Traditional Cat Breeds

Sometimes within the cat fancy there is an argument as to whether there is such a thing as a traditional cat breed. For instance, the contemporary, “foreign” (slender) looking Siamese is claimed by some breeders to be the original shape. In which case the modern version of this cat breed would be the same as the original cat and the traditional Siamese would be an aberration in the breeding program. Not so, say I.

Abyssinian cat tradtional and modern

In truth there are three types of cat breed; (1) the original cat, which at the time it was original was not in a strict sense a cat breed because it existed before cat breeds were thought of, (2) the traditional cat breed and (3) the contemporary cat breed. Complicated, isn’t it? I explain what I mean. These are my views; slightly controversial as usual but then again, this is a slightly controversial subject. People hold strong views on what the original cats looked like.

Firstly, it is worth mentioning that the creation of cat breeds usually takes place in one of three ways: (1) a deliberate creation through hybridization and/or selective breeding, (2) the selective breeding from a mutation (e.g. rex cats) and (3) the selective breeding from a well established cat type that exists or was found in a certain region (e.g. Siamese, Korat, Russian Blue, Bahraini Dilmun, British Shorthair etc.).

The subject of traditional cat breeds is concerned with the 3rd type of breeding. Taking the Siamese as a classic case, this cat in its original state was and presumably still is a standard looking domestic cat with points in Thailand. Over many years, it was selectively bred to look like a modern fashion model…in human terms! This seems to have been the preferred look for breeders but not for the public in general and indeed not for some breeders. Whereas the breeders made the Siamese skinny and slender they decided to improve the Persian by breeding in the opposite direction; towards round and flat! In either direction they are called “extremes” – the natural desire to push the boundaries being demonstrated by cat breeders.

The Siamese cat breed now falls into at least two and I say three camps: modern, classic (Thai) and traditional. None of these are true and accurate replicas of the original Siamese cat because any sort of selective breeding (and all professional breeding is selective breeding) alters the appearance. Traditional Siamese cats are called Appleheads because the head is more rounded. They are championed by The Traditional Cat Association (TCA) run by Diana Fineran based in Washington as I understand it. Its head office was or is called “Battle Ground”1.

This informs us as to Diana’s approach to the fight to establish the true appearance of all cat breeds that have been over bred to the point where they have lost their true or near original appearance. Traditional cat breeds, though, are not quite the same as “original cat breeds” or a better description would be the original cat type. This is a fine point, I know. But as mentioned if a breeder takes an original cat from the streets of a country like Thailand (was Siam) and breeds from that cat it is bound to change even slightly. A breeder is not going to perpetuate the appearance of a household moggie cat from Thailand. They have to “improve” it, make the cat more marketable.

There is at least one possible exception that comes to mind. Breeders of the Chartreux vow to maintain the original appearance we are told. The Chartreux is a traditional cat breed and its raison d’etre is founded on that principle. It is said to be a “primitive” domestic cat – an exaggeration as it looks like a normal cat to me. TCA say there is a classic and traditional Chartreux. This undermines the concept of sticking to one cat type, the traditional, doesn’t it? I wish breeders would simplify things!

There are many people who find the more “refined” Siamese cats very beautiful and interesting. That applies to any other breed that has undergone a similar process of breeding  (the Korat or Balinese are lesser examples).  Others prefer the more traditional look. The Traditional Cat Association are said to fiercely guard the copyright to their breed standards, of which there are 301. There are therefore 30 traditional cat breeds by their standards.

I don’t understand, by the way, why the breed standards are guarded to this extent. They should be freely available to help promote the cause of the traditional cat breed, to spread the word. That said, I can’t see them on the TCA website! Perhaps Diana is being a bit to defensive, I don’t know for sure. She has probably been attacked too much by the breeders who champion the contemporary appearance. In any event she does good work and sets high standards. TCA for example provide a cattery inspection service for their members. The major cat associations don’t do this as far as I am aware. It is a fantastic idea and shows a high level of responsibility. I see this lacking in the main cat associations such as the CFA, TICA and GCCF who have a laissez-faire attitude to breeding standards.

