For the first 8,000 years of their relationship with humans, cats pretty much took care of their own breeding. People kept them for one purpose – hunting rodent – and they are already perfectly designed for that. More than 100 years ago, however, we began systematically breeding cats to appeal to our aesthetic tastes. Hair length, color, coat pattern, as well as head and leg proportions contribute to the “look” of specific breeds.
Look at enough cat bodies and faces, and you’ll see two distinctly different types.
Faces are either triangular or rounded. Bodies that are lean and slender belong to the lithe oriental, or foreign breeds. Short legs supporting a broad, compact body are characteristic of a “cobby.” Mixed breeds usually have an “in between” body type.
There are more than 70 distinct breeds of cats that are recognized by formal cat registries. Some registries recognize only about 40 breeds, because they exclude those such as Bengals which are hybrids of domestic and wild cats. Some “breeds” are simply variations of primary types. For example, a Balinese cat is a longer haired type of Siamese cat.
Some breeds have roots that go far back in history. The Japanese Bobtail, distinguished by a short, rabbit-like tail, can be traced more than 1,000 years. The Egyptian Mau cat retains the physical characteristics of ancient Egyptian cats found in ancient paintings.
With an elegant body that is randomly spotted, banded legs and tail, communicative eyes and an ellegant cheetah-like stride, it is no wonder that the Mau attracts such a tremendous amount of attention at shows.
Other breeds reflect new aesthetics. Ocicats and Savannah cats are wild-hybrids — the result of breeding wild cats with domestic cats – which fill a desire for some cat lovers to have a “wild” pet. The Cornish Rex, with its soft, wavy coat and curled whiskers, is a dramatic, visual contrast to the typical smooth-coated cat. Likewise, the “hairless” Sphynx cat is a breed for the esoteric cat fancier.
Because the Sphynx cat has little hair, the cat needs to be bathed periodically. This is an easy task with a cat that has been accustomed to a bath from kittenhood.
Sometimes, cats are just “ordinary felines.” “Domestic” is the veterinary term used to classify cats of unknown heritage. Cats in these categories are broken into groups as domestic short hair (DSH), domestic long hair (DLH) and domestic medium length hair (DMH). Some people classify cats based on living circumstances; house cat or alley cat, but these are not true breeds.
Hair length and texture contribute to a breed’s “look, ” but color is not a reliable identity factor. Black cats with white paws, belly, and chests are referred to as “tuxedo cats,” but this is simply a description of coat pattern found in both domestic and “exotic” breeds. Tortoiseshell and calico coated cats are sometimes referred to as “ginger,” “marmalade,” or “orange tabby” cats, making them sound like specific breeds. In reality, they are just descriptors, much like “green-eyed Asian” or “brown-eyed European.” While it is true that some cat breeds only come in one hue (Russian Blues and Korats only show gray) most breeds display a range of coat color and pattern.