The Havana Brown:
The Cat in a Not So Plain Brown Wrapper

Photo by Larry Johnson

By Norma Placchi
Originally published in The Cat Fanciers’ Almanac, May 1991

My introduction to this fabulous breed of cat came at a cat show being held in Santa Barbara, California, in the early 1970’s. My husband, Howard and I, had established Bundash Cattery in 1970 after our transfer to California and were busily breeding and showing American Shorthairs, along with raising our two children. Cat shows were a family affair; the kids were famous for their original cage decorations and usually came home with the trophy for Best Decorated Cage. The family had driven to a show in Santa Barbara that weekend to show one of our favorites, GRC Bundash’s Gretchen, a red tabby American Shorthair. While strolling down the aisles looking at all the lovely cats entered, we came upon a cage that contained a breed of cat we had never before seen — a Havana Brown. The person sitting in front of the cage actually took this exquisite animal out and let us touch it. I cannot begin to describe my feelings upon touching this wonderful feline — the coat felt like an exquisite mink, the body was elegant and muscular, it had a delightfully charming face and it was purring! Well, I was hooked!! I HAD to have one of these wonderful animals!!

Now mind you, until this experience, I was happily pursuing the world of American Shorthairs. Our first litter had produced two lovely Grand Champions who were doing extremely well at the shows; another breed was the farthest thing from my mind. However, as I now tell people, one touch of this wonderful cat, and you are hooked for life. To make a long story short, I came home and immediately began a search for a Havana Brown female of my own.

We were planning a family trip back to central Illinois where I had grown up. Would you believe that there was a breeder of Havana Browns living just about an hours drive from my parents. Phone calls were made to setup a visit and off we went. That breeder was none other than Velta Dickson, Namekagon Cattery, of Decatur. We spent a delightful afternoon visiting with Velta, her late husband, John, and a house full of “Brownies.” Before leaving, we made arrangements for shipment of a male and female to California when they were ready. GRC Namekagon Honi Kom of Bundash was our foundation queen and is in the pedigrees of many of the winning Havana Browns of today. Velta is still actively breeding and showing her lovely Havana Browns. All Havana Brown breeders of to day owe Velta a great debt of gratitude for keeping the breed alive and well all these years.

Now that you know how I became enamored of the breed, let’s explore a bit of its history. It is well documented that self-brown cats were known and shown in Europe in the 1890’s. One of the recorded names given these brown cats was “Swiss Mountain Cat.” Unfortunately, they disappeared from the organized cat fancy and, as far as records show, from all cat lovers’ lives until the Post World War II period when they resurfaced.

One possible reason for their demise was the edict given by the Siamese Cat Club of Britain near the end of 1920 — “The club much regrets it is unable to encourage the breeding of any but blue-eyed Siamese.” Whereupon all solid-brown cats with non-blue eyes were excluded from Siamese classes at shows and that was the end of brown cats as the early breeders knew them.

In the early 1950’s, a group of English fanciers who previously had worked independently, began to band together to systematically isolate the genetic design of a self brown cat. The core of this pioneer group consisted of Mrs. Armitage Hargreaves of Laurentide Cattery, Mrs. Munroe-Smith of Elmtower Cattery, the Baroness Von Ullmann of Roofspringer Cattery, Mrs. Elsie Fisher of Praha Cattery, and Mrs. Judd of Crossways Cattery. These dedicated English breeders studied available genetic information and kept detailed records of their experiments. It is believed that the first chestnut brown kitten, a male, Praha Gypka, produced by this group of ladies resulted from mating a black shorthair and a chocolate point Siamese. Other breedings supposedly took place using Russian Blue and Siamese.

However, it should be noted that the year before this designed breeding produced a Havana Brown, one was accidentally bred by Mrs. Munroe-Smith, who mated a black shorthair, Elmtower Susannah, and a seal point Siamese, Elmtower Tombee.

A male self-chocolate was produced — Elmtower Bronze Idol, the first Havana Brown to be registered in England, and the fore-runner of our present day breed. Susannah’s sire was a black domestic named Pickles; her dam was a seal point Siamese, Tsiu Chow. Tombee’s dam was also Tsiu Chow and her sire was Pickles.

When Annette Bittaker and I did our extensive research for the 1982 CFA YEARBOOK article on the Havana Brown, we found that the early developers of the breed used not only Siamese but also a small amount of Russian Blues early on to derive a self-brown cat; but careful study of pedigrees and of the written accounts of the founders’ original work shows that the cats producing the early parentage of the present breed contained almost no Russian Blue and a small amount of chocolate point Siamese. The most successful and most often used combination was that of a black shorthair and a seal point Siamese carrying the chocolate gene.

