You had to be pretty spectacularly mutated to get noticed at the International Cat Show held recently in New York. Skin the Cat, a rare hairless Sphinx, fitted the bill. "We didn't put her in a microwave or anything to get her to look like that," said Sandra Adler, her proud owner. "It's a natural mutation." A Sphinx will sometimes turn up in a regular litter and, in the past, was thought of as some sort of freak, and would be put down. A pity, given that "they love people" - they're known for startling leaps off the floor on to the nearest unoccupied shoulders - and "feel like butter". Or something even better: "It's like a suede hot water bottle," says Barry Goldstein, a member of the committee which organises the Madison Garden Square show, and who "borrowed" one of Adler's ten Sphinxes for a television programme. "Once you sleep with a Sphinx, you never go back."

Also clawing their way to the top were several munchkins, which have Dachshund-like half-legs that enable them to run backwards; a Selkirk rex, with the coat of a sheep; a LaPerm, a longhair that has been described as "what might happen if you threw a cat and an electric toaster into a bathtub"; and Bar-B Battle Hymn of Java, a groomed Persian. "Eight out of ten people think he's stuffed," said Lise Girard, who groomed him at the Java Cat Spa in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "I have people asking me if he's freeze-dried."

But how do the cats feel? "Some of them revel in their exoticness and some of them see it as a liability," said Lydia Hiby, the show's official pet psychic. "I've talked to some cats that are very beautiful, and, as we sometimes expect of beautiful people, we expect they don't have a brain - and they get annoyed about that."

Hiby was one of the judges of the popular "Supercat" category, open only to formerly homeless cats. "We call this the Cinderella event because these cats have risen from the ashes to become champions," the MC announced. Formerly down-on-their-paws, the cats proudly competed for longest whiskers, most impressive tails and which looked most like its owner. Though she didn't win, we rooted for Triple, who has a bad liver, a problem with acne, has had an emergency hysterectomy, and whose face is paralysed. When she meows she "looks like Elvis Presley", as her owner says.

The good vibe in the hall was almost as thick as the smell of kitty litter. "Isn't it great to be around so many cat people!" enthused one judge. And when the announcement was made that "Ladies and gentlemen, there's a cat loose. If everybody would keep very quiet and not move," everyone actually froze. Stephen Rae

Photographs by Leslie Fratkin