The Oriental Shorthair cat
The Oriental Shorthair is a truly special cat, but they’re not for everyone.
- If you frequently work late, the Oriental Shorthair is not the cat for you.
- If you have a Hummel collection, the Oriental Shorthair is not the cat for you.
- If you think silence is golden, the Oriental Shorthair is not the cat for you.
- If you think the perfect family consists of just you and your cat, the Oriental Shorthair is not for you.
On the other hand,
- If you like to cuddle under the covers with your cat, you’re going to love an Oriental Shorthair.
- If your home is a hubbub of dogs, cats, and kids, you’re going to love an Oriental Shorthair.
- If you like to play fetch – really like to play fetch – you’re going to love an Oriental Shorthair.
- If you’re charmed by a cat that’s all up in your business, you’re going to love an Oriental Shorthair.
The history of the Oriental Shorthair
The Oriental Shorthair has been around since yesterday, or thereabouts. This is a very young cat breed.
But not really. The Oriental Shorthair is indistinguishable from a Siamese cat in every way except for coat and eye color (more on that in a minute). The Siamese breed itself has appeared in documents that date back to the 12th century at least. Blue-eyed, color-pointed cats (what we call Siamese today) were kept in the Royal Palace of Siam. So, even though the Oriental Shorthair is a new breed, this cat’s roots are ancient.
Put the 12th century aside. Let’s skip ahead a few centuries to World War II, which was a terrible time not just for humankind, but for animals, too.
World War II brought many cat breeds close to extinction
At the beginning of World War II, the British government issued a public-information pamphlet encouraging pet owners to destroy their pets as a “kindness” in anticipation of a food shortage brought on by the war. 750,000 pets were put down in a single week.
World War I had been devastating to cat fancy, but World War II drove some breeds to near extinction, including the Siamese. After the war, breeding stock was scarce. The only way to keep Siamese and other cat breeds genetically healthy was to “outcross” them – or mate them with other cat breeds. In fact, many of our modern breeds were developed during this time period, and in this way, including Russian Blues, British Shorthairs, and Abyssinians.
There’s a whole confusing tangle of cat-breeding stories that follow, including new “breeds” that were developed every time a cat breeder crossed a Siamese with another kind of cat and produced a kitten in a different color. British cat breeder Baroness von Ullman is considered important to the Oriental Shorthair story because she was one of the original experimental breeders who outcrossed a Siamese with a domestic shorthair. She developed a cat that looked and acted like a Siamese, but was solid colored (known in the cat world as “self”). This was in the early 1950s.
The Marksteins dream of a new cat breed
New York Siamese cat breeders Vicky and Peter Markstein traveled to Europe in the 1970s and saw the “Oriental”-type cats who were the ultimate result of the breeding experiments started by von Ullman and others decades earlier. Inspired, the Marksteins began to envision a new breed of cat with an elegant, long body, and green eyes.
Vicky, a computer scientist by profession, put her imagination, computer skills, and cat breeding knowledge to work and literally designed the Oriental Shorthair cat that we know today, by breeding the European Oriental-type cats to Siamese from her own cattery. She used her technical know-how to track breeding lines and apply genetic theory to her breeding program. The breed that she developed – the Oriental Shorthair – was accepted as a new cat breed by the Cat Fancier’s Association (CFA) in 1976.
So, the Oriental Shorthair is a practically brand-new cat breed that was completely planned and designed by people. Vicky, herself, described the cat breed she invented as “man-made” and “highly stylized” in an article that she wrote in the 1978 Annual CFA Yearbook.
What does an Oriental Shorthair look like?
The Oriental Shorthair is basically a “non-pointed” Siamese, meaning that the color or pattern of the coat covers this cat’s entire body and not just his face, ears, legs and tail.
It could be said that modern Siamese cats and Oriental cats differ from each other only in coat color and eye color. Many cat associations actually put these two different breeds in the same group and some, including The International Cat Association (TICA), World Cat Federation (WCF), Fédération Internationale Féline (FIFE), and International Cat Union (ICU), actually allow mating between the two breeds.
The Oriental Shorthair is a stunning, elegant cat. She has a slender, elongated body, a triangular head shape, almond-shaped eyes, and magnificent, oversized ears.
This cat comes in almost every color and pattern imaginable, and also coat-length. There’s a semi-longhaired version called – conveniently enough – the Oriental Longhair. The CFA puts the number of color, pattern, and coat-length combinations at 600.
The Oriental Shorthair comes in a variety of solid colors, patterns such as smoke, which is produced by a silver-hair gene, and in which each hair has a narrow band of white at the base, shaded or “chinchilla,” which involves a white undercoat, with colored tips to the fur, calico or tortoiseshell, and bicolor. Most Oriental Shorthairs have green eyes.
The Oriental Shorthair is a medium-sized cat. Males weight eight to 12 pounds, while most females weigh in at under eight.
What is the personality of the Oriental Shorthair?
Every Oriental Shorthair has his own strong, distinct personality, but as a whole, they tend to be highly intelligent, social, playful, and, yes, vocal.
Although they are slender, they are actually quite sturdy, athletic, and confident. They enjoy leaping to the highest perches in the house and never grow out of their love for play. This cat loves toys and loves interactive games, like fetch.
This is also a highly social cat. Oriental Shorthairs prefer to live in pairs or groups and get very attached to their humans. It can be very hard for them to adjust if they lose their favorite person or family. Oriental Shorthairs thrive in a busy household, full of other cats, kids, dogs, and commotion. They also love a party, happily stepping from lap to lap when new people come over. The Oriental Shorthair is not the cat for people who enjoy a quiet life.
I love this description of what it means to live with an Oriental Shorthair:
And this one, too:
Oriental Shorthairs are “full of enthusiasm, energy, and the belief that the world should revolve around them. Haughty and royal one minute, they are animated and inquisitive the next.”
Is the Oriental Shorthair a healthy cat?
In general, the Oriental Shorthair is a relatively healthy cat, but the breed did make Newsweek’s 2021 list of cats with the shortest lifespans, at 12 to 15 years.
The breed is beset by a few potentially terrible health problems, including:
In this disease, deposits of an abnormal protein, called amyloid, collect in tissues and organs, especially the liver and kidney, ultimately leading to organ failure and death. It’s believed to be caused by a genetic abnormality, but we don’t know for sure. One of the unfortunate aspects of the disease is that there is no test for it, and it doesn’t tend to show up until after the age at which a cat may have been bred, thus unknowingly passing the genes on to future generations. There is no treatment or cure for amyloidosis.
Progressive retinal atrophy
PRA is a degeneration of the retina, which is the light-sensitive layer of cells at the back of the eye. Cats develop the disease at 1 ½ to 2 years of age, and become completely blind at 4 ½ to 6 years old.
Flat-chested kitten syndrome
This disease is a genetic deformity of the ribcage, breastbone, and sometimes spine. Not all afflicted kittens thrive, or even survive, but if they do, the deformity tends to become less obvious as the kitten grows.
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 “Amyloidosis – a Real Danger to Our Breeds.” Oriental Cat Association, https://www.orientalcatassociation.org/amyloidosis-a-real-danger-to-our-breeds/.
 Progressive Retinal Atrophy, International Cat. International Cat Care, 5 Sept. 2018, https://icatcare.org/advice/progressive-retinal-atrophy/.
 Flat-chested Kitten Syndrome, International Cat. International Cat Care, 5 Oct. 2019, https://icatcare.org/advice/flat-chested-kitten-syndrome/.
 “Oriental Cat Breed Information.” Vetstreet.