Copyright 2002-2016, Sarah Hartwell

In hotter climes, a short sleek coat is an advantage e.g. Siamese, Burmese. In harsh conditions, longhair cats fare better - they are insulated against the cold and their outer coat may have water repellent qualities. "Refrigerator Cats" were a newspaper invention (and later an urban myth) about a strain allegedly developed in 19th Century Pittsburgh to control vermin in refrigeration plants. Natural selection supposedly produced a race of "Eskimo cats" which were at home in the cold, having heavily furred coats, thick tails like Persians and tufted, lynx-like ears. Although the idea of natural selection favouring thick fur for a harsh climate is sound, a little investigation shows that no such race of cats existed.

The American Maine Coon arose through natural selection in conditions which favoured robust, longhaired cats. Accounts suggest that some of the cats taken to America were longhairs e.g. Turkish Angoras i.e. the longhair gene was imported into America. These would have interbred with the various other cats taken there and over many generations the harsh winters would have selected in favour of longer, thicker, more protective coats.

In Europe, the same natural selection process gave rise to the Norwegian Forest Cat, the Siberian and the Rugkatt. To the casual observer these resemble the Maine Coon, but the conformation and fur type differ. A "Russian Angora" cat has been described as similar to the Turkish Angora, but with green eyes i.e. naturally occurring semi-longhaired version of Russian Shorthairs (the group comprising Russian Blues, Whites, Blacks etc).

Lipinski et al found the Norwegian Forest Cat, Persian, and Siberian each showed subdivisions within each breed, indicating multiple lineages. This is not surprising in the Norwegian and Siberian as these come from a broad base of random-bred cats that have relatively recently been recognised as a breed.

Maine Coon

The Maine Coon, or Maine Cat, is one of the oldest natural breeds of North America, and is regarded as originating from the state of Maine. Is has also been known as American Longhair, American Shag, American Forest Cat, American Snughead and Maine Trick Cat.

There are various explanations of its origin. One is that it is a racoon/cat hybrid. Another is that Marie Antoinette sent her Angora cats to safety in the USA and that these cats interbred with the shorthaired domestics. Another is that New England sailors took home Angoras from Turkey in the late 17th century. Due to its tufted ears and large size (though not as large as some media reports would have us believe), others believe that the cats descend from North American bobcats or bobcat/domestic cat hybrids or, even more implausibly, as a hybrid between domestic cats and lynx. The misconception that it is a lynx hybrid is unfortunately still perpetuated by some credulous cryptozoologists.

Most likely, it derives from a mix of longhaired and shorthaired cats taken to New England by colonists and as ships' ratters. The rugged longhaired cats of Scotland, Norway and Russia are good candidates for some of its ancestry with the addition of Persians and Angoras. In the late 18th century Maine was a major ship-building, sailing and trading state. Trading ships would have carried a variety of animals including European cats, both as pets and as ships’ ratters and mousers. The Maine Coon would have evolved from these.

Maine Coons were well-established by the early 1800s and had evolved into a hardy, handsome breed of domestic cats and excellent hunters. They had a rugged coat and build and were tough enough to withstand the harsh winters. They were also large - both tall and long-bodied. The long, flowing fur is relatively heavy and shaggy, shorter on the shoulders and longer on the belly and tail. Maine Coons also have a well-developed ruff, broad muscular chest, strongly boned legs and relatively long, square-muzzled head with slightly concave profile.

They were first recorded in cat literature in 1861 and became popular competitors at early cat shows in Boston and New York. A Maine Coon won the 1895 Madison Square Gardens show. It was described in "The Book of the Cat" in 1903. And by 1906 there were 28 registered Maine Coons, but interest was waning. The Maine Coon's popularity as show cats declined when Persians arrived and though they remained popular as pets, they were largely ignored by cat fanciers and breeders until the early 1950s. In 1967 they were recognised as a breed (1976 by the CFA).

