The American Shorthair Cat
American Shorthair cats came to be in the way many Americans have become citizens: through immigration. And much like the human melting pot that is America, the American Shorthair is the result of the coming together, over time, of the very best of catkind.
The American Shorthair is a hearty, healthy, lovely cat breed who is not “too much” of any one thing. He’s neither too needy nor too distant. He’s not a couch potato, but he’s not hyperactive either. He’s playful, but he can also amuse himself. The American Shorthair would make a fine addition to almost any cat-loving family.
Now, when I heard about this breed, my first thought was, “Aren’t all shorthaired cats in my country American Shorthairs?” They are not. I’ll explain the difference, which is significant, below.
The history of the American Shorthair cat
America has no indigenous cat species. Any cats that we now call “American” originally came from somewhere else. (Just like my human family members.)
When did cats arrive in America?
We don’t know, but we can make some educated guesses.
It’s possible the first cats came with European explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries. Ponce de León, Giovanni da Verrazzano, Hernando De Soto, and others most certainly had cats aboard their ships for rat control. Did any of those seafaring cats jump ship and settle here?
If not, the first European settlement in the U.S. – the 1607 Jamestown Colony in Virginia – could have included a few cats. Records show that two dogs traveled with the first colonists. No mention of cats might only mean that those writing for history didn’t think that cats were noteworthy enough to report upon.
A recent archeological excavation of the Colony did find cat carcasses. Along with dogs, horses (who actually didn’t arrive until two years later), and even, unfortunately, some humans, these cats were apparently consumed in desperation during the Starving Time when nearly all the settlers perished from hunger and disease. Were these cats the forebears of our American Shorthair?
And finally, there were cats on the Mayflower, at least according to one source. American shorthair breeder and Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) judge Kay Thomas McQuillen claims her family bible includes an entry by her great-great grandmother stating that a calico accompanied her on the Mayflower.
It’s important to note that none of these were American Shorthairs – yet. The first cats to come to America were a mixture of types, colors, and hair lengths. Some were ships’ cats who became barn cats, and some may have been cherished family pets, but none were the American Shorthair we know today.
How did the American Shorthair come to be?
In 2020, the American Shorthair was ranked by the CFA as the ninth most popular pedigreed cat in the world. This must be a special cat.
Before there were American Shorthairs, there were just Shorthairs. This name covered a wide-range of purebred cats of British, mainland European, and American descent. We see cats that look like American Shorthairs depicted in paintings from the 1700s, like this one, called “The Graham Children” by William Hogarth.
“Shorthairs” were exhibited at the first official American Cat Show in 1896. One, a handsome silver tabby named Champion Jimmy, is the likely ancestor of all silver-tabby American Shorthairs today.
It’s widely reported that Jimmy was offered for sale for £2,000, which would be about $375,000 in today’s dollars – a ridiculous amount for any cat. But this was just to prevent someone from buying him. Owners had to place a value for their cats in the show catalogue and so they posted something outlandish.
“Shorthairs” were among the first registered cat breeds. American Shorthairs didn’t get their own specific breed registry until 1966.
In between, there was an attempt to differentiate between types of Shorthairs, specifically, an American type and a British type. In the early 1900s, a group of cat fanciers began a selective breeding program to preserve the sturdy, hardy, mild-tempered American-bred shorthaired cat that they loved.
These cats were first referred to as Domestic Shorthairs. But the name was a dud. It confused the public who thought it referred to ordinary, randomly bred household cats. No one was willing to pay very much to a breeder for a “common” kitten. So, “Domestic Shorthairs” were rebranded to American Shorthairs and the rest is history.
How is an American Shorthair different from a domestic shorthaired cat?
If you’re confused about the difference, you’re not the only one. In fact, many randomly-bred domestic shorthaired cats look a whole lot like their more carefully bred American Shorthair cousins.
The difference is that an American Shorthair is a purebred cat. That means it will “breed true.” A beautiful domestic shorthaired cat likely has a mix of genes that will lead to unexpected traits in her kittens. You can’t count on the kittens to be of a certain type, temperament, or even hair length.
You might say, “so what?” A cat does not have to come from a breeder, or have a special pedigree, to be wonderful in every way that cats can be wonderful.
And you would be right. This differentiation only means that your shorthaired cat of unknown origin is a domestic shorthaired cat, and not an American Shorthair.
Although all cats are individuals, there are physical and personality traits that members of the American Shorthair breed reliably share.
What does an American Shorthair look like?
They say that form follows function, and that is true in the American Shorthair.
The ancestors of American shorthairs were tough little “working cats.” Whether they were saving the suppers of their human shipmates from voracious rats, or the granaries of their farming families from squirrels and chipmunks, these busy little hunters developed exactly the right body to help them do their jobs.