Another big plus for TCA is that they promote health through the breeding of more traditional cats. Breeding to more extreme body shapes can lead to a less healthy cat. See for example: Siamese Cat Health Problems.

The traditional cat breeds recognised by TCA as stated in their website are: Abyssinian, American Bobtail, American Curl, American Shorthair, American Wirehair, Traditional and Classic Australian Mist, “Authentic” Bengal, Bengalese, Birman, Bombay, Traditional British Shorthair and Longhair, Burmese, European Burmese, Chartreux, Exotic Shorthair, Egyptian Mau, Gao Taem, Havana Brown, Himalayan, Household Pet, Japanese Bobtail, Jungala (never heard of this breed), Khao Manee, Korat, LaPerm, Main Coon (I never knew that there was a traditional version of the LaPerm and Maine Coon), Colorpoint Manx, Manx, Nebelung, Ninlaret (never heard of this breed before now), Norwegian Forest Cat, Ocicat, Oriental Shorthair and Longhair, Persian, Peterbald, Pixie-Bob, Ragamuffin, Ragdoll, Cornish Rex, Devon Rex, Selkirk Rex, Russian Blue, Siamese, Balinese, Siberian Forest Cat, Savannah (this sounds strange to me as this is a modern breed and their has only ever been one type of Savannah cat), Scottish Fold, Singapura, Snowshoe, Somali, Sphynx, Tiffany/Chantilly, Tonkinese, Turkish Angora, Turkish Van….Phew that is a long list. You can read about them all on PoC starting on this page.

I am not sure that I agree on some of these cat breeds. I don’t believe that there is such a cat as the traditional Savannah cat breed. And the Siberian Cat? Isn’t there just one type? Apparently not.

Lets take some examples. I have covered the subject of the evolution of the Siamese cat extensively on this page: Siamese Cat History. Traditional Siamese have short thick velvet-like coats. “The traditional Siamese preserves the look of the first Siamese cats imported into the West….”1

The Korat is a cat that also originates in Asia, Thailand specifically, as does the Burmese too. Regular Korat breeders will claim that they stick to the cat’s original appearance but TCA thinks otherwise. TCA lists the traditional and classic Korat. It is a kind of gradation, much like the Siamese. The traditional Korat is has a sturdier body shape, the classic is more slender and the contemporary more slender still.

Abyssinian cat modern typeThe traditional Abyssinian is an interesting case. The Abyssinians that I have seen at cat shows are not extreme. They are slender or of foreign body shape to use cat fancy language. In fact that language tells us a bit of how breeders think. It seems that they consider foreign cats more slender. Anyway back to the traditional Abyssinian. The exact origins are unclear Diana Fiernan says the east coast of India. I discuss this here (new window). We do know from early pictures of the Abyssinian cat (see the photo collage heading this page) that the earlier cats from around the early 1900s were more cobby, more robust and less slender if you like. The traditional Abyssinian should not have a head that is too narrow or fined boned. The classic modern Abyssinian head can seen in the cropped adjacent photo of Helmi Flick.

Breeders will consider that through selective breeding they have refined the breed. Refining it means making it more delicate and elegant looking. Also during the long breeding process going back over 100 years now, cat associations have extended the range of allowable coat colours. The traditional is only accepted in two colours: Ruddy and Red1.

Another classic bit of selective breeding which has left a cat breed almost not looking like a cat at all is the Persian. This is perhaps the farthest a cat breed cat get from its roots! The traditional Persian however, is possibly the best looking cat breed of them all other than the Australian Tiffanie but this is very subjective…

In conclusion then, in this discussion on traditional cat breeds, long standing de facto cat breeds that have originated in far flung foreign places have been refined and extended through selective breeding distancing the cat’s appearance from its original shape and colour and leaving the door open for people to desire a return to traditional cat breeds, a cat that is closer to the original household cat upon which the breed was founded.

Notes: 1. The Encyclopedia Of The Cat by Dr Bruce Fogle page 180 on traditional cat breeds, published by DK, ISBN 978 1 453 2149 5

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