Learn more about the Abyssinian
by Norman Auspitz
Originally published in The Cat Fanciers’ Almanac, March 2001
The origins of the Abyssinian breed are still somewhat of a mystery, and exotic stories abound about where these cats originated. Whatever the genesis of today’s Abyssinian, the breed certainly suggests the noble cat statues of Egyptian origin. They exhibit the same long legs, arched neck, well-cupped ears, graceful svelteness, and alert look of these statues. The major difference is that today’s Abyssinians have an ear flare, which complements their modified wedge head shape.
The early cat books do not shed much light on the history of this breed since record keeping at the end of the 19th century was not the best. The “Abyssinian” may be so called because at the time the first such cat was imported into England, the English army was fighting in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). It is purported that such a cat was brought into England at the conclusion of the war, and the British book by Gordon Stables, Cats, Their Points, Etc., published in 1874, shows a colored lithograph of a cat with a ticked coat and absence of discernible tabby markings on its paws, face, and neck. The description reads: “Zula, the property of Mrs. Captain Barrett-Lennard. This cat was brought from Abyssinia at the conclusion of the war….”
A more likely explanation for the origin of the Abyssinian breed may be deduced from genetic studies showing that these cats most probably came from the coast of the Indian Ocean and parts of Southeast Asia. There is a ruddy ticked feline taxidermy exhibit in the Leiden Zoological Museum in Holland which was purchased in the mid 1830s and labelled as “Patrie, domestica India.” This might lead us to conclude that the breed may have been introduced into England from India by colonists or merchants who frequently travelled between England and the Indian subcontinent.
There are records of early pedigrees going back to 1904 which show mostly unknown sires and dams, but also show some crosses with various cats which are clearly not what we would think of as Abyssinians. Some of these crosses would explain the various colors we have today, as well as the probable origin of the longhaired variety known as the Somali.
Although there were a few of these cats imported into the U.S. at the beginning of the 1900s, it was not until the 1930s that good show quality Abyssinians were imported into this country from England. These cats formed the basis of today’s modern American Abyssinian breeding program, particularly, a couple of imported English Abyssinians that were registered circa 1934. In volume 19 of the CFA stud book there are ten Abyssinians listed; this appears to be the beginning of the Abyssinian breed in CFA. One CFA Abyssinian was 2nd Best All American Cat in 1965, Best All American Cat in 1966, and 3rd Best All American Cat in 1967. In 1966 this same Abyssinian was CFA’s 2nd Best Cat and Best Shorthair. Since then Abyssinians have won numerous national and regional awards in CFA.
The singular defining feature of the Abyssinian breed is its richly colored, ticked tabby coat free of markings on its legs, tail, and neck but exhibiting dramatic facial markings. Each hair is “ticked” with four to six bands of color, dark at the tip, lighter at the roots, alternating dark and light. In the ideal Abyssinian the color at the root is bright and matches the color on its undersides and the insides of its legs.
There are four colors in the Abyssinian breed. The original, or wild, color is known as ruddy. In this case the darker bands of color are dark sepia to black and the lighter bands a bright orange, giving the impression of a burnt sienna iridescent cat. The next color to be recognized was red, with chocolate brown in the darker bands of color giving the impression of a red iridescent cat. The blue Abyssinian has slate blue as its darker bands of color with alternating bands of warm beige, giving the impression of a warm dark blue cat with a much subtler look. Rounding out the colors of the Abyssinian is the fawn, which has light cocoa darker bands and warm rose-beige lighter bands of ticking, giving the impression of a warm antique rose-colored cat.
Dark lines extend from the eyes and the brow, and the eyes are accentuated by fine dark lines, encircled by light colored areas consistent with the ticking color. Cheekbone shading and dots and shading on the whisker pads are desirable enhancements.
