Guide to Cat Breeds (See Full List)

Abyssinian

Abyssinian

Ancestry: Unknown

Place of Origin: Unknown

Date of Origin: Unknown; could be hundreds or thousands of years

Accepted by: All North American cat associations (championship)

 
Description

The overall impression of 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 19th 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.

History

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. In 2012, the Abyssinian ranked the second most popular shorthair, after the Exotic, according to CFA’s registration totals.

Notes

Abyssinians are generally healthy but are susceptible to certain diseases and conditions. An inherited late-onset form of blindness called progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) has been found in some lines. The gene causes degeneration of the photoreceptors (the rods and cones) in the retina by producing a defective protein associated with retinal atrophy. In Abyssinians and Somalis, the condition can be detected as early as seven months with a specialized eye exam; affected cats are completely blind by three to five years of age. PRA is caused by a mutated autosomal recessive gene—two copies of the gene must be inherited to cause blindness. However, Abys with one copy of the gene, while unaffected themselves, can pass the mutated gene onto offspring. No treatment is available for PRA, but a PRA test is now available for Abyssinians and Somalis at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California Davis. Not only does the test reveal if the cat carries the gene, but also tells how many copies the cat has, since a cat with one copy is a carrier and should not be used for breeding. A sample is taken at home with a simple cheek swab, which can be mailed back to the laboratory for testing. The lab will send a kit and instructions for taking the sample.

In addition, renal amyloidosis, a hereditary disease that can lead to kidney failure, and PK deficiency, an inherited condition that causes an instability of red blood cells leading to anemia, have been found in some Aby lines. Some breeders screen for PK deficiency; the test is available at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California Davis.

Abys are also prone to plaque, tartar buildup, and gingivitis. Untreated, gingivitis can lead to the dental disease periodontitis (an inflammatory disease affecting the tissues surrounding and supporting the teeth), which can in turn lead to tissue, bone, and tooth loss. Untreated dental disease can undermine an Aby’s overall health. This breed needs annual veterinary checkups, periodic teeth cleaning by your veterinarian, and regular teeth cleaning using cat toothpaste and a special cat toothbrush or soft child’s toothbrush, although gauze pads wrapped around your finger will work just as well, and are easier to control than a brush.

This is not to say your Aby will develop all or any of these conditions and diseases. However, it’s wise to ask your potential breeder how carefully she screens her breeding stock. Be sure to ask your breeder about these conditions and get a written health guarantee.

Did you know?

The first known widespread domestication of cats occurred in Egypt some 4,000 years ago, and some believe those cats were direct ancestors of today’s Abyssinian. However, in 2004 French archaeologist Jean-Denis Vigne discovered the 9,500 year old remains of a young girl buried with her eight-month-old pet cat at a Neolithic site in Cyprus. Since cats are not a native species of the island, this indicates domestic cats likely existed there at least 9,500 years ago, long before the domestication of cats in Egypt.

Personality

Life with the active Abyssinian is never boring. You won’t find better entertainment than the rough and ruddy Aby. This is a breed with an agenda—to convert cat loathers into cat lovers with its lively and affectionate personality.

Extremely active and high spirited, these dynamic couch cougars warp into light speed the moment they awaken. Abys are natural athletes and have agile paws and inquiring minds. If there’s a way to the top of the tallest book shelf or the highest window treatment, they will find it. Abys delight in elevated locations and often enjoy taking in the sights from your shoulder. They also have a more than generous dose of curiosity and show interest in everything, particularly anything in which you are involved. Your Aby will tap-dance across your keyboard and head-bump the phone when you’re trying to talk. Abys have an insatiable need to play that continues well into adulthood—it seems to be a basic need of the breed, almost as important as full food dishes and loving caresses from their favorite humans. Provide a cat companion for your Aby if you’ll be away for many hours a day earning the cat food.

Abys aren’t usually lap cats; they prefer to sit beside you rather than on you. Nevertheless, they are affectionate, devoted and loving companions. They follow you from room to room to keep an eye on what you’re doing. Vocally, they tend to be quiet, but purr with great enthusiasm, particularly around dinner time.

Breed Characteristics

Size:Small to medium
Coat Length(s):Short hair.
Body Type:Slender.
Grooming Requirement:Every few weeks.
Talkativeness:Quiet.
Activity Level:Very high.
Affection:Affectionate.
Usually Good With:Adults (18-65) and children (6+).
Time Alone:4 to 8 hours per day.
Attention:Needs lots of attention.
Handling:Can be a handful.