The first Maine Coon in Europe was a pregnant female taken to Austria from Canada in 1953 or 1954 and her progeny were known in Germany as American Forest Cats. They reached Britain in 1984 and are now popular in Britain, Europe and Australia.

The are found in almost all patterns and colours; the only ones not permitted are those indicating hybridisation with colourpointed cats i.e. chocolate, lavender or Siamese-pattern. Brown tabby is the most popular colour. Polydactyly was found in early Maine Coons but was discouraged. In the late 1990s, some breeders became interested in reinstating the trait.

The early Maine Coons were documented by Frances Simpson who was an early champion of longhaired cats. In "The Book Of The Cat" (1903) she included a chapter about Maine Cats from American breeder F. R. Pierce. In childhood (1861) Pierce had owned a longhaired black-and-white, "Captain Jenks of the Horse Marines" and, like Simpson, was evidently a longhair enthusiast. Pierce did not know Jenks' ancestry, but assumed that longhairs entered Maine (a major ship-building and seafaring region) much in the same way, and at about the same time, that they reached England. The major difference was that the Maine cats were largely left to their own devices while the British cats were being selectively bred.

In 1869, Pierce saw a pair of blue-eyed white Persian kittens that landed from a foreign vessel which had put into a seaport town for repairs. These had been acquired by a sailmaker making repairs to the ship from the cook who owned a Persian female which had produced kittens. The two cats were both kept for 2 or 3 in the hope of getting a good male for neutering (as a pet); all the female kittens being destroyed! When the desired male arrived, the original pair were sent to a relative in the country. However, during those 3 years they had evidently met up with local cats since longhaired blue-eyed white kittens began to appear in unexpected places. Lack of selective breeding meant the strain generally vanished, only to reappear later on. Pierce owned ones such cat, Dot, said to be as good a specimen of Persian as the one that came from the original kittens eleven years previously.

One Mrs Thomas, also of Maine, wrote that her cat was descended from a blue-eyed white brought to Rockport, Maine on a ship from France. That line of whites, while in the same locality, was quite distinct and unrelated to Pierce's white longhairs. Pierce wrote on a little island well off the coast and inhabited by only three families, there were pure white blue-eyed Persian cats, but was apparently unable to obtain one of these cats.

Another early champion longhair was Richelieu, owned by Mr. Robinson, of Bangor, Maine in 1884. Richlieu was described as a silver or bluish tabby, very lightly marked, but rather a coarse-grained variety - "a drug store cat" (moggy). At that time Maine, near the coast, had many fine specimens of the longhaired cats, particularly brown tabbies. The Maine cats were not considered valuable at the time. From the coastal towns and cities, the longhaired cats spread inland. Around 1895/6 the "cat fad" struck the Middle West and cats from Maine were being acquired by enthusiasts inland of Maine, with considerable sums being paid even for poorer quality or mongrel kittens.

Many of the prize-winning Maine cats of the mid-to-late 1890s were described as being of Persian type. At the turn of the 20th century, smokes, silvers and chinchillas were uncommon. The most common colours were whites, blacks, blues, oranges and creams, plus tabbies. A line of creams was founded by a fine cream apparently brought from an unspecified Mediterranean port by one Captain Condon in the 1880s. The Maine cat was distributed along the coast, and for about 60 miles inland, but were not then common in the less populous northern portion of that State.

Cat World (International) Sept-Oct 1978 adds one more snippet to the history of the Maine Coon. “The Maine Coon is a purebred cat. A number of years ago, a hybrid Maine was de¬rived from the crossing of a Domestic Short- hair and a Persian/Angora mixed cat. This program was pursued and lasted several years bringing irreversible genetic consequences. In the beginning, litters from this breeding brought long and shorthaired kittens; cur-rently, offspring from the hybrid breeding show the telltale short to medium length even coated cat. Although limited hybrid breeding continues, membership to such breed¬ers is denied by all but one Maine Coon or-ganization.”

