In the Beginning: The Origins of 9 Cat Breeds

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We’ve covered the origins of various dog breeds before, so it’s about time we gave cat lovers some info, too. Let’s take a look at how several of your favorite breeds grew to prominence.

1. Siamese

Yes, they are Siamese even if you don’t please. The precise origins of the breed are somewhat murky, but it’s generally accepted that the breed did originate in Siam. In fact, written records from the Siamese capital of Ayudha mention cats fitting the Siamese’s description as far back as 1350.

Interestingly, the first documented Siamese cat to come to the United States had a fancy home: the White House. In 1878 President Rutherford B. Hayes received a Siamese cat named Siam as a gift from the American consul in Bangkok. Siam joined quite the presidential menagerie; the Hayes family also had two dogs, a mockingbird, and a goat.

Sadly, Siam died the following year after a short illness. Here’s where things get odd. The Hayes family was heartbroken at the loss of their beloved cat, and the president’s personal steward supposedly gave Siam’s body to the Department of Agriculture with clear instructions to preserve the cat. This odd decision means that Siam should probably be somewhere in the collections of either the Smithsonian or the Department of Agriculture, but repeated searches have failed to turn up the groundbreaking cat.

2. Devon Rex

This playful breed is relatively young; the first specimens emerged in 1960 in Devon, England. At that time a feral tomcat lived in an abandoned tin mine outside of Buckfastleigh, and he sired a litter with Miss Beryl Cox’s adopted stray. The kittens had striking faces, giant ears, and curly coats, and Cox worked to propagate more of the new breed, which was dubbed Devon Rex.

3. Peterbald

Another young breed, the first Peterbalds were born in late 1994 in St. Petersburg, Russia. That year a Donskoy bred with an Oriental, and the resulting kittens became wildly popular among St. Petersburg’s cat fanciers.

4. Bengal

The Bengal’s spots and rosettes make it look like a tiny tiger, and indeed, the breed originally came about from crossing domestic cats with wild Asian leopard cats. Although they’re now fully domesticated, the Bengal name is a nod to the Asian leopard cat’s scientific name, Prionailurus bengalensis.

5. Sphynx

They may have an Egyptian name, but the Sphynx breeds come from a place with a decidedly chillier climate: Toronto. In 1966 a black and white Toronto cat had a hairless kitten that its owners named Prune. They then bred Prune to a series of other cats in an attempt to create more hairless kittens, and although the recessive hairless gene made this a tricky business, eventually some more hairless kittens turned up. After these kittens were crossed with Devon Rex, the Sphynx breed really took off. The name came about when breeders realized their little hairless cats looked like tiny copies of the Sphynx.

6. Manx

These cats may not have much in the way of tails, but they do have plenty of proposed backstories. One tale theorizes that the Manx was running late for the departure of Noah’s Ark, and the Bible’s favorite shipbuilder accidentally slammed the cat’s tail in the door as the floodwaters rose. The truth isn’t quite as exciting: the breed actually originated on the Isle of Man sometime before 1750. They take their English name from their home island, but in the native Manx language they’re known as stubbin. [Image Credit: Jonik.]

7. Maine Coon

The official state cat of Maine probably got its start in Maine long ago, so the name is partially accurate. The “coon” part is hard to swallow, though. Thanks to the breed’s raccoon-like coloring and fluffy tails, cat fanciers formerly thought they arose from cross breeding between wild cats and raccoons. Great story, but it’s biologically impossible.

That’s not the only folktale around the Maine coon’s origin, though. One myth tells that when Marie Antoinette became nervous during the French Revolution, she sent a ship full of her belongings, including her six favorite Angora cats, to the United States in anticipation of escaping France. Obviously the guillotine kept her from making the trip, but legend has it that her cats arrived on this side of the pond and got down to breeding with the locals. Again, the story probably isn’t true; most breeders think the Maine coon emerged when native American shorthaired cats bred with long-haired breeds brought over from Europe.

8. Nebelung

Now here’s a breed with an epic name. These beautiful blue-gray felines first appeared with Cora Cobb’s two cats: Siegfried, named after the dragon-slayer in the epic poem the Nibelungenlied, and Brunhilde, named after the legendary queen in the same poem, who were both born in the mid-1980s. After working to produce more litters of the beautiful longhaired cats, Cobb and her collaborators named the breed Nebelung, a portmanteau of the name of the poem from which the breed’s forefathers got their names and Nebel, the German word for mist or fog. [Image Credit: Nebelung.]

9. Snowshoe

Sadly, they don’t have little snowshoes instead of paws. Instead, this breed has white paws and a distinctive “V” facial pattern. The breed got its start in the 1960s when Dorothy Hinds-Daugherty of Philadelphia had a litter of Siamese kittens and found that three of the kittens had these unique markings. She began a breeding program that started producing these relatively rare, beautiful cats. [Image Credit: Cooseman22.]

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October 6, 2010 - 7:16pm
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