The Persian cat
It should be easy to tell the story of the Persian cat. Afterall, the Persian is one of the most popular cat breeds of all time - Persians currently rank as 4th most popular cat breed in the world.
It’s also one of the oldest cat breeds. Some say the breed can be traced back hundreds, if not thousands of years. And yet, we know very little about where this cat really came from.
Today’s Persian – a refined, and civilized cat, sometimes described as “furniture with fur,” belies the wild and woolly backstory attributed to the breed.
What do we really know about this stately, elegant cat?
What is the Persian cat?
Before we delve in the history of the Persian, let’s talk a little bit about who this cat is.
The Persian is a long-haired cat, with flowing tresses, a thick ruff, and a plume of a tail. He’s heavy-boned, short-bodied, and short-statured, with a round face and captivating round eyes.
The Persian is best known for her face, which is both beguiling…and controversial. The modern show Persian has a very flattened profile, which confers an adorableness that is matched by this cat’s utterly sweet personality. No wonder the Persian has been a favorite of cat lovers since Victorian times. But the facial features that make the Persian instantly recognizable can come at a price to some of the cats who must live with them.
If you prefer your cats on your lap, as opposed to climbing the curtains, the Persian is for you. He is a calm, undemanding cat who is happy to cuddle, but not so dignified that he’s above a little fun with a feather toy.
We’ll dive a bit deeper into this cat’s appearance and personality in a moment.
What is the history of the Persian cat?
We take long-haired cats for granted today, of course, but the wild cat ancestors of today’s house cats were all short-haired.
We believe that long-haired-ness in cats is due to a mutation – a spectacular mutation, as it turns out. It seems to have happened in three places in the world: Russia, Persia (now Iran), and Asia Minor (now Turkey). But it’s just as possible that the mutation that produced long-haired cats occurred only in Russia and those cats found their way to these other places and added their genes to the local gene pool. We’ll never know for sure.
(Read, “The Siberian Cat” for more information about cats of Russian descent.)
In any event, long-haired cats that were presumably the ancestors of today’s Persians and Angoras, were first noted in the mid-to-late 1500s. We can imagine that long-haired cats were cached amidst the silk and spices on Roman and Phoenician caravans on their trade routes. Maybe.
The Persian comes to Europe
Fast forward a bit, to the 1600s, and we’ve got some actual documentation that involves Persian cats. An Italian traveler named Peitro della Valle described some gray cats with long, silky fur living in the Khorazan province of Persia. He took a few pairs home with him to add to a breeding program of long-haired cats in his home country.
At roughly the same time, French scientist Nicholas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc brought home some Angora cats from his travels in the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey).
Is it a Persian or an Angora?
It was once easy to distinguish between Persians and Angoras in Europe because the cats from Persia were grey, while the Angoras were white. But the two types didn’t stay separate for long. They were crossed with each other and with other long-haired European cats and pretty soon it became impossible to distinguish them. The terms “Persian” and “Angora” were eventually considered to be alternate names for the same breed of cat.
A supposedly Persian cat was shown at the first-ever cat show at the Crystal Palace in London in 1871. Harrison Weir, the father of cat fancy, was the show’s promoter, and he tried to write what we’d now call a breed standard for Persians. He claimed that Persians had longer tails, more voluminous and coarser fur, a larger head, and less-pointed ears than the Angora. But many of his cat fancying contemporaries thought he was splitting hairs (so to speak).
Interestingly, genetic research indicates that present-day Persians are actually more closely related to Western European cats than to cats from the Near East. What a muddled history for such a storied cat.
Today’s Persian cats
We’ve been selectively breeding Persian cats ever since, making them more “Persian” and less…whatever they were before.
A turning point in Persian breeding came in the late 1950s, when some litters of red tabby Persians included kittens born with a facial mutation. The mutation caused a flattening of the facial features, something we now call “peke-faced,” after the flat-faced Pekingese dog.
There was some excitement about these unusual-looking cats for a while, and they were even registered as their own breed, until they started to develop some pretty serious health problems. This separate breed was (presumably) allowed to die out, but Persian cat breeders were committed to this “look” and started breeding cats with increasingly flatter faces.
There’s a word for this type of selective breeding, in which a physical characteristic is overemphasized: it’s called extreme or ultra-typing. Ultra-typing is why we have flat-faced Persian cats today – not because of the mutation. The mutation was the inspiration for the ultra-typing. More on this in a moment.
