never alone,” Nick, a 29-year-old based in Antwerp who owns four sphynxes, said. His wife is a photographer, and she mostly works from home during the week; when she’s out on the weekend, Nick, who works for the government, is home. “They're not alone a lot of the time. We knew when we got a sphynx that they’re like part dog and part monkey, and we wanted a cat that was social,” he said. Gerritt had a similar view: Since he is a student, he spends most of his time at home with Ragner. “I leave for four hours max when I go to any lectures,” he said.

A few weeks ago, my washing machine flooded the kitchen again — the fifth time this year. When Pete arrived, he decided it was time to face his fear and pet Lucien. I picked Lucien up and held him in place while Pete slowly extended one hand, while looking to the side, as if he was placing it inside a tiger’s cage.

This time, he was won over. “He feels nice!” he exclaimed. “I know you said it, but still I thought he would be like a snake. And you know, I have been thinking, but his personality is nice. He looks like a monster, but inside he is like a little baby.”

Rachel Connolly is a writer based in London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The London Review of Books, The Baffler, The Independent, and others.