Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Ancient and Exotic Abyssinian

By Julia Williams

All of my cats have been the garden variety kind (i.e., free). But if I ever did decide to get a pedigreed cat, the Abyssinian is high on my list. The beautiful Aby has been one of the most popular short hair breeds for quite some time, and it’s easy to see why. This regal feline is highly intelligent, loyal, loving, extroverted and active. Abyssinians also possess an unusual ticked coat, a delightful “purrsonality,” and an intriguing history. What more could any cat fancier want?

Abyssinian History

Although the Aby is one of the oldest known cat breeds, its origins are still something of a mystery. While many different stories and theories exist as to where the Abyssinian came from, the truth is that no one really knows for sure. Some believe they originated in Egypt, largely because they resemble the paintings and sculptures of ancient Egyptian cats, typically depicted with an arched neck, a svelte body, well-cupped ears, long legs and almond-shaped eyes.

Another Egyptian theory claims that the Abyssinian originated from a female kitten called Zula, who was taken from Alexandria to England by a British soldier. However, this theory is unsubstantiated. There are also stories that wild Abyssinians live in parts of North Africa today. This likely stems from the fact that today’s Aby still has that exotic “jungle look” of the African wildcat (felis silvestris lybica), generally believed to be the ancestor of all domestic cats.

The earliest identifiable Abyssinian cat resides in a taxidermy exhibit in a Holland museum, labeled as "Patrie, domestica India." From this, some theorize that the breed may have been introduced into England from India by colonists or merchants who frequently travelled between the two areas.

Abyssinian Temperament

Although the Aby is a very people-oriented cat that relishes human company and attention, they are the opposite of a lap cat. The Abyssinian is far too preoccupied with playing and exploring every inch of its “habitat” to sit still for long. They’re fond of climbing and may appear to defy gravity at times because no summit is too high for them to scale. Obviously, Abyssinian cats have no fear of heights. Given their love of high places, Abyssinians make good use of towering cat trees, multi-level cat condos and the like.

Abyssinians have an insatiable curiosity, and when their interest in piqued (which is pretty much 24/7) they tend to be captivated by whatever is happening. A window perch that looks out into a yard frequented by birds and squirrels will hold the Abys attention indefinitely.

In the Abyssinian Breeders International "Kitten Buyer's Guide," Carolyn Osier describes the Aby as "... a cat that likes to be with people, a cat that wants to know what you are doing - that wants to help. There is probably no breed anywhere more loyal than the Aby. Once you have acquired an Aby as a companion, you will never be able to complain that no one understands you."

Abyssinian Physical Characteristics

The Abyssinian’s head is broad and somewhat wedge-shaped, with eyes that can be gold or green. They have rather large ears that are cupped at the base and pointed at the tips, where tufts of hair are commonly seen. Some Abys have an M-shaped marking on their forehead. The Abyssinian's lithe body is medium length, with well-developed muscles, slender legs and small paws. They have a fairly long tail which is broad at the base and tapers to a point.

The defining feature that sets the Abyssinian apart from other cat breeds, however, is the richly colored “ticked” tabby coat. Each hair is ticked with four to six bands of color, dark at the tip, lighter at the roots, alternating dark and light. This iridescent ticked coat adds to the Aby’s wild appearance, and seems to make them shine.

Abyssinian Colors and Markings

There are four Abyssinian colors recognized by the Cat Fanciers’ Association, which is the world’s largest registry of pedigreed felines. The original Abyssinian coat color is known as Ruddy. The coat has a warm reddish-brown base; the darker bands of color are dark sepia to black and the lighter bands are bright orange, which gives the impression of a burnt sienna iridescent cat. Red has chocolate brown in the darker bands of color, giving the impression of a red iridescent cat. The Blue Abyssinian has slate blue darker bands of color alternating with warm beige. Fawn has light cocoa darker bands and rose-beige lighter ticking. Abyssinian kittens are all born with dark coats that get progressively lighter as they mature. It can actually take several months for the final coat color to be established.

Read more articles by Julia Williams

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