Norwegian Forest Cat

Although in some ways it resembles the Maine Coon, the Norwegian Forest Cat (Norsk Skaukatt or Skogkatt) is a Scandinavian breed which evolved in the cold northern climate of Norway. Generations of living in the cold and wet gave rise to a cat with a heavy, weather-resistant coat and full ruff. The woolly undercoat provides warmth while a medium-long, glossy outer coat resists rain and snow. It differs from the Maine Coon in several respects - including back legs slightly longer than the front. It is an excellent climber.

Longhaired cats are mentioned in Norse mythology and in books of Norwegian fairy tales written 1837 and 1852 which describe it as having a long, bushy tail. Due to its resemblance to the Maine Coon and Scottish Wildcat some have suggested the Vikings took cats to Scotland (where they interbred with wild cats) and to North America on Viking longships. This theory is unlikely. Domestic cats did not arrive in America until European colonists arrived; there is no archaeological evidence of domestic cats in supposed early Viking sites in America and reports of native cats almost certainly referred to the racoon. The Scottish Wildcat has an intractable temperament and cannot be reliably domesticated, hybrid offspring inherit this wildness.

Other theories suggest it derived from Angora cats which arrived at Norwegian ports as ships’ cats and interbred with native Norwegian shorthairs, or that Crusaders took British shorthair domestic cats and longhaired cats to Norway. There is a misconception, fostered by credulous cryptozoologists, that it is a cross between domesticated longhairs and Scottish Wildcats. Norwegian longhairs would have to swim a long way to meet up with Scottish Wildcats! TIt is not a hybrid with European Wildcats nor with European Lynxes. Crosses between domestic cats and European Wildcats are closer in type to the wildcats - wild in temperament and shorthaired. Most likely, it evolved naturally as an adaptation to harsh wintry conditions.

Breeding of the pedigree Norwegian Forest Cat from semi-wild outdoor cats and farm cats began as early as the 1930s, with the cats being exhibited in Oslo before the Second World War. In 1963 it was shown under the name Skogkatt. The breed was revived in the early 1970s; in 1972 it was formally recognised in its home country, serious breeding began in 1973.

Many of the foundation cats came from near the Swedish border. Swedish breeders declared that the breed belonged to Sweden as much as to Norway. But the Norwegians disputed this and it was agreed that foundation cats must come "straight from the Norwegian forests". While single Skogkatts might cross the Swedish/Danish border while hunting in the woods no entire (unneutered) registered cats were allowed out of Norway until the breed was recognised. It was eventually allowed to be exported and was recognised in Europe in 1977 and became popular in the USA during 1985 and Britain in 1987.

Siberian and other Russian Longhairs

In the 19th Century, Russian Longhairs were described as distinct from the distinct from the Persian or Turkish Angora; and these are described earlier in this article as they contributed to the Persian type. The Russian cats had a larger body with shorter legs, a woolly coat with coarse hairs among it, a large mane and short thickly furred tail. In Victorian times, it was extensively crossed with the Persian and the Angora and was lost as a distinct type. It continued to breed naturally in Russia as the Siberian cat. The Russian Angora is described as similar to the Turkish Angora, but with green eyes instead of blue, orange or odd eyes. Some Nebelung breeders claim their cats recreate the looks of the 19th Century (or “turn of the century”) Russian Longhair, though the Siberian appears closer in type.

According to Dr. Irina Sadovnikova, WCF International All Breed Judge, writing in Russian cat magazines in 2004, the term "Siberian Cat" did not relate to a breed, but to a type of cat. The typical “Siberian” cat was large and fluffy, as long as they were not white. Large white fluffy cats were called Angoras. Other "names" were used in various localities. O.S. Mironova refers to the name "Bukhara". Early reports of Russian cats only mention colours, not fur type (except for Weir’s “Russian Longhair.”) Brehm and Gmelin wrote of a breed of red cats extant in Tobolsk. Pallas gave a detailed description and a coloured print of a rather sturdy colourpoint cat he saw in the province of Penza, one of the three such cats produced by a black female cat. These reports are proofs that certain feline colours existed in Russia, but cannot be tied down with any certainty to the modern Siberian cat breed.

