Maine Coon Cat History

This U.S. cat breed has traveled far to become a homegrown cat hero.

By Eve Adamson

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Maine Coon Cat History
Nobody knows for certain exactly how the Maine Coon became such an integral and characteristic part of life on the coast of Maine. We may never know. But who doesn't love a good story, especially one starring everybody's favorite super-sized shaggy cat? We've got more legends than facts about the first Maine Coons, but what we do know is how they developed into the cats we see today. Read on to find out more about how the Maine Coon conquered America, from the first cat show, all the way to your lap.

Probable Origins
“I think the most interesting theory is that they came over with the Vikings, and this might be true because we know cats often lived on ships to control the rodent population and help preserve the food supply,” says Martha Auspitz, Cat Fanciers' Association Maine Coon breed council secretary and a Maine Coon breeder in Kentucky. “If they did come here with the Vikings, they probably interbred with the traditional American shorthaired cat, and developed into what we call the Maine Coon.”

The Vikings' cats, called Norwegian Skogkatts, are the ancestors of the Norwegian Forest Cat, a breed less common than the Maine Coon. But put them side to side and you can see how they might share a common ancestor. And can't you just see your burly buddy hanging out with the Vikings as they conquered the New World?
The Vikings didn't spend a lot of time in North America, and were driven out by the Native Americans. Perhaps while they pillaged Europe, their cats jumped ship (literally!) and eventually made their way over here with sailors and traders.

Maine Coons are most likely the product of breedings between longhaired cats from other countries that accompanied sailors and traders when they visited our eastern shore, and domestic shorthaired cats that were already here. The strongest, healthiest and hardiest of these offspring would be most likely to survive and breed in the harsh northeastern climate, and pretty soon, a new cat breed arose — a cat breed clustered in the state of Maine, mellow and sturdy with a thick, warm fur coat. This new cat breed was originally called the Maine Cat.

The cats with the thickest, longest and shaggiest coats were probably the cats most likely to survive in places like Maine. Pierce says many of the early Maine Coons were probably brown tabbies, a color scheme that would blend into the natural environment and camouflage the cat for better hunting success. Even though today's Maine Coons are available in a rainbow of coat colors and patterns, brown tabbies remain among the most popular.

The Evolution of a Gentle Giant
The cats with the thickest, longest and shaggiest coats were probably also the cats most likely to survive. Pierce says many of the early Maine Coons were probably brown tabbies, a color scheme that would blend into the natural environment and camouflage the cat for better hunting success. Even though today's Maine Coons are available in a rainbow of coat colors and patterns, brown tabbies remain among the most popular.

The fifth cat to ever be registered with the Cat Fanciers' Association was a tortoiseshell Maine Coon named Molly Bond. This was the early 20th century, when cat shows became popular all over the country. But with this popularity came a crushing blow to the Maine Coon: other cats, such as the sweet, silky, pansy-faced Persian and the long, slinky, enigmatic Siamese came from the far east. Suddenly, our all-American longhaired cat suddenly didn't seem so interesting to cat show audiences and potential cat owners anymore. The Maine Coon fell out of favor, and our native longhaired cat became less and less common at cat shows.

By the 1950s, most people believed the Maine Coon to be extinct. But luckily for us all, the Maine Coon wasn't a fashion casualty. Oblivious to his popularity, the robust Maine Coon lived on in Maine himself, still an integral part of coastal life, helping keep farms and homes free from rodents, preserving food supplies and keeping cold feet warm during chilly nor'easters.

The people of Maine knew the Maine Coon wasn't extinct, but for some fanciers, that wasn't enough. They wanted the world to remember these magnificent cats. Determined to keep the breed alive and reinvigorate its popularity, two Maine Coon breeders named Alta Smith and Ruby Dyer formed the Central Maine Cat Club in the early 1950s. They sponsored cat shows and photo exhibits to spread the word about the Maine Coon once again.

Out of these efforts, a breed standard (the written description of the ideal characteristics of the breed) arose, and the Maine Coon's popularity began to increase. By 1971, the breed was still rare, with only 20 registered Maine Coon cats in the country, but the breed began to show its wildcat face at cat shows again. Fanciers formed a Maine Coon Cat breed club in 1973. By 1975 the CFA recognized the Maine Coon.

During the 1977 to 1978 show season, a white Maine Coon named Purrbred's Silent Stranger achieved the title of CFA Grand Champion. By the early 1980s, Maine Coons began to win at the national level, and by the year 2000, many Maine Coons achieved national recognition. The cat was back.

21st Century Maine Coons
Today, the Maine Coon is the second most popular pedigreed cat in the United States, behind the Persian, and is still a favorite at cat shows. People love to gasp and marvel at the Maine Coon's sheer size, big paws and wildcat ear tufts. The Maine Coon may have increased in size a bit due to fashion, although extra-large Maine Coons have probably always popped up here and there throughout history. Some breeders also think the expressions have changed a bit, at least in some lines. “Different breeders have gone their own way with different looks,” says Martha Auspitz, Cat Fanciers' Association Maine Coon breed council secretary and a Maine Coon breeder in Kentucky. “The standard used to specify a sweet look, but that's been taken out and some breed for a more feral look today.”

Auspitz describes the differences: “The wilder look is characterized by ears slightly closer together, smaller eyes and a longer muzzle. Others have the sweeter look, with eyes a little larger and a little farther apart, and a slightly shorter but still square muzzle,” Auspitz says. “This sweeter look is probably more characteristic of the early Maine Coons.”

But all Maine Coons should suggest a series of rectangles: rectangular head, rectangular body, and rectangular muzzle. And, even though we know they can't breed with raccoons or the bobcat, they should still look, teasingly, like they could—ear tufts and all. “They aren't required to have the ear tufts, it's not in the standard, but it's certainly an added bonus,” Auspitz says.

Eve Adamson is an award-winning pet writer and the author of more than 40 books, including Adopting a Pet for Dummies (Wiley, 2005). A member of the Dog Writers Association of America, Eve lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
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