Traditional or Doll Face Persians versus show Persians
There are actually two types of Persian cats today. The show type of Persian has a flat face with a nose that almost appears to be between the eyes. This type of Persian is described in the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) breed standard.
There is another type of Persian called the Traditional Persian or Doll Face Persian. This cat has a more typical nose length and placement, that is supposedly more in keeping with facial structure of what aficionados call “original” Persian cats. Breeders who breed this type know that they can never be show cats, but understand that many Persian-loving cat guardians enjoy the wonderful Persian personality without the health problems of the show type.
What is the problem with flat-faced show Persians?
The problem with flat-faced Persians is that the “look” is not just skin-deep. Like short-nosed dogs, including bulldogs, boxers, Boston terriers, and pugs, flat-faced cats suffer from a set of health issues that are together described as “brachycephalic syndrome," unfortunately caused by their anatomy.
Peke-faced Persians face many health problems related to the shape of their skull
One of the potential problems caused by the shape of a show Persian’s skull is Brachycephalic Airway Obstructive Syndrome (BAOS), which can lead to severe respiratory distress. A Persian’s narrow nasal passages and extra-long palate make it difficult for the cat to breathe. Many are forced to breathe through their mouths, and some cannot take deep or fast enough breaths. The increase in respiratory and heart rates that follow can be life threatening, especially if the cat is over-heated or stressed.
This breed also suffers from malformed tear ducts, causing tears to be constantly running down a Persian’s face. This is not only unsightly, but can cause skin inflammation.
Persians may have extra folds of facial skin that rub against their corneas. Many suffer from entropion, in which the eyelids fold inward, causing the eyelashes to rub painfully against the corneas. Persians can have other eye deformities, too, including shallow or misshapen eye sockets, or deformed eyelids.
Jaw and dental defects are common due to a Persian’s shortened jaw. Many have problems suckling as kittens, or eating as adults. Food commonly gets caught between misaligned teeth, leading to gum disease and tooth decay. Some Persians suffer from a cleft lip, cleft palate, or an abnormally high palate.
Abnormal or difficult labor is common in Persians and the stillbirth rate amongst Persians is higher than normal for cats.
Persians, given their long hair and lack of muzzle, often have problems with hygiene. Many are unable to groom themselves properly, leading to skin problems, and feces that cling to the hind legs. Many owners of flat-faced Persians must clip or shave their cats to improve hygiene and prevent matting.
Persian breeders under pressure to change the breed standard
Cat breeders around the world are under pressure from veterinary and animal welfare groups today to change the breed standards for Persians. Today, The International Cat Association (TICA) and Fédération Internationale Féline (FIFe) require the nostrils of a Persian cat to be open. Germany’s Animal Welfare Act prohibits the breeding of cats in which the nose is higher than the lower eyelids.
What does a Persian cat look like?
Let’s put this controversy aside for a moment. With or without the “peke face” this a beautiful cat. And I mean beautiful.
The Persian is a medium-sized cat: the girls are about eight to 12 pounds, and the boys can be over 12.
A Persian has a glamorous coat: long and thick, that can often make the cat appear larger than she is. The coat can come in more than 100 different pattern and color combinations, including solids, tortoiseshells, tabbies, bi-colors, colorpoint, smoke (which appears solid, but has white underneath), shaded (in which a third of the hair is tipped with color), and chinchilla (silver with some black tipping).
A Persian will have short legs, and a sturdy, thick body. He has a wide head with ears set far apart, and large expressive eyes in a range of shades of blue, green, and copper.
What is a Persian cat’s personality?
There’s a reason that Persians are amongst the most popular cat breeds in the world. This is a sweet cat who loves nothing more than to sit on your lap. And yet, the Persian is an undemanding cat: she’s affectionate and enjoys attention, but doesn’t require constant attention.
Just because a Persian loves to snuggle, doesn’t mean he won’t be playful and curious. Your Persian may be snoozing in a sunbeam on the kitchen floor one minute and suddenly burst into a kitten-like silliness the next. But this is not a cat who loves to jump and climb. You won’t find yours at the top of the refrigerator, or teetering on the edge of a bookshelf. Your Persian will be happiest with all four paws on the floor.
The Persian is a quiet cat, with a soft melodious voice. She’ll prefer a serene, predictable environment. She adapts well to apartment life, and will enjoy being part of a family, so long as your kids are respectful and treat her with dignity.