The Siberian type of cat was first mentioned in 16th century sources and was known as Bukharskie because reached Russia from the large commercial town of Bukhara, in Uzbekistan. Longhaired cats were known and popular throughout tsarist Russia more than 200 years ago, but were not known as Siberians. Through interbreeding, some Siberian cats came to resemble the Bukhara, but the ancestors of the Siberian cat reputedly reached Siberia together with the Cossacks in 1582 led by Ermak Timofeevich, and interbred with native wild cats (F lybica type).

In “Sketches of Khiva Oasis of Nature” (Tashkent, 1882) on the local cats, the Soviet zoology professor DN Kashkarov wrote that “Occasionally Longhair cats are imported from Bukhara ...” and he suggested the Reed cat (F chaus) and the Pallas’ cat (Manul) were ancestors of the Siberian and Bukhara respectively in his book “Animals of Turkestan” (Tashkent State University, 1932) although this is now considered genetically unlikely.

The Central Asian longhaired cat was taken from Bukhara to Siberia and the East, and travelled westwards with Asian traders, crossing the Caspian Sea and travelling further up the Volga, and along trade routes to Moscow. In his 1913 book “Among the Shifting Sands and Severed Heads. Travel Essays of Turkestan,” the Swedish-born Russian traveller VN Garteveldom (Napoleon Hartevelde Julius Wilhelm, later William Napoleonovich Garteveldom) mentioned the Bukhara cat in the chapter “Bukhara:” “The famous and, indeed, very beautiful and graceful Bukhara cats are also sold here and are not cheap. A couple of good specimens (male and female) cost from 75 to 100 roubles.” The collapse of the Russian Empire affected its former trading partners in Central Asia. Bukhara was no longer an important trade crossroads. Muscovites who remembered Moscow before the 1917 revolution recalled high prices being paid for these large, fluffy cats with their ear tufts, and recalled seeing them around the city.

While written sources confirm the existence of both the Siberian and Bukhara types, and their different places of origin and different routes into Russia, by the end of the 20th century the Bukhara cat appeared to have been forgotten in Russia and was never picked up by American or British cat fanciers despite mentions of the various Russian cats by Gmelin, Brehm etc. The Bukhara cat from Asia eventually became an ancestor of the Siberian, the latter name being associated with strength and rugged character.

The first Siberian cats (Russian Longhairs) were imported into the USA in 1990 by Elizabeth Terrell of Louisiana, in exchange for Himalayan cats sent to establish that breed in Russia. Before 1990, it was almost unknown outside of Russia. The first colourpoint Siberians (Neva Masquerades) were imported into the USA in 1997 and registries are have recently accepted it following early controversy. The history of the Neva Masquerade is in Colourpointed and Masked Cats.

Cats would have entered Russia from Europe, by land and sea, from Persia (Iran) by overland trade routes and from the Far East on board trading ships. The existence of bobtailed Russian breeds demonstrates that cats from south east Asia reached Russia one way or another. The cats of Russia and Siberia are little changed from mediaeval times, perhaps earlier.

It is suggested that one longhair mutation occurred in Russia and spread from there to Turkey (Angoras) and Persia (Persians) or even that all long-haired breeds ultimately have their origins in Russian cats. The similarities between the Siberian and the Norwegian Forest Cat and Maine Coon suggests a common origin and some researchers suggest that the Siberian is the ancestor of both the Norwegian Forest Cat and the Maine Coon. Equally, it could be parallel evolution where similar environments have led to unrelated cat populations evolving similar traits through natural selection.

The Karel Bobtail (Karelian, Karellian) and the Kuril (Kurilian, Curilsk) are both shorthaired/semi-longhaired Russian breeds with bobtails. These breeds are now gaining popularity outside of their home country./P>


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