The ideal Abyssinian is a medium-sized, colorful cat who is lithe, graceful, and regal in appearance. The head is a modified, slightly rounded wedge shape without flat planes, with large, alert, pointed ears and large, expressive, almond-shaped eyes. Eyes are accentuated by a fine dark line, encircled by a light colored area. The muzzle is neither sharply pointed nor square. The Aby’s body is long, hard, and muscular, with slim, fine-boned legs and small, oval, compact paws. Males weigh 7 to 10 pounds; females weigh 6 to 8 pounds.
The Abyssinian’s defining feature is a ticked or agouti coat pattern, characterized by alternating bands of color on the hair shafts. The coat should be long enough to accommodate two or three bands of ticking. The classic tabby M decorates the forehead, but other tabby markings are a fault. Four colors are accepted by all U.S. cat associations: ruddy, red (called cinnamon or sorrel in some associations), blue, and fawn. Ruddy is the most common color (ruddy brown ticked with shades of darker brown or black); red is second in popularity, followed by blue. Fawn is the least common color.
A fifth color, silver, has been accepted in some cat associations in the United States, England, Australia, and New Zealand. In this variety, the alternating color in the ticking is icy white, giving an overall sparkling silver effect to the coat. In North America, this color is only recognized by three of the seven cat associations: TICA, AACE, and UFO. Although silver is thought of as a relatively new color for the breed, silver Abys existed in England in the late nineteenth century, according to Harrison Weir’s 1889 book, Our Cats and All About Them. In his writings, Weir mentions silver Abys as a very beautiful but rare variety that were shown in the “Any Other Color” class. The color is still controversial; some fanciers believe the gene responsible for the silver effect may adulterate the four traditional colors, while others feel it will cause no such problems and are pushing for the color’s full acceptance.
The Aby, as the breed is affectionately known by fanciers, is thought to be one of the oldest domestic breeds, but when and where it originated is unknown. The tale most often told is that the Aby is a descendant of sacred cats worshiped by the ancient Egyptians some 4,000 years ago, but no evidence exists to support that story. The Abyssinian resembles the lithe, stately cats depicted in Egyptian murals and sculptures. Other breeds such as the Egyptian Mau also resemble the artwork, and so does the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), the species from which domestic cats arose and that is known to have been kept as pets by the ancient Egyptians. A 2007 genetic study indicated that domestic cats descended from as few as five female African wildcats in the Mideast around 10,000 years ago. Native to North Africa, western Asia, and southern Europe, the African wildcat has the same structure and number of chromosomes as the domestic cat.
At one time, cat fanciers believed the Aby’s ancestors came from Ethiopia, formerly called Abyssinia—thus the breed’s name. An Abyssinian named Zula owned by Mrs. Captain Barrett-Lennard was brought to England from Abyssinia at the end of the Abyssinian War in 1868, according to Dr. Gordon Staples in his 1876 book, Cats: Their Points and Characteristics, but whether Zula was actually a forebear of the Aby is subject to debate. No other documentation or evidence links Zula with today’s breed.
According to some sources, recent genetic studies suggest the Abyssinian's forebears likely originated from cats found in coastal areas of the Indian Ocean and parts of Southeast Asia. However, genetic testing done on North American Abyssinian cats at the Feline Genetics Research Laboratory in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine place the breed’s ancestry in Western Europe.
Wherever the breed came from originally, the Aby was developed and refined by breeders in Great Britain, and was possibly crossbred with British cats with Aby-like ticking, known as “bunny” cats. The breed was entered in the first modern-day cat show held in 1871 in London’s Crystal Palace under the name “Abyssinian.” This show was staged by Harrison Weir, a cat expert and ailurophile whom many regard as the father of the cat fancy. The Abyssinian placed third out of approximately 170 entries, demonstrating that even at the cat fancy’s beginning, the Aby was appreciated for its beauty and grace.
The breed had an excellent start in Great Britain until World War II very nearly exterminated the Aby, along with many other breeds. After the war, only 12 registered Abyssinians could be found in England and breeders had to start over again, using these few cats bred with other breeds and random-bred domestics to keep the bloodlines healthy and diverse.
Abyssinians first arrived in North America in the early 1900s, but the Abyssinian lines that became the foundation of today’s North American pedigreed breed were imported from Britain in the 1930s. The Aby gained popularity as cat lovers became familiar with the breed’s lovable personality, lithe body, and attractive ticked coat. According to CFA’s 2014 registration totals, the Abyssinian ranked the fourth most popular shorthaired breed, and seventh most popular breed overall.