BREED PROFILE:
Getting to Know the Abyssinian

By Norman Auspitz
from The Cat Fanciers' Association Complete Cat Book

Although the Abyssinian is one of the oldest known breeds, there continues to be speculation and controversy concerning its history. In appearance, Abyssinians resemble the paintings and sculptures of ancient Egyptian cats, which portray an elegant feline with a muscular body, beautiful arched neck, large ears and almond shaped eyes. Abys today still retain the jungle look of felis lybica, the African wildcat ancestor of all domestic cats. The source of the name is not because Ethiopia, formerly Abyssinia, is thought to be the original home of these cats, but because the first "Abyssinians" exhibited in shows in England were reported to have been imported from that country.

The Abyssinian of today bears a remarkable resemblance to the noble cats depicted in statues of Ancient Egypt. Its singular defining feature is its ticked, richly-colored, tabby coat free of markings on its legs, tail, and neck but with dramatic facial markings. Each hair is ticked with four to six bands of color; dark at the tip, lighter at the roots, with bands alternating dark and light. The ideal Abyssinian has a bright color at the root that matches the color on its underside and on the inside of its legs.

The "Look"

Abyssinian

The breed is permitted four coat colors by CFA.. The original or wild color is known as ruddy. Its darker bands of color are sepia to black and its lighter bands are bright orange, giving the impression of an iridescent cat of burnt sienna. Another allowed coat color is the red with darker bands of color that are chocolate brown, creating the impression of a red, iridescent cat. The blue coat consists of slate blue or gray as its darker bands of color with alternating bands of warm beige, giving the impression of a warm dark blue cat with a very subtle look. The fourth color is fawn, which has darker bands of cocoa brown and lighter bands of rose-beige ticking giving the impression of a warm, antique rose-colored cat.

The shape of the head forms a modified wedge with eyes curved like almonds. The Abyssinian has large, slightly pointed ears. The head, eyes and ears all fit together in a complimentary fashion favoring neither extreme length nor extreme shortness.

The body type of this breed strikes an attractive balance between the extremes of compact, broad-chested cats (cobby type) and slim, svelte, lengthy types (foreign). Because of their long legs, they appear to be standing on the tips of their toes. The typical Abyssinian likes to arch its back when it becomes alert and stands.

These striking cats appear to have walked out of the forest with a look reminiscent of their wild ancestors though tempered by the reverence for them by the Ancient Egyptians.

Their Personality

Abyssinians

The personality of the Abyssinian is best described by one word: busy. These are incredibly intelligent cats, good problem solvers with an insatiable curiosity. Add to this their natural athleticism, which comes with their muscular bodies , and you have a potent combination. Abyssinians want to do everything on their own terms. Unless you understand their unique personality these fascinating, cats can be a great challenge when living with one as a pet.

Typical Abyssinians are constantly on the move unless they are eating or sleeping. They continually patrol their territory unless something catches their interest. When their interest is aroused, they become intensely focused on whatever is happening, until the next event occurs or they may simply lose interest and move on. Looking out at birds or squirrels through a window can be a captivating past time until they find something else of greater interest such as the sound of a can opener or a sudden desire for your attention.

They are incredibly playful even into adulthood. Everything they do seems larger than life. When they play, they seem to have no concern for life or limb and commit all of their energy and concentration. They will amuse themselves with one particular toy for months and then suddenly decide not to play with it anymore. Wind-up toys can be a problem since you have to keep winding them up as soon as they run down or they will just ignore them. They can amuse themselves with a crumpled sheet of paper or a plastic bottle cap just as well as elaborate cat toys. They are very good at training humans to play fetch. You throw the toy and the cat brings it back just out of reach so you have to fetch the toy and throw it again.

When they decide they want attention, they know how to get it. Even though they do not want to be restrained, they will cuddle up when they want to be loved. Should you decide you want to hold them, they will wriggle out of your grasp. When they do, however, they almost never extend their claws. It is not easy to restrain an Abyssinian who does not want to be restrained given the loose skin under the coat. If the cat wants attention, but its human is busy, he will find ways to get it. If you are busy reading or typing, for example, the cat will follow your eyes and know exactly what word you are going to read or what key you are going to strike next. He will then place a paw on that spot so you will look at him and not at the unimportant thing you might have been doing. It is amazing how persistent they can be. Should you decide to put the cat off the bed, the table or your lap, it becomes a game where he immediately returns again and again. It seems they can, with singular concentration, get your attention no matter what you may be doing.

In general, females tend to be more graceful than males but at times all Abyssinians defy gravity. There are few high perches in the house to which they cannot climb no matter how impossible it may seem. Living in all three dimensions, these cats make full use of vertical space. They have no fear of heights. Most of the time, they are careful when walking on the upper shelves of a tall bookcase or on top of a kitchen cupboard. However, when they become mischievous they like to see what will happen when they push some trinket over the edge. If the crash is loud enough, they might even scare themselves. The urge to play can have a devastating effect on breakables. Given their fondness for high places, they should be provided with the means to live vertically as well as horizontally. They appreciate tall, vertical scratching posts or tall, carpeted cat trees and perches, the taller the better.

