A is for Abyssinian Cat

Take a trip back in history and learn more about the Abyssinian cat breed with Cat Fancy's first look in 1966.

By Tana White

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A is for Abyssinian
From the Archives of Cat Fancy: Enjoy this all-access pass to cat history from the pages of the oldest living cat magazine. This content remains in its original form and reflects the language and views of its time. Health and behavior information evolves and only the most current advice should be followed.

Excerpted from CAT FANCY magazine, 1966, Volume 2 Issue 1


About 4,000 to 10,000 B.C. there was, so Egyptologists state, a Cat Clan in the Valley of the Nile which worshipped the domesticated cat as a totem animal. This Cat Clan felt that by associating with their totem animal the people themselves could assume the attributes of the cat. Thus. The women would be beautiful, graceful and both prolific and accomplished mothers. The men would be handsome, strong, powerful and fierce in war. The question arises, however, which cat did they worship? Supposedly, it was the cat known as Felis caffra alias the Caffre Cat alias the Kaffir Cat.

Johann Rudolph Rengger described the Caffre Cat of almost a century ago as tawny-grey with yellow or off-white on the belly. Thin black stripes appeared on the legs and sometimes on the body. The tail was longish, a bit thick at the base, ringed and tipped in black. There were black rings around the neck. Transverse streaks on the cheeks, and the beginning of the letter “M” on the forehead. The ears were large and erect, the soles of the feet dark. He described them as muscular cats with nice, long, legs. He further stated that they resembled the Abyssinian breed of his day.

If the above is true, then it is fairly safe to say that the Abyssinian cat of Rengger's day and of course our own day could be the modern descendant of the ancient Felis caffra. If this is true, however, then why is the cat called the Abyssinian cat instead of the Egyptian cat – and what truth is there to the notation of Ruppel when he reported that the first cats of the Pharaohs were brought from Ethiopia by Ousirtasen I of the 12th Dynasty. Surely he was aware that the cat was already domesticated in Egypt during the 5th Century. True, he probably did know. But this particular feline importation has a bearing on things for the breed considered here is called the “Abyssinian Cat.” If so, then it would seem that Ethiopia has nothing to do with Abyssinia. Consider, Abyssinia is a kingdom in Africa, and East Africa is sometimes (Biblically) known as the land of Cush. Specifically, Ethiopia was known as the Land of Cush. If you consult the dictionary, you will find that Ethiopia and Abyssinia are synonymous. The is leads to the conclusion that the Cat of Cush did come from Africa, specifically from Abyssinia, and was transported to Egypt. This particular cat is Felis lybica, a greyish-colored feline with a slightly buggy cast to the coat. Blackish stripes are found over a grayish-reddish ground color and the tail is ringed and tipped in black. Again, the soles are dusky in color. While the description of Felis lybica is somewhat less detailed than that of Felis caffra, one can see that the description in general is of what appears to be the same cat. Naturalists, who specialize in the wild feline, state that they are both the same cat-but are simply variations of coat color caused by different regions. You will remember that Felis caffra was tawny-grey while Felis lybica was greyish-red.

Since a description of these two wild cats has been presented, a description of the Abyssinian should follow. This feline has a coat ruddy-brown in color with the tone shading to a sandy-red on the under parts. The ticking of the coat is accomplished by the bands, one to three in number, of dark brown or black on each hair shaft. The ears are tipped dark brown and on the face, in a lighter colored area above each eye, a short vertical dark-brown line is present. These areas are called “pencilings” and could be termed beginnings of Rengger's letter “M”. The paw pads are black, with the color between the toes extending up the back of the hind legs about an inch, thus the soles are “dusky” in color. There is sometimes a line down the length of the back and tail, the tail ending in a black tip. The ticking, as described, is the same as that of the Kaffir Cat. In other words, this is the agouti-coated cat and is quite prevalent among wild animals, most beneficial as a camouflage pattern. This type of coat is most commonly seen on the rabbit, giving rise to a past nickname of “cunny” or “bunny-cat” because of the similarity in coat.  

It seems to be standard conclusion that if color were to be taken into consideration, it is a problem fact that minus a few tabby-like markings, the Abyssinian is, indeed, the result of the wild felines of Africa and Egypt ultimately cultivated in Egypt and finally the product of selective breeding by modern cat fanciers. In fact, during 1914 Dr. Ehrenbury and the anatomist, De Blainville, performed autopsies of several mummified cats. They were both satisfied that the museum mummies were of the Kaffir Cat and quite similar to the Abyssinian. Before the bars on the tail and halfway up the legs, along with the black dorsal stripe continuing to the tail tip were bred out of the modern Abyssinian, this cat looked like his ancestor in color and markings. In fact, these markings along with the dark soles of the feed, the “penciling” of the eyes, tipped ears and tail and check lines helped prove the relationship between the Abyssinian and the mummified Egyptian cats in museums. Cream areas under the neck and on the stomach were also a linking factor between the Abyssinian and the ancient Cat of Cush.

It is strange that many of these markings, once indicated with pride when comparing the ancient with the modern, should be eliminated.
The first officially recognized Abyssinian color has been the Ruddy tone. The Ruddy Abyssinian must be of a reddish – brown shading into the sandy-colored tones on the underside. The ticking is dark brown or black and most prevalent on the saddle sides, chest and tail. Individuals heavily ticked may sometimes have a tail stripe and dark shading along the spine as well as the usual Mayoral chains about the neck, the face penciling, dark eyelid-skin, black tipped ears and tail, tile-red nose and black paw pads. Cream areas are allowed on the lip and chin. A more recent color for the Abyssinian has been recognized by some associations and this is the Red Abyssinian. The color is to be a dark glowing red. All the ticking and marking are to be shades of chocolate brown, however, and black, will disqualify. The only other color difference is in the nose leather, which is rosy pink instead of tile-red. Old cat books give reference to a Silver Abyssinian, lost today. This cat had silver-grey ground color and the ticking was the tipmost tick of black, other ticks preferably black but dark-brown was allowed. Another color lost today is the striking Albino Abyssinian. This cat had a gerund color of creamy white, but the ears and dorsal stripe were the characteristic “rabbit-color.” Since the eyes lacked the natural hazel to green color, the muscles showing through caused the eyes to appear to be blue.

Then, lastly there is the form and the body of the Abyssinian. Color alone would not be the conclusive evidence that the Abyssinian of today is the Egyptian-African cat of yesterday. The relatively small head, broad and slightly rounded and sloping forehand with prominent cheeks narrow to the muzzle. These curved cheeks, prominent forehead and straight nose with shallow muzzle indentation shows even better in silhouette – and looks for all the world like a living reincarnation of the beautiful statue of the Egyptian cat residing in the famous Louvre Museum in Paris. Here, too, are the same large, alert ears that are broad at the base. The body has no suggestion of heaviness, with thin legs ending in small, round paws. The tail, too, thick at the base, fairly long and slightly tapering are one in the same. If this statue were clothed in the agouti-colored coat of the Abyssinian, it would indeed be ancient Egypt brought to life in a representation of today's modern Abyssinian.

Because of the seal of Egyptologists, naturalists, historians, anatomists and other dedicated people the modern Abyssinian breeder can fully trace his cat back to the Egyptian Pharaohs. And while the breed was cultivated in Egypt it truly came from Abyssinia. Thus, the Cat of Cush – the Abyssinian – truly has a regal heritage. 
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