The Abyssinian cat
Forget everything you thought you knew about the Abyssinian cat.
You might have been told that the Abyssinian was an ancient breed. And you couldn’t be blamed for thinking the cat was from Abyssinia. Or maybe you’d heard of Zula, the venerated cat who supposedly founded the breed.
All of it is wrong.
This cat is a stunner, however, with a personality to match. That part’s all true.
The history of the Abyssinian cat
The story everyone tells about the Abyssinian cat goes something like this:
Sometime in the late 1800s, Lord Robert Napier goes to Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) on a British military mission. He takes a native cat home with him, names her Zula, and eventually shows her at the famous cat show at the Crystal Palace in 1871. All modern-day Abyssinians can count Zula among their relatives.
This is a story with some very large holes.
Abyssinia didn’t have native cats
Let’s start with the fact Abyssinia (Ethiopia) doesn’t have a population of native cats. C.H. Ross, in his Book of Cats (published in 1868), states that in Abyssinia, a “marriageable girl” looking for a cat would have had to have been an “heiress.” Later explorers found no cats in Ethiopia.
What’s more likely is that army officers and their wives, who were stationed in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), took Asian cats with them to Abyssinia as pets during the Abyssinian War. They returned to Great Britain at the end of the war with their cats.
Yellowy cats with ticked fur, known as Indian cats, were common in Ceylon during that time, and modern DNA tests suggest that Abyssinian cats most likely originated in Asia, not Africa.
Zula might have been an “Indian cat”
There’s a yellowy, ticked, taxidermied “Indian Cat” at a museum in the Netherlands that pre-dates Zula by at least 30 years.
And Zula probably didn’t look much like the Abyssinians we know today. We don’t have a photo of Zula, but we do have drawings that were published in Harper’s Weekly at the time of the cat show at the Crystal Palace. If the drawing is accurate, she had shaggier fur, smaller ears, and a stockier build than today’s Abyssinian cats.
Shortly after Zula’s time, there was debate about whether the Abyssinian should even be considered a separate breed. In fact, there’s some question about whether the ticked cats being shown as Abyssinians were really Abyssinians or just ordinary British shorthaired street cats who happened to have ticked coats.
Thankfully, Great Britain exported a few Abyssinians
The first Abyssinians were imported to the U.S. in the early 1900s, and a breeding program was begun in 1930. (Americans, what took you so long?)
The American breeding program was fortunate, because only a dozen Abyssinians survived World War II in Britain, thanks to a devasting cull of British pets. As many as 750,000 British household pets were euthanized in a single week in 1939 based on government advice that it was “patriotic” thing to do. Many pets who survived the initial cull, didn’t survive the food rationing that came later.
Today’s Abyssinian is a “man-made” breed
The Abyssinian we know today is not an ancient cat, even if she looks like one.
Today’s Abyssinians reflect these additions to their genetics. They once had stripes on their neck, legs, tails, and face, but no longer. They have bigger ears, and more slender bodies. There’s even a longhaired version (more on that in a minute) thanks to the addition of Persian and Angora genes.
What does an Abyssinian cat look like?
Let’s put the coat aside for a moment.
An Abyssinian is a slender, fine-boned, and medium-sized cat (about six to 10 pounds).
She has a wedge-shaped head, relatively large, pointed ears, and almond-shaped eyes that are gold, green, hazel, or copper.
An Abyssinian has long legs that finish in small oval paws, and a graceful body. His tail is long and tapering.
But the most outstanding thing about the Abyssinian cat is her coat.
An Abyssinian’s ticked coat
The fur on an Abyssinian is fine, dense, silky to touch.
But it’s even more amazing to look at.
The Abyssinian is actually a tabby cat. (Read about what makes a tabby a tabby in this post.) Her ticked coat pattern, also called agouti, is the result of striping on each individual hair. Every hair has a light-colored base with three or four horizontal bands of increasingly darker color.
The color is mostly uniform over the body, but can be a bit darker on the ridge of the spine, the tail, and the back of the hind legs.
Many Abyssinians also have the traditional tabby “M” on their foreheads.
Abyssinian coat color
The traditional Abyssinian coat color is a warm, deep reddish brown with black ticking. This coat color is called “usual” in the UK, “tawny” in Australia, and “ruddy” everywhere else.