As a rule, they get along well with older, more considerate children. Toddlers, who are by nature unpredictable, will not be a problem because these cats know to jump away and avoid them. Once the children are a little older (and more predictable), Abyssinians will dote on them.

If you introduce Abyssinians into a household with other pets, they will do well, if introduced slowly and properly. They will get along with dogs, ferrets, large caged birds, just about any pet including other cats. It cannot be stressed enough, however, that the proper introduction of any new pet to another is vital to their being able to get along.

Abyssinians make wonderful companions if there are other pets or people to keep them company throughout the day. When left alone with no one to play with they will become bored and find many new and interesting ways to get into trouble. It is best, especially for a kitten, to have a playmate in its new house.

As playful as an adult is, a kitten is even more so. Someone once referred to Abyssinians as Velcro kitties since they seem to stick to everything. They have so much energy; it seems their feet never touch the ground. Many breeders will place or sell an older Aby for a nominal fee. If a kitten is going to a new home, but will be by itself, some breeders will encourage the prospective owner to also take an older Abyssinian as a companion. An interesting fact about older Abys (even up to ten years of age) is that they will still bond with new people. Older Abyssinians learn the rules of a new household more quickly than kittens and may even keep the kitten in line.

Taking Care of an Abyssinian

For the most part, these are low maintenance cats although they do enjoy being rubbed affectionately and require a bath at least once during the shedding season. Washing them with a good cat shampoo, quick towelling, and drip-drying is all that is needed. Bathing should be started when they are young and so should clipping their claws regularly and before each bath.

There are probably as many formulas for bathing and grooming an Abyssinian in preparation for a cat show as there are people who show them. This is understandable since there are many subtle variations on coat length and textures, which require slightly different methods. Before entering a show ring grooming consists of a quick polish by hand and lots of play to make it all seem like fun.

Showing Your Abyssinian

All cats must be able to accept the handling that is involved in the show ring. However, this breed responds best to less handling, rather than more, especially if they get to play with toys on the judging table. An Abyssinian that is experienced in the show ring usually knows where the judges keep their toy cache, which is near the judging table, and find a way to get to them. The only thing that may get its attention faster than a toy is someone eating lunch nearby. If your cat is uneasy about being shown, gentle coaxing is more likely to achieve the desired result by relaxing the cat, rather than forcing the issue. Sometimes appealing to its natural playfulness might bring it out of its shell. For those showing an Abyssinian kitten the first time, be sure it is familiar with feathers, sparkly toys, and other teasing devices used by judges to get a cat's attention. A kitten being prepared for its first show needs to be given some introduction to what it will encounter. It helps to start showing kittens at an early age so they can make an easy adjustment to the dynamics of a cat show. At the same time, the show experience should be a happy time where kittens learn that cat shows are associated with many treats and lots of attention.

Abyssinians often become even more magnificent as they mature. This is evident as you watch an older one in premiership. (Premiership is a category of show competition for neutered or spayed cats that are eight months or older.) Once they are fully mature, their coat, color, and muscle tone become fully developed and they cut a dashing figure on the show bench.

Breed History

The origin of the Abyssinian is shrouded in mystery. Early cat books do not shed much light on the history of this breed since there were little or no records kept. The name "Abyssinian" may have originated when the first such cat was brought to England as the English army fought in Abyssinia, (Ethiopia). A colored lithograph of a cat with a ticked coat and an absence of tabby markings on its paws, face, and neck first appeared in the book "Cats, Their Points, Etc.," by Gordon Staples, published in Great Britain in 1874. The caption reads: "Zula, the property of Mrs. Captain Barrett-Lennard. This cat was brought from Abyssinia at the conclusion of the war..."

The Abyssinian's beginnings may be deduced from genetic studies showing that they more than likely originated from the coastal areas of the Indian Ocean as well as from Southeast Asia. A ruddy, ticked feline taxidermy exhibit in the Leiden Zoological Museum in Holland was purchased in the mid-1830's and labeled as "Patrie, domestica India." From this one may conclude that colonists or merchants who frequently traveled between England and the Indian subcontinent may have introduced the breed into England from India.

Records of early pedigrees going back to 1904 do exist, few of which show the sire or dam, but do indicate some crosses with cats which were clearly not Abyssinians as we know them. Some of these crosses possibly explain contemporary coat colors and the origin of the longhaired variety known as the Somali.

Although a few of these cats were brought to the United States at the beginning of 1900, it was not until the nineteen thirties that show quality Abyssinians were imported here from England. These were the cats that formed the basis of modern American Abyssinian breeding programs.

For those who want a portion of the wild kingdom, who want an active, independent, loving cat, this very ancient breed may be just right. These mischievous, highly animated shorthaired cats, with their iridescent, colorful coats, can provide years of pleasure for any household. It is not a mystery to see why those who have had an Aby, usually have no other breed as a pet. It has become one of the most popular cat breeds of modern time.

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