Although the breed has gone through many ups and downs over the years, the current appearance is close to the breed’s original form due to the hard work of dedicated breeders. Like its alley cat ancestors, today’s Brit is a healthy, hardy breed—medium to large, well-knit, compact, well-balanced, and powerful. The back is level and the chest is deep and broad. The short to medium legs are well-boned and strong with straight forelegs, and are in proportion to the body. The paws are round and firm. The tail is medium length and in proportion to the body, thicker at the base and tapering slightly to a rounded tip. Males generally weigh 12 to 18 pounds; females usually weigh 9 to 15 pounds.
Roundness is a trademark of the breed; the word "round" or "rounded" appears 15 times in the CFA breed standard. The head is round and massive, set on a short, thick neck. The face is round with round underlying bone structure and a distinctive, well-developed muzzle that has a definite stop beyond the large, round whisker pads, giving the cat a perpetual smile. The forehead is rounded with a slightly flat plane on the top of the head, and should not slope. The medium-size nose is broad with a gentle dip in profile. The chin is firm, well-developed, and in line with the nose and upper lip.
The ears are medium-sized, broad at the base, and rounded at the tips. The ear set is very important in show quality Brits; the ears are set far apart, fitting into but not distorting the rounded contour of the head. The eyes are large, round, well-opened, and set wide apart and level. Most coat colors require gold or copper eyes, except for blue-eyed white cats, who can have blue or odd eyes, and shaded and chinchilla silver and golden, who can have green or blue-green eyes.
The Shorthair’s coat is very plush and feels like firm, warm velvet, inspiring fanciers to call Brits the teddy bears of the cat fancy. The short, very dense, full-bodied fur is not woolly. In recent years, North American cat lovers have gained interest in the British Longhair, a semi-longhair that shares the same conformation with its shorthaired kin. Longhairs show up periodically in Shorthair litters. So far, CCA and TICA are the only associations to recognize a longhaired version of the breed for championship. TICA recognizes the longhair as part of the British Breed Group, and CCA recognizes it under the name British, with both hair types sharing the same standard but with both lengths judged separately.
As they conquered and colonized other lands, the Romans brought cats along with them to control rodent populations. Domestic cats first came to Great Britain with the Romans about 2,000 years ago. Eventually, the Romans were expelled from the British Isles, but the cats they had brought with them remained, firmly ensconced in the granaries, farms, and alleys of Great Britain.
The cats who roamed with the Romans were more Abyssinian than British in design: lithe and muscular with long, elegant bones and agouti, spotted, or tabby markings. When they arrived in Europe, however, some dallied with the local European wildcat, Felis sylvestris sylvestris. This caused a marked transformation in type, because while closely related to the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) from which domestic cats developed, the European wildcat had a muscular body, broad head, wide skull, and smaller, wide-set ears. These cats also had short, plush coats and the mackerel tabby pattern. It’s thought that this pattern, found in so many breeds, may have originated with the European wildcat. With the European wildcat’s influence, and also because of the climatic conditions that made a heavier body and thicker fur favorable to survival, British cats developed a stockier, rounder, more muscular body type. The Brit, as the British Shorthair is affectionately called, therefore developed into the sturdy, substantial breed it is today.
For centuries, these rugged working cats prowled Great Britain’s alleys, gardens, barns, pubs, and households, earning their keep by working as perfect mousetraps. At this time, most people considered cats skillful rodent terminators rather than pampered housepets. In many ways, the British Shorthair’s fight for acceptance as a breed closely resembled the struggles of the American Shorthair in North America. Both began as working cats and weren’t fully appreciated for many years.
British cat owners’ attitudes began to change in the mid-1800s, when they started to appreciate these hardy alley cats for their beauty, strength, personality, and their value as companions. Harrison Weir, a renowned author and ailurophile who is considered the father of the cat fancy, was the first to see these cats as a genuine breed. Weir’s celebrated cat show at the Crystal Palace of London in 1871 marked the beginning of the modern cat fancy, and also marked the Brit’s rise in popularity. Not only did Weir organize the show, but he also wrote the standards by which each breed should be judged, and elevated Britain’s common street cat to the lofty and patriotic name of British Shorthair.
By the end of the nineteenth century, owning pedigreed cats had become a status symbol, and British Shorthairs were valued and prized. At that time, Brits came in many colors and patterns, but the solid colors—particularly blue—were especially popular. They were even given special prizes in Weir’s annual shows.
However, just as the American Shorthair fell from favor in the United States, the British Shorthair gave way to exotic longhairs such as the Persian and the Angora. The Brit’s popularity began to dwindle, and World War I put a stop to many breeding programs. After the first world war, just as the Brit was again gaining in numbers, World War II began and decimated the British Shorthair population—as it did most of the breeds in Europe.
After World War II, breeders crossbred the Brit with domestic shorthairs, Russian Blues, Burmese, Korats, and Chartreux to rejuvenate what was left of the breed. To counteract the change in body type, many breeders also used blue Persians. This created a Brit with a Persian facial structure and a longer, softer coat. It took generations to bring the breed back to its former glory, but eventually the breeders achieved the type they desired—one that reflected the powerful build, hardiness, muscular strength, and adaptability that had enabled the cat to survive for so many centuries. Because of the number of Chartreux, Russian Blues, and blue Persians used in the bloodlines, blue became the predominant color, and for years the breed was called the British Blue.
Although registered British Shorthairs were exported to North America as early as 1900, there was little interest in the breed until the 1950s. In 1967, the American Cat Association (ACA), America’s oldest cat registry, was the first to grant championship status to the breed under the name British Blue. Other associations resisted accepting the Brit as a breed because the cats had been openly crossed with Persians and were considered hybrids. In 1970, ACFA granted championship status to the British Blue as well—but only in solid blue. Brits of other colors had to be shown as American Shorthairs.
Winning changes everything. A black British Shorthair named Manana Channaine racked up so many wins in ACFA as an American Shorthair that American Shorthair breeders, whose cats were losing to this interloping Brit, began to hiss that she didn’t belong in the American Shorthair class. This focused attention on the fact that Brits came in other colors besides blue. In the 1970s, British Shorthair breeders began to campaign for recognition in CFA—not just in blue but in all colors. Finally, in 1980 CFA accepted the British Shorthair for championship in all the myriad colors of the breed. Today, the Brit has an active following and Brits have earned acceptance in all North American cat registries. In 2014, the British Shorthair was the second most popular shorthair, and the fifth most popular breed overall, according to CFA’s registration totals.