Today, thanks to outcrossings with Burmese and other shorthaired cat breeds, Abyssinians also come in:
Sorrel – a lighter, coppery base color with chocolate ticking
Fawn – a soft peach-colored base with a darker fawn ticking
Blue – a beige base with blue-gray ticking
Silver – a silvery-white base with black, blue, cream, or sorrel ticking.
Tortoiseshell patches are also allowed.
Some, but not all, breed registries recognize chocolate and lilac Abyssinians, too.
The personality of the Abyssinian cat
Do you want to cuddle your cat on the sofa? The Abyssinian is not for you.
Do you work long hours and will the cat be home alone? The Abyssinian is not for you.
But if you love a clownish cat, who devotedly follows you from room to room, this may very well be your breed of cat.
An Abyssinian is always moving. He’ll follow you around the house to watch everything you’re doing, wanting to “help” every step of the way. In fact, he can become depressed without constant activity and lots of attention from his guardians. But he’s just not a snuggler.
The Abyssinian extroverted and playful. She needs high shelves and multi-level cat trees. She needs window perches to sit on. She also needs toys, toys, and more toys. You’ll have to keep a large supply and rotate them in and out regularly, including challenging puzzle toys and even homemade toys, to keep this cat’s mind busy.
An Abyssinian loves a busy household, and is usually able to get along with everyone, including cat-savvy dogs and even other household pets such parrots and ferrets.
(Read, “Can cats and dogs get along?”)
Is the Abyssinian a healthy breed?
An Abyssinian typically lives for nine to 15 years. But there are some potential health problems potential guardians should be aware of.
Gingivitis. Gingivitis is a disease of the gums and teeth and is more serious than it sounds. It can lead to periodontitis (irreversible loss of teeth and bone), if untreated.
Familial renal amyloidosis. Amyloidosis is a genetic disorder caused by a mutation in a gene that makes a certain protein. It affects the kidneys. Fortunately, this disease can be detected with a DNA test.
Pyruvate kinase deficiency. This disease causes a certain kind of anemia, and can show up at any age. Fortunately, there is a genetic test available that can determine if a cat is normal, is just a carrier, or will be affected by the damaged gene.
Hyperesthesia syndrome. Feline hyperesthesia syndrome is an extreme skin sensitivity that sometimes goes by the name “twitchy cat disease.” It can’t be cured but it can be managed. Read about it in this post, Feline hyperesthesia syndrome.
Patellar luxation. This is a fancy name for a dislocated kneecap. It can cause intermittent lameness in cats and may require surgical correction.
Abyssinians have low genetic diversity
One of the reasons Abyssinians might be prone to so many genetic disorders is that they suffer from a low genetic diversity. That means that there has never been a large enough pool of Abyssinians from which to choose from when creating breeding programs. Another way of saying this is that Abyssinians are, relatively speaking, inbred.
Currently, there are no permitted “outcrosses” that would improve genetic diversity in this breed.
What is the Somali cat?
Somali cats are Abyssinians, but with long hair.
Remember I mentioned that early Abyssinians were crossed with Persians and Angoras? Thanks to these longhaired ancestors, some of today’s Abyssinians carry a recessive gene for long hair.
Ocicats are also related to Abyssinians. They came as the result of an accidental crossbreeding of an Abyssinian and a Siamese.
Fun fact about Abyssinian cats
The first cat to have its entire genome published was an Abyssinian named Cinnamon.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
(kittens photo credit)
By Aufnahme von Joachim Berger-Uelsberg und Dr. Gabriele Uelsberg - Dr. Gabriele Uelsberg und Joachim Berger-Uelsberg (Züchter), Zwinger: Gatobelo's Abessinier (http://www.gatobelo.de), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=950485
(fur photo credit)
By Martin Bahmann - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=951028
 “The Book of Cats.” The Book of Cats, by Charles H. Ross-A Project Gutenberg EBook, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43790/43790-h/43790-h.htm.
 Hartwell, Sarah. “The Abyssinian Cat - An Early History.”
 ASPCA Pet Insurance. “Abyssinian Cat Facts.” ASPCA Pet Health Insurance, ASPCA Pet Insurance, 24 Sept. 2020, https://www.aspcapetinsurance.com/resources/abyssinian/.
 “Abyssinian Cat.” Wikipedia.
 The Vetstreet Team.
 “Abyssinian Cat Breed Profile.” Purina.
 “Abyssinian Cat.” Wikipedia.