The head of the Abyssinian should be a modified wedge with almond shaped eyes. The ears should be alert, large, and moderately pointed. They should be broad and cupped at the base and set as though listening. The head, eyes and ears should all fit together in a complimentary fashion favoring neither extreme length nor extreme shortness.
The body type of the cat should strike a medium between the extremes of the cobby and the svelte lengthy type. In other words, it should be medium long, lithe and graceful, but showing well-developed muscular strength without coarseness. Proportion and general balance are more desirable than mere size. The cat should appear to be long on its legs and standing on tiptoes; the typical Abyssinian usually likes to arch its back when it stands alertly. Put together, this striking cat seems to have just walked out of the forest, with a look reminiscent of its wild origins so many years ago, tempered with the knowledge that the Ancient Egyptians showed them such reverence.
The last decade has marked the accession of the so-called dilute colored Abyssinians (blue and fawn). We have had both blue and fawn national and regional winners and blue and fawn national and regional breed winners over the past ten years. In the vast majority of cases, today’s ruddies and reds are likely to have the dilute gene in their background. As it is impossible to tell by looking at them whether ruddies carry the red gene, so it is impossible to tell whether ruddies or reds carry the so-called dilute gene. What is now happening with these colors, as breeders have discovered the value of breeding back to the “wild” gene (i.e. ruddy), is that the undercolor on the back and sides of these cats is warming up. In fact, the one major change to the Abyssinian standard is to penalize for white undercolor on blue and fawn Abyssinians. The expectation is that the undercolor on the back and sides of these cats will match the undercolor on the belly and the insides of the legs. There are already some cats which have exhibited this desired coloration, getting away from the tri-colored look of the earlier dilute-colored Abyssinians.
As with many other breeds, Abyssinians go through periods of fashion in the style of the cat. A decade ago, many more moderate cats did quite well in the show ring. Today the style pendulum appears to be gravitating to a more svelte look. Both looks are acceptable according to the standard, and the Abyssinian cat has thrived, in part, by avoiding the extremes. If history is any indicator, the style pendulum will swing back the other way, as it has done in the past. The one change that has become very apparent is the increase in both ear size and ear flare. To a point this enhances the style and elegance of the Abyssinian and is certainly more in keeping with today’s more streamlined look. As in all things, however, care must be taken to not go overboard. To retain the basic look of the Abyssinian, one of the most important aspects is balance. The ear set and ear size must be in balance with the rest of the cat, otherwise, we begin to distort the look of the head that helps to give this breed its wild, “out of the jungle” look and appeal.
How do we best describe the Abyssinian personality? In one word – BUSY. These cats are incredibly intelligent, good problem solvers, and full of an insatiable curiosity. Couple this with the natural athleticism which comes with their particular body type and muscularity, and we have a potent combination. Moreover, Abyssinians tend to want to do everything on their own terms. Having these fascinating, gorgeous cats as pets can be a challenge unless you understand their particular persona.
The normal Abyssinian is almost steadily on the move unless it is eating or sleeping. These cats constantly seem to patrol their territory – unless something catches their interest. When their interest is piqued, they tend to pay attention intensely to whatever is happening, at least until the next interesting thing happens or they decide that whatever is happening is really not all that interesting anyway. Looking out at birds or squirrels through a window can be a captivating pasttime until they hear a can opener or decide they want attention or find something else of more interest.
Abyssinians are incredibly playful, even into adulthood. Everything they do seems to be larger than life. When they play they give over 100%, sometimes not seeming to worry about life or limb! They can amuse themselves for many minutes at a time with a given toy over many months, and then decide they do not ever want to play with it again. Mechanical toys, such as wind up toys, can be a problem, since as soon as the toy winds down, you either have to wind it up again or they will just ignore it. Abyssinians can amuse themselves with a paper ball or a plastic bottle cap just as well as with expensive, elaborate cat toys. They are very good at training humans to play fetch.