Our study found that Laurentide Areeto Pearl, a black shorthair female resulting from a breeding between a chocolate point Siamese male, Briary Saccharin, and a black shorthair female, Laurentide Ephone Jet, had a Russian Blue in her background. Apparently, Ephone Jet was the product of a Russian Blue and seal point Siamese cross. Laurentide Areeto Pearl produced Havana Brown cats when bred back to her sire, a chocolate point Siamese. She was also bred to Havana Browns developed by other breeders which did not carry any Russian Blue and these crosses also produced brown kittens.

It has been documented that several breeders in the United States also introduced Russian Blues into their lines; however, for whatever the reasons, these particular lines were not continued. To the best of our knowledge, most of the Havana Browns of today do not have any Russian Blues in their backgrounds. Mrs. Elsie Quinn, Quinn Cattery, El Monte, California, imported the very first Havana Brown from England in the mid 1950’s — a female named Roofspringer Mahogany Quinn. She was bred to Lauren- tide Brown Pilgrim of Norwood, also an import, and produced the very first Havana Brown to achieve Grand Championship status in CFA in 1959— Quinn’s Brown Satin of Sidlo. All of the Havana Browns in this country today can trace their heritage back to this cat.

By the time the breed had received recognition in English cat registries, the name had been changed to “Chestnut Brown.” In this country, not only the name Havana Brown has been retained but also the type of the cat. In England, breeding back to Siamese has been continued, therefore the original look of the cat has been lost; a “Chestnut Brown” of today would resemble our chestnut Oriental Shorthair in type. Here in the United States, we can proudly say that the breed has retained its original look — a moderate cat with a distinctive head, an elegant coat and a personality that will melt your heart.

There are several theories on how the breed got its name — some historians insist it was named after the rabbit breed of the same color; however, the one most Havana Brown devotees choose to believe is that it got its name “because it was the color of rich Havana tobacco.”

What makes a Havana Brown so unique? The first thing one notices is the glistening, rich, warm, mahogany brown coat color; a medium length coat that is smooth, lustrous, close-lying and rippling with powerful muscles.

The head of the Havana Brown is distinctive — a feature that immediately sets it apart from the other two brown cats — the Burmese and the chestnut Oriental Shorthair. The Burmese has a short round head; the Oriental Shorthair has a long wedge-shaped head, with a straight nose. The Havana Brown’s head is slightly longer than it is wide; the prominent broad rosy-toned nose has a distinct stop at the eyes, a very pronounced whisker break and a strong chin. The stop and the whisker break combine to form a somewhat rounded muzzle, which appears to be a protrusion of the head — sometimes referred to as a “strawberry basket”; a corn-cob; the end of a light bulb; or as if the cat’s head had been stuck in a Coke bottle. Whatever you call it, the muzzle is very prominent and unusual. This is the only breed of cat that specifies a whisker color — they must be brown, complementing the color of the coat.

The eyes are brilliant green, alert and expressive; oval in shape, set wide apart and somewhat low on the head, giving the cat an expression of looking down its nose.

Ears of the Havana Brown are large, round tipped, set wide, but not flaring, tilting forward, giving the appearance of alertness. Expect very little hair on the inside and outside surfaces of the ears.

Picking up a Havana Brown for the first time can be a surprising experience. This lithe-looking body actually weighs more than it appears. A medium-sized body, it must be firm and muscular, exhibiting a sense of power; yet also show a definite elegance and gracefulness. The cat stands tall on its legs; paws are dainty and oval shaped. Males will be proportionately larger in all respects. Head, neck, legs and tail are each in balanced proportion to its body. Overall balance and proportion are to be stressed more than size in the judging ring.

With a charming, pixyish manner and a soft, intimate voice, the Havana Brown virtually breathes life and personality. Unlike other breeds, who characteristically use their noses and sense of smell to investigate curiosities, the Havana Brown leads with its paws, touching and feeling. It’s been said that they seem to be “extending a paw of friendship.” These are definitely people-oriented cats; human companionship is a necessity for this breed. Being very social in nature, oftentimes several can be found curled up together participating in a “group bathing” session. Some seem to be natural shoulder sitters; fortunately, claws are rarely used.

This hardy breed is extremely intelligent, easily trained to fetch and they absolutely dote on praise. Most Havana Browns make excellent show cats; they have an unflappable personality, like everyone and thrive on new experiences, especially if being rewarded with an edible treat.

