Guide to Cat Breeds (See Full List)

Somali

Somali

Ancestry: Abyssinian cats
Place of Origin: New Jersey, USA
Date of Origin: The 1950s for certain, but probably earlier
Accepted by: All North American cat associations (championship)

 
Description

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 although some associations such as TICA accept gold, green, hazel, or copper-colored eyes. The more richness and depth of color, the better. 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, 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 full color until the cat is at least 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 silver, cinnamon silver, blue 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, since 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.

History

The Somali shares much of its history with the Abyssinian, since 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. Since 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 five 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 had 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 2013 registration totals, the Somali ranks 29th out of the 40 breeds CFA accepts for championship), the Somali has earned its place in both the show ring and the hearts and homes of cat fanciers.

Notes

Like their sibling the Aby, Somalis 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 Somalis and Abyssinians, 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. Therefore, Somalis with one copy of the gene, while unaffected themselves, can pass the mutated gene onto offspring. A different form of PRA has also been identified in the Somali and Abyssinian breeds, this one resulting in a defective protein critical for eye development. It causes blindness by seven weeks of age. A dominant gene causes this mutation, so a cat only needs one copy of the defective gene to be affected. Fortunately, this mutation is rare.

No treatment is available for either form of PRA, but tests for both are available for Somalis and Abys at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California Davis. Not only do the tests reveal if a cat carries the genes, but also show how many copies the cat has. A cat with even one copy is a carrier and should not be used for breeding. A sample is taken at home with a simple cheek swab, which is then mailed to the laboratory for testing. More information can be found at www.vgl.ucdavis.edu/services/cat/pra.php.

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

Somalis are also prone to plaque and tartar buildup, tooth decay, and gingivitis. Gingivitis can lead to the dental disease periodontitis (an inflammatory disease affecting the tissues surrounding and supporting the teeth), which can lead to tissue, tooth, and bone loss. Untreated, dental disease can undermine a cat’s overall health. Somalis need dental exams during their annual checkups, and as-needed professional teeth cleanings by your veterinarian. If your Somali will cooperate, a child’s soft toothbrush and special cat toothpaste do a good job of cutting down on plaque buildup. Gauze pads wrapped around your finger work just as well and are easier to control. Regular tooth cleaning can allow your Somali to go longer in between professional cleanings, which require the cat to be anesthetized. Be sure to ask your cat’s breeder about these conditions and get a written health guarantee.

Did you know?

The Somali did not originate in Somalia. Fanciers chose the name because Somalia borders Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), for which the Abyssinian was named.

Personality

Although the beauty of the breed first attracts many fanciers to the Somali, it’s the personality and intelligence that turn fanciers into fanatics. Fans of the foxy kitty say Somalis are the best home entertainment you can buy and claim they are more like people than cats—small, hairy, hyperactive people. Very energetic and high spirited, Somalis cavort like kittens well into old age. They are not for those who like passive, mellow felines.

Like the action-packed Aby, the Somali is vigorous and animated, has a keen sense of feline humor, and a real need for play. Fanciers say the Somali shares more than just a passing resemblance to the wily fox; Somalis know more ways to get into adorable mischief than a barrel of foxes. How adorable you find their mischief often depends upon the hour; it’s less adorable when you’re jolted awake at 4:00 a.m. by the loud crash of a breakable knickknack hitting the floor. They are highly intelligent, which contributes to their talent for mischievous amusement. One fancier describes how his Somali delights in stealing his toupee and showing it off to visitors. If you share your life with a Somali, you’ll need a sense of humor.

Happily, Somalis are not vocal except in extreme emergencies, such as empty food dishes; highly active breeds need a steady supply of high-protein cat food. When they do speak up they tend to communicate with a few soft chirps or trills.

Somalis are also known for their courage and tenacity. Once they get an idea into their heads, you might as well give in and let them have their way, or be prepared to do battle forever. But it’s hard to stay mad at a cat who head-presses and rubs against you in an ecstasy of delight, rumbling a lion-like purr. Somalis are very people-oriented and can become depressed if not given the attention they crave. If you’ll be away all day, you’d do well to get a companion for your Somali. Just remember that two Somalis can mean double the adorable mischief.

What Somalis aren’t, however, are outdoor cats, say breeders. Somalis are very adaptable and live happily indoors, as long as they have the run of the house or apartment and you provide them with ample toys, cat trees and loving attention.

Breed Characteristics

Size:Medium to large.
Coat Length(s):Long hair.
Body Type:Slender, fine-boned.
Grooming Requirement:Twice a week.
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.