Today’s American Shorthair is a sturdy, muscular cat. The CFA breed standard describes the body shape as “indicating power, endurance, and agility.” They’re medium to large in size (males are 11 to 15 pounds, females eight to 12), although they won’t be fully grown until they are three to four years old.
They have relatively large heads with full faces graced by large, wide-set eyes. They have perfectly medium-sized ears to set them off. The breed standard describes the American Shorthair as having a “sweet, open expression.”
There are a total of 80 different color and pattern combinations, but a few are noticeably missing. You won’t find sable, lavender, or lilac American Shorthairs. You won’t find an American Shorthair with Siamese colorpointing either. This pattern and these colors are indications of crossbreeding.
What is a silver tabby?
While the American Shorthair comes in a variety of colors, the most popular are the brown tabby and the silver tabby.
The silver tabby effect is actually a “smoke” effect. A smoke cat has colored hair tips, with white roots. This effect can be more noticeable on longhaired cats because longer hair means more dramatic white roots. The smoke effect only refers to solid-colored cats.
Smoke cats often have a smattering of white hairs on their faces that make them look like they were sprinkled with baby powder. It also makes them look glittery, even though they aren't really shining.
Silver is produced by the same gene as smoke, but for tabby cats. It’s helpful to read about tabby cat coloring in this post, “The tabby cat,” first.
So-called “silver” happens on the striped agouti hairs of a tabby cat. Normally, the stripes on each strand of hair are of darker and lighter colors that have red-ish or brownish undertones.
The light stripes on a silver tabby’s agouti hairs are stark white, however. The overall feeling is cold and metallic. The hairs themselves have no actual silver coloring in them, however.
Note that silver and smoke aren’t colors, but coat effects. This means that silver and smoke can be combined with any other coat-color genes. A cat can be a bi-color black smoke and white, or a tortoiseshell silver tabby, for example.
What is the personality of the American Shorthair cat?
The American Shorthair is a good-natured cat who gets along with just about everybody: respectful children and other larger household pets included. I wouldn’t keep one if you have birds or pocket pets in your household – the hunting instinct in this cat remains very strong.
The American Shorthair likes people, but is also independent. She’s playful and active into old age, but able to keep herself amused if you’re not available. This independence means an American Shorthair enjoys your attention, but isn’t over cuddly and doesn’t necessarily want you to pick her up and carry her around. She can get where she needs to go by herself, thank you very much.
Is the American Shorthair a healthy cat?
The ancestors of the American Shorthair were likely tough little survivors making their way in a difficult New World. Presumably, only the hardiest cats survived to pass along their genes to future generations. Consequently, this a rugged, hearty, healthy breed of cat who can be expected to live for 15 to 20 years.
This breed is also prone to obesity, but this condition (as you well know!) is preventable.
The American Shorthair requires little more care than a good combing a couple of times a week to remove dead hair and redistribute skin oils.
Famous American Shorthairs
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President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush had a solid-black American shorthair named India. The naming of the cat caused some controversy when some people in India took offense over the name. Demonstrations were held and the President was burned in effigy.
However, the cat was actually named for baseball player Rubén Sierra, who played for the Texas Rangers when Bush owned the team. Sierra’s nickname was El Indio.
Cooper Photographer Cat
Cooper was an American Shorthair who wore a camera attached to his collar that snapped a picture every two minutes. He had his own website, Facebook page, and YouTube channel. You can still purchase a book of his photos on Amazon.com (a portion of proceeds benefits an animal welfare group.)
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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.
 Magazine, Smithsonian. “Starving Settlers in Jamestown Colony Resorted to Cannibalism.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 30 Apr. 2013, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/starving-settlers-in-jamestown-colony-resorted-to-cannibalism-46000815/.
 “Inflation Rate between 1896-2022: UK Inflation Calculator.” £2,000 In 1896 → 2022 | UK Inflation Calculator, https://www.in2013dollars.com/uk/inflation/1896?amount=2000.
 The Early History of the American Shorthair, http://messybeast.com/american-shorthair-origin.htm.
 “American Short Hair Breed Standard.” https://cfa.org/american-shorthair/american-shorthair-breed-standard/
 “American Shorthair Cat Breed Profile.” Purina, https://www.purina.com/cats/cat-breeds/american-shorthair.
 American Short Hair Breed Standard.” CFA.
 “Cat Coat: Silver and Smoke Cats.” The Little Carnivore, The Little Carnivore, 26 Oct. 2021, https://thelittlecarnivore.com/en/blog/cat-coat-silver-and-smoke-cats.
 “American Shorthair.” Petfinder, https://www.petfinder.com/cat-breeds/american-shorthair/.
 “American Shorthair Cat Breed Information.” Vetstreet, http://www.vetstreet.com/cats/american-shorthair#personality.
 “American Shorthair Cat Breed Profile.” Purina.