Being a shorthaired breed, routine grooming is kept to a minimum. However, if the cat is being shown, I cannot stress enough the importance of a bath several days before the show. More on this later. My weekly grooming routine of all cats and kittens whether being shown or not, consists of clipping the nails, front and back; cleaning the ears with a moistened Q-tip; gently brushing the coat with a rubber brush; plucking any stray white hairs; and then finishing up by polishing the coat with a chamois. By grooming on a regular basis, one can quickly notice any change in the physical condition of each cat; plus, the cats thoroughly enjoy and look forward to this time when they have my undivided attention. Kittens are started on this grooming routine at about 4-6 weeks of age.

For the show cat, grooming and conditioning is of utmost importance. Any good high-protein diet, combined with extra oils, should keep the cat in good physical condition. I’m sure we all realize the necessity of bathing .the longhair cat before showing; well, speaking as an Allbreed Judge of 11 years, and an exhibitor for over 20 years, let me emphasize that it is just as important that the shorthair cats be squeaky clean and properly groomed too.

Several days before the show, bathe the Havana Brown with a good feline shampoo. The shampoo you use will depend somewhat on the water in your area; however, do your experimenting with different shampoos on a week when you do not have the cat entered in a show. I have personally had the most success using Ring 5, Burnished Bronze Shampoo, on my cats. After a thorough soaping and scrubbing, then RINSE, RINSE, RINSE, with warm clear water to remove all traces of the shampoo. Towel dry, and place in a carrier in a warm place; or you can situate a blow dryer set on low about a foot away from the carrier and direct the nozzle so as to slowly dry the coat.

After the coat is completely dry, brush gently with a small rubber brush; use a coat gloss to restore its lustre and remove any static electricity. Finish up the polishing with a chamois or a soft dry cloth. This is a good time to go over the coat from head to toe and carefully pluck any remaining stray white hairs. Never, never present a Havana Brown to the judging ring without removing these dead hairs.

On the morning of the show, before putting the cat in the first ring, use a soft cloth moistened with warm water and gently wash the cat’s face, making sure the nose and eyes are spotlessly clean (get those “sleepers” out of the corners); wipe cleat the rosy-pink paw pads; lightly run the we cloth over the cat’s entire coat; and most importantly, don’t forget to clean the cat’s bottom. When placed on the judging table, the tail naturally goes up and guess what the judge sees first — the BOTTOM!

Shortly before your cat’s number is called to the ring, spray a bit of the coat gloss on your hands and rub it in, then gently go over the coat with the rubber brush and once again, finish up the polishing with the chamois. The coat should lay down and virtually shine like a piece of highly polish ed fine Mahogany furniture!! I cannot emphasize enough the importance of always presenting the Havana Brown in flawless condition.

The last few years have seen a considerable increase in the quantity and quality of the breed being shown and making finals. This past show season saw two lovely Havana Brown females being campaigned — GRC Kapalua Lady In Brown of Heirbourne, was 20th Best Cat Nationally; GRC Bundash’s Jane Eyre, almost made it into the Top 25—she placed 26th. Lady was the second of the breed to make a National Win — the 1975- 1976 show season saw GRC, NW Aragon’s Tia Maria place as 16th Best Cat Nationally.

To date, four Havana Browns have achieved the title of Distinguished Merit — one male and three females. In 1988, CH Charm’s Dazzle ‘M of Bundash, bred by Pat Swihart, and owned by Howard and Norma Placchi, became the first Havana Brown D.M., when her litter of five all became Grands. Of this illustrious litter, two of the females recently attained the title of Distinguished Merit – GRC Bundash’s Classic Dusty Rose and GRC Bundash’s Classic Lady of Kapalua. On an equally exciting note, the sire of the D.M. litter, GRC Kapalua Touch of Class, bred and owned by Larry and Sheila Ullmann, in 1989 became the first male Havana Brown to achieve this coveted title.

May this wonderful breed continue its winning ways in the years to come!!

The author gratefully acknowledges her sources of references as:

  • “The Havana Brown… The Felicitous Feline,” by Annette Bittaker and Norma Placchi, 1982 CFA YEARBOOK
  • “The Havana Brown,” by Phil Maggitti, CATS MAGAZINE.
  • “The Havana Brown: A Rare, Woman Made Breed,” by Barbara S. Burns, published in THE MORRIS REPORT.
  • THE BOOK OF THE CAT, edited by Michael Wright and Sally Walters.