As a breed Abyssinians seem to be able to defy gravity at times. There seems to be no place in the house where they cannot get. Frequently it appears impossible for them to reach certain perches; then when you watch how they get to those places, it is even more amazing. Abyssinians live in all three dimensions. They like to make full use of vertical space. Clearly, they have no fear of heights. Most of the time they can be pretty careful walking on the upper shelves of a tall bookcase or the top of kitchen cupboards; however, when that mischievous playfulness moves them, they like to see what may happen when they push some trinket over the edge. If the crash is loud enough they sometimes even scare themselves. Our observation has been that, in general, females tend to be more graceful than males, but sometimes the urge to play can have a devastating effect on breakables. The best advice for Aby owners is to keep the breakables somewhere the Abyssinians are not. Given their penchant for high places, pet Abyssinians should be provided with the means to reach the vertical as well as the horizontal dimensions of their living quarters. To this end, tall scratching posts or scratching trees are much appreciated and well used by this breed.
For the most part Abyssinians are fairly low maintenance cats. They do enjoy being hand rubbed, and it is not a bad idea to give these cats a bath once a year during shedding season. Washing with any good pet shampoo, a quick towelling off, and allowing them to drip dry is all that is needed. Bathing of Abyssinians should be started when they are young and should always be preceded by a good claw clipping. For show there are probably as many “formulas” for bathing and grooming an Abyssinian in preparation for the show ring as there are Abyssinian exhibitors. This makes some sense since there are many subtle variations on coat lengths and textures which require slightly different methods of bathing. Before each exhibition ring, show grooming usually consists of a quick hand polish and lots of play to make this all a rather fun thing to do.
Abyssinians should be amenable to any kind of handling in the show ring. They seem to respond best to less handling, rather than more, especially if they get to play with toys on the judging table. An experienced show Abyssinian often knows where the judges keep the toys and will find a way to get to the toy cache near the judging table. The only thing which may get the Abyssinian’s attention faster than a toy is someone eating lunch nearby. If an Abyssinian is not sure of the whole judging experience, gentle coaxing is more likely to achieve the desired result and relax the cat, rather than trying to force the issue. Sometimes, appealing to the Abyssinian’s natural playfulness might bring the cat out of its shell. One tip for people who are showing an Abyssinian kitten in its first show is to make sure it is familiar with feathers, sparkly toys, and other teases judges normally use to get the cat’s attention. An Abyssinian kitten going to its first show needs to be given some idea of what to expect. It helps to start showing Abyssinian kittens young. At the same time, the show experience should be made into a special fun time for the kitten where they can learn that shows mean lots of treats and lots of attention. Abyssinians often become more magnificent as they mature. This becomes most evident watching older Abyssinians in premiership. Once they are fully mature, their coat, color and muscle tone are fully developed and can cut a most dashing figure on the show bench. For people who want their piece of the wild kingdom and who want an active, independent, loving cat, this very ancient breed may be just right. These mischievous, animated shorthair cats, with their iridescent, sparkling, colorful coats, can provide years of pleasure to any household. It is not any mystery to see why people who have once had an Aby often will not have anything else as a pet. Thus, this breed, which was one of the most popular breeds of cat during the entire 20th century, is continuing in popularity, unchecked, into the new millennium.
- Denham, Helen and Sydney, Child of the Gods, H. Denham, London, 1951
- Zanetti, Aida, Dennis, Elinor, and Hantzmon, Mary, Journey from the Blue Nile, The United Abyssinian Club, New York, 1960
- Peltz, Rosemonde, “The Abyssinian Cat,” 1972 CFA Yearbook, pp. 426-470
- Wastlhuber (Miller), Joan, “Abyssinians in America,” The Era of Development, 1982 CFA Yearbook, pp. 193-208, 641-647
- Helmrich, Hilary and Libott, Sharon, “Abyssinians in America,” 1992 CFA Yearbook, pp. 130-143
- Miller, Joan, CFA Abyssinian Breed Profile