How Cat Breeds Were Created

Though most dogs were originally bred for different jobs, it's rare to see a cat herding sheep, guarding a home, or retrieving a quail. Today, it seems dogs are slowly being meshed into one super breed that excels at lying on the couch and being pet, though with distinctly different looks. Likewise, though some cats were also originally bred for certain jobs, today they're bred more for looks and personality.

The main job cats were bred for originally was hunting vermin. The domestic cat is known to be a hunter of over 1000 species and the first domestic cat made its pact with humans - a trade of food for killing vermin - about 4,000 years ago in Egypt. There, cats were revered as hunters and worshiped as gods. It is thought that today's cat acts like royalty because of the lavish beginnings of its ancestor.

All cats retain their killer instinct. Just watch kittens playing with a toy mouse or practicing their pouncing skills. But some breeds are more likely to utilize these talents than others. The American Shorthair is an example of a cat bred mostly for its hunting skills. This breed is descended from cats that arrived in North America about 400 years ago. In the late 1800s, when Americans started breeding the Shorthair with exotic cats from Europe and Asia, the Shorthair lovers started a breeding program to save its original traits. Thus, today, you'll find that the American Shorthair is still an excellent and diligent hunter. Other breeds that tend to "work" as well as sit in the sun are the Maine Coon cat, the Siberian and the Manx.

Cats were bred for other jobs besides hunting, too. The Siamese is an example of a breed created to be protectors. They walked the walls like sentries and warned their masters of danger with their piercing voices.

The Turkish Van is an excellent swimmer suggesting that this breed was used to retrieve things from the water. And the most famous example of a cat bred purely for looks and keeping laps warm is the Persian.

Defining cat breeds has been quite a hefty process. The Global Cat Register is an example of a large international registry. First, cat breed names were standardized. This was a very political process, especially for some breeds such as the British Angora, which lost out to the Turkish Angora's prior claim to the name. Next, standards across countries had to be standardized. It ultimately made it easier to register a new breed because it adopted many of the conventions from the American Registries.

Unlike dogs, who are categorized by job, cats are generally categorized by "Shorthaired" and "Longhaired." These broad groups are also broken down into sub-categories, such as:

Longhair, Persian Cats
This group includes the breeds that have the fur of a Persian and the characteristics of the Persian - short noses and small ears. The Persian is considered to be one of the first actual breeds of cats and was imported from Persia to Italy in 1620.

Longhair Non-Persian Cats
The only common characteristic of the breeds in this group is the length of their fur. The Main Coon and the Birman fall into this category.

British and American Shorthair Cats
These breeds tend to look very similar except for their marking and coloring. They all have a short, thick coat.

Other Shorthair Cats
These breeds do not look as much like the British/American Shorthair group. They are grouped together mainly for convenience. These include the Cornish Rex and the American Wirehair.

Oriental Shorthair Cats
All of the breeds in this group look like the Siamese and must meet the Siamese standard of points. They also share the Siamese temperament.

What are the current cat breed trends? Dwarf Breeds, or miniature versions of existing breeds, have been very popular as of late. The first was the short-legged Munchkin. Dwarfism has also appeared in Persians and Siamese. Another trend is the appearance of wildcat lookalikes. This involves breeding a domestic cat with a wildcat. Both trends have supporters but both also raise many eyebrows in the feline community. Some consider the dwarf breeds to be defective and some feel that the breeding of a tame cat with a wild one creates an unstable personality.

What new cat breeds are expected in the future? The development of a breed with a black-and-tan coat, like a Terrier, is being worked on as is the creation of an allergen-free breed. Whatever the future of the cat breeds holds, at least we can be sure of one trait that will never be lost - the feline assumption that they rule the roost and expect worship like their ancestors.

Photo: Chexov