New research has revealed that cat fur can help to identify and convict criminals.
Dr. Leslie Lyons, a cat genetics expert, pioneered the research. Lyons, who works at the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, was already compiling information on cat DNA, when she had an “A-ha!” moment.
“I’m a big fan of [the TV crime show] CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” she says. In two episodes of the program, cat fur was part of the evidence. Lyons realized that with a sufficient library of feline DNA information, cat-based convictions could become more than fiction.
Lyons and her colleagues built a DNA database that forensic scientists can use to help identify the source of cat fur. “Because cats incessantly groom, cat fur may have nucleated cells, not only in the hair bulb, but also as epithelial cells on the hair shaft deposited during the grooming process, thereby generally providing material for DNA profiling,” Lyons and her team report in the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics.
(In lay-person language, this means each strand of fur shed by your cat could contain DNA-rich cells at the root end or even DNA-containing skin cells stuck to the hair shaft.)
Lyons, who lives with four cats, says it would be almost impossible for a criminal to break into a cat owner’s house without getting fur on them. Anyone who enters a house where a cat resides leaves with one or more cat hairs stuck to their body, clothing, bags and shoes.
If the criminal is later arrested or detained for questioning, the cat fur might be sent to a lab for analysis. Because of Lyons’ DNA database, researchers can usually tell what general region and population the cat fur originated from. While the data isn’t solid enough for an expert to say, “This fur came from Miss Fluffy, a calico at X Street in Kansas,” it can help to eliminate individual criminals from the list of possibilities, strengthen existing evidence and identify probable suspects.
Cats have already put criminals behind bars. In a Canadian murder case, Beamish v. Her Majesty’s Court, P.E.I., “investigators linked the perpetrator to the crime scene by STR (a certain type of DNA) identification of a single cat hair found in the pocket of a discarded jacket,” report Lyons and her team.
But criminal identification is not the only benefit of having a feline companion. Above all, cats are also “good to have on your lap and just lower your blood pressure,” says Lyons. “They’re good all the way around.”