By Sandie Lee
Have you ever wondered where all the different cat breeds come from?
There’s the Russian Blue and the Norwegian Forest Cat, the Himalayan and the Siamese, and the Domestic Short and Long-haired felines. Although there are over 70 specific cat breeds recognized today, they can all trace their lineage back to the Felis Sylvestris or the Middle Eastern Wildcat.
It was in the Middle East, some 12,000 years ago, that people began to recognize cats’ usefulness in keeping vermin under control. The ancient Egyptians even elevated the feline to the status of a god, a trait which seems to have followed this independent creature throughout time.
Let’s claw back the curtain of history to uncover some fascinating facts about our feline friends.
Nature or Nurture?
Did you know 95% of cats in the U.S. are randomly bred and are called American Domestics, while the other 5% are pedigreed? That’s a whole lot of nature being responsible for the majority of our cat population. Nature has also done some amazing things to help the feline species cope with and adapt to its surroundings.
For example, Maine Coon cats often have extra toes, a completely harmless condition known as polydactylism. These extra digits not only look adorable, but gives the cat greater abilities while hunting and over snowy terrain.
As cats became more and more popular, man took it upon himself to encourage traits in our felines that were naturally occurring in some litters.
A completely hairless kitten sparked the idea of a cat that would be more suitable for those who suffer with allergies and later became known as the Sphynx, while half a litter of kittens born with super-short legs inspired the Munchkin breed.
These are relatively new breeds to the Cat Fanciers Association (CFA), but there are ancient breeds that have been around for hundreds and even thousands of years.
Ancient Cat Breeds
There’s a catalogue of cats that have been known throughout history. See if your favorite breed can count itself as “ancient.”
Turkish Angora – This fluffy breed can trace its documented lineage back as far as the 1600s in France. However, it is quite possible that the Turkish Angora originated in the mountainous regions of Turkey, where it developed an unusually soft, medium-long coat for protection against the harsh winters.
In addition, long-haired cats were also present as far back as the 1400s in Europe. In the early 1900s, this breed was used indiscriminately in breeding programs with the Persian cat to improve on the quality of the coats in the offspring. This almost lead to the demise of the entire Turkish Angora breed; fortunately, a breeding program was set up in Turkey to preserve the cat.
Today, all purebred Turkish Angoras must be able to trace their lineage back to Turkey to be registered with the CFA.
Persian – Another long haired feline, the Persian, also makes the list for being one of the oldest cat breeds known today.
Way back in the 1600s this cat was smuggled out of Persia (modern day Iran) by European explorers, along with spices and jewels. It then went on to grace the castles and courtyards of royalty in France, Italy, and England.
In fact, this breed was favored by Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale. Experts believe the Persian can trace its lineage all the way back to the wild cat, Felis Libyca, which are still found in Africa and Asia today.
Siamese – The elegance of the Siamese breed can trace its roots back to Thailand (formerly Siam); in fact, a detailed description of a cat resembling the Siamese was found in a book that was believed to be written between 1350 and 1767.
As this breed gained popularity, President Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) and his wife Lucy were the recipients of a Siamese cat shipped to them in 1878 by David B. Sickels, a U.S. diplomat stationed at the consulate in Thailand. The letter detailing the feline gift is still on file at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio.
Its piercing green eyes and silver coat were highly valued and were the qualities that were believed to bring prosperity to its owners, both hundreds of years ago and even today to newlyweds and farmers in Thailand.
Siberian Forest – This centuries-old breed dates back hundreds of years to Russia. It was fondly mentioned in children’s fairy tales and books, as well as officially named in 1889 in a book by Harrison Wier called Our Cats and All About Them.
Not only was the Siberian Forest cat talked and written about, it was also highly prized for its natural hunting abilities, which helped keep the rodent population under control on the local farms.
After the Cold War, the Siberian cat was imported into other countries and finally made its way into the United States in the early 90s.
Norwegian Forest – Another long-haired breed makes the ancient list as the Norwegian Forest cat can trace its furry roots back centuries to the area of Norway. It was featured in their folk tales and mythology and was referred to as the “Skogkatt” (which means “forest cat”.)
It is thought this cat was most likely used on the ships of Vikings to keep the rodent population under control, the same role they played on the Norwegian farms.
Abyssinian (see photo at the top of the article) – Although researchers are not entirely sure just how far back the Abyssinian breed dates, there are depictions of cats resembling the Abyssinian in Near Eastern art and sculptures. However, recent genetic testing now suggests the breed most likely originated in Southeast Asia on the coast of the Indian Ocean.
According to the CFA, the first mention of the Abyssinian was in the Harper’s Weekly (January 27, 1872 issue) where the 3rd prize in the December 1871 Crystal Palace show was taken by the Abyssinian Cat “captured in the late Abyssinian War.”
Egyptian Mau – Perhaps the most “ancient” of them all, the Egyptian Mau was found mummified in the tombs of the Egyptian Pharaohs and Kings.
In addition, papyri and frescoes dating back as far as 1550 B.C. depict spotted cats. Many documents found from the dawn of the New Kingdom make it well know that this breed was an integral part of daily life.
This cat is thought to have been used to aid hunters. It still retains the skill of being the fastest cat alive, reaching speeds of up to 30 mph!
Sandie Lee has been in the writing industry for over 20 years. She hails from a small city in Ontario, Canada where there are two seasons; winter and not winter! Her husband and two furbabies, Milo and Harry, make sure she is diligently writing each day.