The history of the Abyssinian cat is littered with stories - even those from Egyptian mythology, as Abyssinians bear a remarkable resemblance to the cats of Egyptian paintings and statues. However, the most popular story on the origin of the Abyssinian tells of Captain Barrett-Lennard who brought Zula, the female progenitor of the breed, home to England from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in the 1860s. The first written source mentioning the Abyssinian cat was a British newspaper in 1872. It first published a picture of a cat with the tag ‘Abyssinian’, and later wrote of a cat show held in London in 1871, in which the third-placed cat was told to have been brought to England from the Abyssinian war.
However, gene testing indicates that a more likely home for the Abyssinian is somewhere along the coast of the Indian ocean. From there, the cats could have been brought to Europe for instance on board merchant vessels. The breed would not have survived if not for the influence of Britain’s cat population.
The Abyssinian was among the earliest breeds to be shown when the cat fancy began in the late 19th century. The first Abyssinian standard was published in 1889. From the beginning, the quality, colour and ticking of the coat have been the most important characteristics of the breed. Pictures of Abyssinians from the early 20th century already show a cat that has the typical breed features: large ears and almond shaped eyes, fairly elegant body and short dense coat rather free of markings.
At first the breed had many names, such as Russian, Spanish, Abyssinian, Bunny cat and British ticked cat. The modern Abyssinian is a result of selective breeding beginning in the 1920s. When the Second World War began, the breeding of the Abyssinian was already in full swing in the United States, which played an important part for the survival of the breed when the European cat fancy was resumed after the war. When FIFe was founded in 1949, the Abyssinian was recognized from the beginning.
The modern Abyssinian has some ties to other breeds such as the Russian blue, the Siamese, the Burmese and house cats. As the breed got more common in the 1950s and ‘60s, the breeding expanded. The ruddy Abyssinian was first called the ‘usual’ Abyssinian (as it is still called in GCCF), and for a long time it was the only accepted colour for the breed. The sorrel colour was officially accepted in FIFe in 1966, with the dilute colours blue and fawn following in the ‘80s. The modern silver Abyssinians originate from crosses between Abyssinians and silver spotted British Shorthairs or chinchilla Persians. Nowadays the breed is well established and crossbreeding has not been allowed for decades.
The first Abyssinians were brought to Finland from Germany in 1961. The first litters were not born until six years after that. For a long time Finnish Abyssinians were either ruddy or sorrel, but nowadays cats of all four colours are born every year and every now and then even silver varieties are seen.
The Abyssinian has been used in the development and widening of the gene pool of many other cat breeds, including the Siamese, the Somali, the Ocicat, the Bengal and the LaPerm.
Over 100 years of breeding has resulted in our modern Abyssinian, an elegant, harmonious, lithe cat of medium size with fairly large ears and eyes and a short, dense, resilient coat of deep warm colour without markings on the body.
In the last 20 years many breeders have especially worked on the coat, which has become strikingly deep and warm in colour. Nowadays one very seldom sees Abyssinians with a grey or mousy ground colour. Also ghost markings and necklaces have become less common. The ear tufts seen in many of the earlier cats have almost disappeared, probably as a result of the very short coats of some modern Abyssinians. The temperament of the cats has improved considerably during the last 20 years. Many Abyssinians are excellent show cats, but can be very quick to escape from the judging table.
A few different types have still developed regionally. Some Abyssinians have especially large, widely set ears and very elegant bodies, others are a bit more muscular and athletic but are also often larger in size.
Abyssinians have never had very large litters, the usual number of kittens being 2 to 4. Lately some breeders have become very protective of their lines and it can be difficult to acquire cats for breeding, especially for new breeders. Many kittens are sold neutered and very few are continuing in breeding. This is a potential problem as the gene pool will diminish and it also promotes the use of matador studs. A narrow gene pool usually results in smaller sized cats and an increase in health problems, e.g. allergies and lesser resistance to disease.