What to Know About a Cornish Rex

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on July 20, 2022
7 min read

Cornish Rex cats are very distinctive, with many unique physical characteristics and a defining short, soft coat. Despite their peculiar appearance, these playful cats are affectionate and intelligent. Their loving personality and sturdy build make them ideal for families. 

Cornish Rexes have both distinctive looks and lovable personalities. The fur of a Cornish Rex is one of its defining features. Most cat breeds have coats with multiple layers — an outer layer, also called the guard hairs; a middle layer underneath the outer layer, called the awn hair; and an undercoat full of down hair. 

Instead of three layers of coat, Cornish Rexes have soft, short down hair. This down hair is typically curly and soft. Petting a Cornish Rex is often compared to petting rabbit fur or touching silk. 

Because of their thin fur, Cornish Rexes are often found seeking heat near light bulbs, in sunny spots near a window, or on your lap. Cornish Rex coats come in over 40 different colors and patterns, ranging from solid and smoke colors to patterned tortoiseshells and tabbies. 

Cornish Rexes also have very distinctive physical features along with their characteristic coat. They often have large, almost bat-like ears and oblong faces. Cornish Rex cats have long legs with a tuck-up toward the back of their abdomen, often drawing comparisons to Greyhound dogs. Fairly small in size, they weigh between 5 and 10 pounds with a typical lifespan of 15 - 20 years.

Don’t let their appearance intimidate you. Though Cornish Rexes may look mean, their personality is the opposite. These cats are affectionate, intelligent social butterflies, who love to be around humans and other pets. 

Cornish Rexes love to play and seem to retain kitten-like energy and enthusiasm for their entire lives. Cornish Rexes particularly enjoy playing fetch and have been known to even toss a ball for themselves if no one else will. 

Although Cornish Rexes have boundless energy, they generally have a loving temperament. These cats thrive on attention from humans and are likely to be content with a warm spot on your lap. Cornish Rexes do well with children and other pets, and their playful and friendly characteristics make them an ideal pet for families. 

The unusual coat of a Cornish Rex doesn’t require any special care, although it does come with some quirks. When we pet cats, oil from our hands transfers to their fur. For shorthaired and longhaired cats, this oil is necessary to maintain a healthy coat. However, since Cornish Rexes don’t have any outer layers of fur, this oil can pile up, collecting on the skin and making the cats appear greasy. 

Oil buildup on a Cornish Rex can cause skin issues. So, they may need more regular bathing than other cat breeds. Their short coat dries very quickly after getting wet. Oil can also build up under their nail beds, and wax may build up inside ears. Cornish Rex cats benefit from regular nail clipping and ear cleaning to get rid of the oil build up over time.

The short hair of a Cornish Rex also leaves these cats more prone to the elements than other breeds. A Cornish Rex should be an indoor cat, especially in colder climates. Since their coat is short, extended time outside in cold weather can cause serious issues like hypothermia. If you do take your Cornish Rex outside, be sure to keep an eye on the weather. Cornish Rexes with pale coats may need sunscreen to prevent their light ears from burning.

Although generally small in size, Cornish Rexes come with a large appetite. However, since these cats have such high energy levels they tend to not become overweight. It is important to make sure your Cornish Rex is getting enough exercise to keep their weight under control. 

Cornish Rex cats are not prone to many diseases. However, a few genetic conditions appear in this breed that owners and breeders should be aware of. 

One inherited condition that Cornish Rexes are predisposed to is autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease, or AD-PKD. AD-PKD is a genetic disorder that causes fluid-filled pockets called cysts to develop on the kidneys. Cats with AD-PKD are typically born with these cysts, which grow over time and can eventually cause kidney issues.

Typically, cysts grow slowly, and cats with AD-PKD won’t exhibit symptoms until they’re around 7 years old. However, this can vary significantly from cat to cat. Some cats may develop kidney issues at a much younger age, while some cats may never develop complications at all. Currently, there is no way to tell when issues will arise for your cat with AD-PKD. 