Persian cat health
How long do Persians live? That depends upon whom you ask. Pet insurance data from Sweden that evaluated almost 50,000 cats puts the median lifespan of Persians at around 12.5 years.
Note that “median” does not mean “average;” it means “middle.” In other words, half the cats in the study lived longer than 12.5 years. Moreover, the study finished more than 15 years ago, in 2006. There have been improvements in veterinary care since then.
Other sources claim that Persians easily live for 15 years, with some surpassing 20.
Still, Persians suffer from a number of potentially serious diseases:
In general, Persians are predisposed to a wide range of dermatological, ocular, urinary, reproductive, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, immunological, and neurological conditions that can affect the quality and length of life for some cats.
That being said, many Persians do remain completely healthy throughout their long lives.
How to care for your Persian cat
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If you want a low-maintenance cat, the Persian is not the cat for you.
Many Persians experience excessive eye tearing and staining. You’ll need to wipe under your cat’s eyes every day with a dampened cotton ball or soft cloth to keep crust and brown smudges from forming, and to keep dermatitis at bay.
All Persians need regular grooming to prevent matting. And by regular, I mean that a Persian should be bathed often (possibly as often as weekly), and brushed and combed daily to prevent painful matting and skin issues. Some Persian owners preemptively shave the coat.
If you plan to keep your cat’s luscious locks in all their flowing glory, consider purchasing this slicker brush with plain pins by Burt’s Bees, and this heavy, wide stainless-steel comb by Paws Pamper.
Persians are known to be picky about their litter boxes and might stop using them if they get messy. Plan to scoop at least twice a day.
You might need to purchase a water fountain for your Persian cat as they help keep the hair on a Persian’s chin and chest drier. I recommend this Veken model or this stainless steel model by PETLIBRO.
Many peke-faced Persians have a hard time grasping kibble due to the shape of their mouths and jaws, and placement of their teeth. Some pet-food companies offer specially designed dry food to supposedly make it easier for them. You can try Royal Canin Persian Breed Adult Dry Cat Food if your Persian experiences this issue, although I have not tried it personally.
Note that your Persian cat needs to be protected from hot weather. You’ll have to keep yours in air-conditioned comfort. Note, too, that many airlines won’t transport Persians in cargo because of the potential for respiratory distress or even death.
Other cats in the Persian Breed Group
The Himalayan Cat
Depending upon the breed registry you’re consulting, the Himalayan cat is either a separate breed of cat or variety of Persian cat. The Himalayan is a cross between a Siamese and a Persian. The breed has the beauty and many of the wonderful qualities of a Persian, but the stunning colorpointing of a Siamese cat. This cat got its name from other colorpointed animals, like the Himalayan rabbit, not because of any connection with Nepal.
(Read more about colorpointing and the Siamese cat breed here.)
The Exotic Shorthair
The Exotic Shorthair was the result of a secret experiment on the part of American Shorthair breeders to add the beautiful silver coloring and green eyes of the Persian to their breed. The Exotic Shorthair, which today comes in all colors, is similar to a Persian in every way except it sports a short, dense coat. For this reason, the Exotic Shorthair is sometimes called the Lazy Man’s Persian. Some registries consider them to be a variety of Persian cat, while others register them as a separate breed.
Toy and Teacup Persians
Toy Persians are just smaller Persians, and they also go by the names “palm-sized,” “pocket,” “mini,” “teacup,” and “pixie”. Many consider these terms a marketing ruse because mini-Persians, unlike miniature dog breeds, did not emerge from genetic mutations. They are the result of often harmful and repetitive inbreeding on the part of unscrupulous breeders to obtain smaller and smaller cats. These individuals are genetically weaker than their full-sized counterparts, and often endure additional health issues, and shorter life spans.
Tinker Toy holds the Guinness Book of World Records title of Smallest Cat Ever. Tinker Toy was only 2.75 inches tall and 7.5 inches long. He weighed only 1 ½ pounds and died at the age of six.
Don’t go looking for a photo of Tinker Toy, however. Even the Guinness Book does not have one. You’ll probably stumble upon a Photoshopped image of a cat named Mr. Peebles appearing to fit in the palm of a hand. Snopes.com has confirmed that this photo, which makes Mr. Peebles look tinier than he actually was, was altered for an online photo-editing contest. There are no cats, Persian or otherwise, that small.
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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.
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