If you want a cat with the high spirits of the Abyssinian but with a glorious, semi-long coat, look no further than the Somali. Somalis are no longer simply longhaired Abyssinians—the years of selective breeding have created a number of differences. A medium to large breed, Somalis are larger than their Aby relatives. The body is medium long, lithe, and graceful, showing well-developed muscular strength. The rib cage is rounded, and the back is slightly arched, giving the appearance of a cat about to spring; the flank is level with no tuck-up. The conformation strikes a balance between the extremes of the cobby and svelte types. When standing, the Somali gives the impression of being nimble and quick. The legs are in proportion to the torso; the feet are oval and compact. The tail is thick at the base and tapers slightly, with the length in balance with the body. Males weigh 10 to 12 pounds; females weigh 6 to 10 pounds.
The head is a modified, slightly rounded wedge shape without flat planes. The brow, cheeks, and lines of the profile all show a gentle contour, with a slight rise from the bridge of the nose to the forehead. The forehead is of good size with width between the ears flowing into the arched neck without a break. The muzzle follows the gentle contours and is not sharply pointed, with no snippiness, foxiness, or whisker pinch. The chin is full, neither undershot nor overshot, and has a rounded appearance.
The ears are large, alert, moderately pointed, broad, and cupped at the base. The ears are set on a line toward the rear of the skull. The inner ear has horizontal tufts that reach nearly to the other side of the ear. The eyes are almond-shaped, large, brilliant, expressive, and accented by dark lids surrounded by lighter areas. Eye color is usually green or gold. The more richness and depth of color, the better, although some associations accept gold, green, hazel, and copper-colored eyes. Above each eye is a short, dark vertical line with a dark pencil line continuing from the upper lid toward the ears.
The medium-long fur is extremely fine, very soft to the touch, and double coated, and the denser the better. The hair is slightly shorter over the shoulders, but overall is long enough to accommodate four to six alternating light and dark bands of ticking. Ruff and britches are preferred, which give a full-coated appearance to the cat. The tail has a full brush, which is fluffy and fox-like. Somali coat color develops slowly; it doesn't show mature ticking and color until the cat is about 18 months old.
The coat is ticked (both the Abyssinian and the Somali are called ticked tabbies), and in most associations the accepted colors are ruddy, red (called cinnamon or sorrel in some associations), blue, and fawn. Other associations, such as TICA, accept the breed in the widely accepted four colors plus silver, silver ruddy, silver red, silver blue, and silver fawn. AACE also accepts cinnamon silver and chocolate silver. The silver color is widely accepted in Australia and many European countries as well. In the silver pattern, the undercoat is icy white, and the alternating light bands of ticking on each hair shaft are replaced with white (the darker bands of ticking remain the same color, i.e., for ruddy Somalis the darker bands stay dark brown or black with the darkest color decorating the hair tip). This gives the coat its sparkling silver effect. Silver is controversial, however, because some breeders believe that the gene responsible for the silver effect will ruin the ruddy coloration.
The only allowable outcross is the Abyssinian. Outcrossing to the Aby, however, produces shorthaired Somalis, because the shorthair gene is dominant; only one copy of the shorthair gene is needed for a cat to have short hair. How shorthaired Somalis are classified and whether they are allowed to compete depends upon the association; in TICA, for example, the Somali is part of the Abyssinian Breed Group, and shorthaired Somalis can be shown as Abys.
The Somali shares much of its history with the Abyssinian, because the Somali comes from Abyssinian bloodlines. Although the Somali didn’t gain recognition as a breed until the 1960s, its parent breed, the Abyssinian, has been around for hundreds or perhaps even thousands of years.
The Somali made its first appearance in the United States, when longhaired kittens began appearing in otherwise shorthaired Abyssinian litters. The Aby breeders, rather than being delighted with these small, furry bonuses, quietly gave away the longhaired interlopers and tried to eliminate the longhair gene from their Aby bloodlines. The recessive gene for long hair must be inherited from both parents for a kitten to have long hair, and, therefore, the gene can be carried for generations without anyone knowing it’s there. Because most breeders didn’t keep records of these cats (no breeder wanted it known that their Abys weren’t "pure"), it’s hard to say just how early they appeared. Without doubt they were around by the 1950s.
There are two schools of thought about the presence of the longhair gene in Aby lines. Some believe it originated in Britain when breeders used longhaired cats in their Abyssinian breeding programs after World Wars I and II. Many Abys from those periods have parents or ancestors of unknown origin in their pedigrees, any of which could have been carrying the longhair gene. Particularly after World War II, when the breed was reduced to a mere dozen or so cats, breeders were forced to crossbreed their few remaining Abys to save them from extinction, as did European fanciers of so many other breeds.
Others, however, believe the long coat was a mutation within the Abyssinian bloodline. The idea that the Somali arose spontaneously from Abyssinian lines without help from crossbreeding is popular with many fanciers, because it means the Somali is a natural breed instead of a hybrid. Spontaneous mutation is certainly a possibility.
Wherever the gene came from, longhaired Abys were treated like the cat fancy’s illegitimate children until the 1970s. Abyssinian breeder Evelyn Mague of Gillette, New Jersey, is credited with starting the Somali on the road to acceptance. New to the cat fancy, Mague and fellow Aby breeder Charlotte Lohmeyer agreed that whoever had the first male Aby would help the other by letting him father kittens. Mague won the male race and her Lord Dublin mated Lohmeyer’s Trilly. In the litter was one strange-looking fuzzy male whom they decided must be a longhair. Because they were Abyssinian breeders, they were not fans of the longhair gene in their lines. So Lohmeyer gave the kitten away at the much-too-early age of 5 weeks.
But by Dickensian coincidence, the cat (then named George) came back to Mague via her work with Cat Placement, an animal welfare group of which she was president. Mague thought George was the most beautiful cat she’d ever seen, and was astonished to find he was the same cat Lohmeyer had given away. George had lived in five homes in less than a year and never had proper socialization or care. Mague found herself becoming angry that George had been treated so poorly when his littermates, only one gene apart, were valued pedigreed cats.
Mague set out to make sure the Georges of the cat world would be given the recognition they deserved. She worked very hard to overcome the ridicule and resistance she encountered from judges, Abyssinian breeders, and cat associations. Aby breeders, in particular, didn’t want to see these longhairs in the show halls—or anywhere else, for that matter. One told her the breed would be recognized "over my dead body." Indeed, the breed achieved recognition after that breeder’s death.
Aby breeders of the time were also vehemently opposed to Mague calling her new breed the Longhaired Abyssinian. So to distinguish her longhaired rebels, Mague chose the name Somali, named for a country that borders Abyssinia (now Ethiopia).
Those early years were a battle for Mague and any other breeder brave enough to join her. Mague made contact with a Canadian breeder working with Aby longhairs, Don Richings, who became an invaluable ally. Slowly her small band of breeders grew. However, the cat-loving public, unaware they were supposed to despise the upstart Somali, loved the breed for its beauty and personality.
In 1972, Mague founded the Somali Cat Club of America, which brought together those interested in working with and promoting the new breed. In 1979, the Somali received championship status in CFA. By 1980, the Somali was recognized for championship by all North American cat associations in existence at that time. In 1981, the Somali arrived in the United Kingdom, and in 1991 was accepted for championship by GCCF. Many other associations in Europe and Australia have accepted the breed as well. At last, the Somali had won over—or outlived—most of its detractors. While numbers are still considerably lower than the Abyssinian (according to CFA’s 2014 registration totals, the Somali ranks 29th out of the 41 breeds CFA accepts for championship), the Somali has earned its place in both the show ring and the hearts and homes of cat fanciers.