Temperament: loving, active, playful
Lifespan: 12 years
Recommended for: cat lovers and families
The Abyssinian is most widely recognised for its distinctive ‘ticked’ coat, though its heritage is not so obvious.
There is little evidence as to the origins of this breed. Many Abyssinian breed societies claim that direct descendants of the modern day Abyssinian were introduced to Britain around 1868 from Ethiopia, formerly known as Abyssinia. This was soon after British troops returned from deployment in Northern Africa. It is claimed that some of these soldiers brought with them pet kittens acquired from the local Abyssinians.
Although it is possible that some of these cats are ancestors to the modern Abyssinian, it is likely they contributed only in part to the heritage of today’s cat. Initially, a desire to maintain the cat’s ‘ticked pattern’ coat may have caused these early types to be mated together to fix their distinctive coats. They (and their progeny) are likely to have been further mated with other types such as British Shorthair and Siamese to achieve desirable physical characteristics, thus in time producing a new breed of ‘Abyssinian’ cat.
Records showthat Abyssinians were first exhibited as a breed at the Crystal Palace Cat Showin London, as early as 1871. However, these early breeders were not meticulous in recording details of their cats, nor was there a formal registration system.
The first Standard of Points (a guideline of breed ideals) for the Abyssinian was published in Britain in 1889, but it was not until 1896 that the first Abyssinians were registered in the British National Cat Club Stud Book. In 1929 the first Abyssinian Cat Club was formed in Britain. Breeding records of this time are very scarce and it is suspected by some modern day breeders that even this club may not have fully observed a closed stud book. By the 1930s, similar breed clubs were established in the US and France. The Second World War almost wiped out the Abyssinian cat population in the UK and a concerted effort was made to import Abyssinians from the US to bolster the breeding population.
There are no records of the Abyssinian breed in Australia until 1959, when two were imported from New Zealand and one from the UK. The Abyssinian Cat Club of Australasia began in 1966 and is still active today. Presently 300-400 Abyssinians are regularly shown each year Australia-wide.
Appearance and genetic make-up
The most distinctive feature of the Abyssinian is its close-lying coat with various bands of colour along each hair. This unusual pattern, called ‘ticking’, is expressed due to a single gene which causes 3 or 4 dark bands of colour, evenly dispersed on a lighter background and ending in the ticking colour. A clear undercoat is desirable, but grey roots are acceptable. This type of coat lends itself to the name ‘wildcat’ but it is a naturally occurring characteristic that bears no relation to the breed’s temperament.
With the mix of recessive genes introduced via likely initial outcrossing, it is not surprising that fluffy, long haired and oddly coloured kittens were said to appear during early breeding programs. It is even possible that progeny with no ticking at all may have occurred, but today’s breeders believe these were not usually registered or kept for breeding.
Today, Abyssinians are to be found in 5 Championship colours: Tawny (or Usual): this is the foundation colour, a rich golden brown ticked with black. Cinnamon (or Sorrel): is a lustrous copper ticked with chocolate. Blue: a dilute form of the Tawny with pale underparts and bluegrey ticking. Fawn: a dilute version of the Cinnamon appearing as a dark cream and copper. Silver: another dilute version of the Tawny with a warm base coat lightened to white.
A specific dilute gene produces Blue and Fawn Abyssinians, while the Silver Abyssinian is produced by a dominant dilution gene believed to be derived from British Silver Tabby outcrosses about 30 years ago. This is said to have been done in order to re-introduce the colour, the original Silver Abyssinians having died out.
Other recognised colours of Abyssinians are Chocolate, Lilac, Red, Cream and Tortoise shell. These colours are thought to be derived from Siamese and Burmese outcrosses. Tawny and cinnamon make up 90% of Abyssinians in Australia.
Abyssinians are medium-sized cats with long, slender legs and a round, wedge-shaped head. Ears are large and wide set with a distinctive tuft of hair at the tips. Eyes are amber, green or hazel framed with dark rims. The ‘Abyssinian look’, wild but not savage, centres on these large expressive eyes.
The Somali is essentially a longer-haired version of the Abyssinian and is a recognised breed of its own. We know that the initially relaxed Abyssinian breeding programs would occasionally produce long-haired kittens, which soon gained in popularity in their own right and hence the creation of the Somali.
The semi-longhair gene is now rigorously excluded from the Abyssinian gene pool by a strict registration policy. Although they have gone their separate ways the Somalis and Abyssinians still share their origins, temperament, type and coat pattern.
The Abyssinian is a loving, affectionate but demanding cat. They seek attention and settle well into home life. Not as aloof as some cat breeds, the Abyssinian can become very attached to its owner. Although they are very active and like to play, they are not a noisy cat. Abyssinians are even tempered and usually get on well with newly introduced pets. They can be fairly mischievous when they are young but will quieten down as they get older. Abyssinians make wonderful companions and are beautiful to look at.
Maintenance and diet
The Abyssinian is a very low maintenance cat requiring only occasional combing of the coat to reduce hairballs. Their diet should include something they can chew to help clean teeth and gums (such as raw chicken necks). As an active playful cat, Abyssinians will enjoy toys and scratch poles as they may become destructive if bored.
Health and lifespan
An Abyssinian should live around 12 years and there are reportedly no genetic problems in Australian lines. They are prone to gingivitis like many other breeds so teeth care and diet are important. A yearly veterinary check is advisable.
$350 – $400 will buy a good pet kitten, while a good breeding or show kitten could cost up to $900. There may be a 2 month waiting period.
People who do not appreciate a lively, attention-seeking cat, will not enjoy an Abyssinian. They are very good with kids and are best suited to families that can offer lots of affection and attention to the cat. Abyssinians are also great for the active older people as they are great companions.
We filmed our story with breeders George and Julie Kennedy of Nile Abyssinians in Sydney.
Phone: (02) 9498 5452
Abyssinian Cat Club of Australasia
Secretary – Michael Sansom
PO Box 31