Since AD-PKD is a genetic condition, there is no complete cure. However, there are numerous ways to mitigate kidney damage caused by the cysts. Cornish Rexes with kidney complications due to AD-PKD may benefit from a prescribed diet, fluid therapy, and medications to reduce nausea. Consult with your veterinarian to determine the best treatment plan for your Cornish Rex. 

Another genetic condition that can be inherited by Cornish Rexes is progressive retinal atrophy or PRA. The retina, the back of the eye that is essential for vision, gradually degenerates in cats with PRA. Typically, the earliest signs of PRA present when cats are 1.5-2 years old. They include symptoms such as bumping into things or seeming disoriented. Unfortunately, there is no cure for PRA, and cats with the disorder typically become blind within 3-4 years of symptom onset.

AD-PKD and PRA are both serious conditions that can impact the quality of life of your Cornish Rex. However, there are genetic tests available that can alert you if your cat has either of these disorders. Responsible breeders should be able to provide genetic testing information to potential owners and refrain from breeding cats who carry the genes for AD-PKD or PRA.

Other than genetic disorders, there are a couple of other health issues to watch out for with a Cornish Rex. Cornish Rexes may be more susceptible to certain anesthetics, increasing their likelihood of negative side effects when dosed. If your Cornish Rex has to undergo a procedure, be sure to consult with your vet about milder anesthetics. 

Since Cornish Rexes have short fur, their skin is often exposed and may be prone to itchiness and yeast infections. Be sure to keep an eye on your Cornish Rex and consult your veterinarian, if you notice excessive scratching or other abnormalities on the skin.

Cornish Rex cats are bubbly, curious companions who seem to get along with everyone. They are affectionate and people-oriented, and get along well with children and other pets. However, since Cornish Rexes love attention from their humans, they don’t do well when left alone for a long time. Consider adopting a companion for your Cornish Rex, if the house is empty for most of the day.

The short, soft fur of a Cornish Rex may lead people to believe that they don’t shed and are hypoallergenic. Unfortunately, that's a myth. Although Cornish Rexes do have significantly less fur than some of their feline relatives, they do still shed and are not hypoallergenic. However, people with cat allergies may find that Cornish Rexes are easier to be around than their longer-haired counterparts. 

The Cornish Rex breed began as the result of a natural mutation. In July of 1950, a tortoiseshell cat named Serena gave birth to five kittens in Cornwall in the United Kingdom. Serena’s owner, Mrs. Ennismore, noticed that one of the kittens, named Kallibunker, had a very distinctive coat compared to his siblings. After consulting a geneticist, Mrs. Ennismore had Kallibunker sire a litter with his mother that produced a new litter with two more of these unusually curly cats. 

Kallibunker and Poldhu, one of the curly cats from the new litter, were used to sire more litters. To expand the gene pool of this new and emerging breed, early Cornish Rexes were bred with a variety of other cat breeds, such as Siamese cats, Russian Blues, Havana Browns, and domestic shorthairs. 

In 1956, Life Magazine published an article discussing this new breed of curly-coated cat, piquing interest in Cornish Rexes among American audience. In 1957, a woman from California decided to import a Cornish Rex from the U.K. This cat, one of Poldhu’s offspring named Lamorna Cove, gave birth to a litter of kittens that became the first group of Cornish Rexes in the United States. 

Cornish Rexes were officially recognized by the Cat Fancier’s Association in 1964. Cornish Rexes are the oldest breed of Rex cats, which includes other breeds such as the Devon Rex and the Selkirk Rex.

The “Rex” title actually didn’t originate with cats, however. In the early 20th century, King Albert I of Belgium entered his curly-haired rabbits into a rabbit show. The unusual hair on the rabbits meant that they were not up to pedigree standards and should have been eliminated. However, reluctant to offend the king, the show’s officials decided to keep the rabbits in the show and mark them as “Rex”, which means “king” in Latin. The Rex title is still given to curly-haired or unusually coated pets today, as in the case of Cornish Rexes.