Abyssinian Cat

The Abyssinian cat is a very popular, elegant, purebred cat with a long and interesting history. It is one of the first cat breeds of the cat fancy. It is not a cat breed that has been bred to extreme. It retains a normal and elegant conformation inline with its athletic tendencies and intelligent personality. All these, plus the special ticked tabby coat, are the reasons for the breed’s continued popularity.

Abyssinian cat

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The picture above is by Helmi Flick. It is copyright protected.

Some key points:

  • Body Type: Foreign
  • Coat: Tabby
  • Activity: High
  • Talker: Low
  • Lapcat: Low
  • Grooming: Low


These Aby kittens were simply gorgeous and that little fella who falls into a deep sleep in the cage before being photographed was my favorite. He seemed to be an individual, independent and not part of the group. You might like to see this video in large format and HD by clicking on this link: Abyssinian kittens being photographed (opens in a new window).


Abyssinian kitten made in Russia
Abyssinian kitten made in Russia. Photographer and breeder: Daria Popova (Novomoskovsk)

I hope the short video summarizes the breed. It is how I see the Abyssinian cat in any case. This is a natural breed meaning that there was no intervention by humans in the evolution of this breed of cat until “discovered”, possibly in the late 1800s (Robinson’s Genetics states 1860). Thereafter, through selective breeding the breed has been “refined”. This domestic cat breed is the 4th most popular at the time of writing this (early 2011), based on this site’s long standing popularity poll. See the onsite top 10 list here. Update: 4th at Feb 2010. This site’s poll is based on visitor’s preferences not numbers of registrations. The breed’s origins are unclear but this cat possibly originates from areas that may include Egypt, Ethiopia, the west coast of India and islands off the east coast of Kenya or Asia.

The Times archive of December 4th 1871, writes about an Abyssinian that was brought over to England via India that was shown at the 2nd National Cat Show at Crystal Palace, supporting the importation theory. The journey via India may account for India being seen as one original source of the this cat breed. This may in fact be the case. On the linked page, I stick my neck out and formulate a theory about the Origins of the Abyssinian cat [link]. Interestingly, it is said that there is no documentation to establish the theory that importation took place described1. This seems to be incorrect! Most of the places of origin are on the margins of an area approximately centered by the Indian Ocean (see map). However, in stark contrast to the above, there is an argument that says that the Abyssinian has been created by selective breeding, initially in England from English tabby cats and then internationally over a period of 90 years or so. Tabbies are found globally and they have a ticked coat.

abyssinian cat origins map

Thereafter, the argument goes, the markings were bred out and the color of the cat warmed up. This contradicts the other accounts. The Abyssinian is renown for its short agouti ticked coat and balanced conformation. This is an elegant breed of cat with a gloriously glowing coat1.

History – some more

As mentioned, the history of this breed is somewhat vague. The dates and events listed should be noted with caution as they are contradictory. All the theories are listed in brief to allow a full appraisal. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between the “importation/discovery” argument and the “selective breeding from tabby” argument and a cat or cats were imported from Abyssinia which contributed to the development of the breed but where not foundation cats.

Abyssinian Cat Abyssinian cat champion 1907

The history of Abyssinian cat in terms of breeding and goals for breeders, since the beginning of the 1900s, can be seen in comparing these two pictures. The cat, immediately above, born 1907 (a well known champion cat), is noticeably more “cobby” (stocky), with what appears to be tabby banding to the tail (now a fault – see below). This “drastic” change is confirmed by a well known author1. See more on my personal thoughts on traditional cat breeds.

The general form or “type” of the Abyssinian cat has changed a lot, it seems, over the years since “discovery” when the type was more moderate. In the past this cat was judged on coat (plush) and color (ruddy). Today in the United States the Abyssinian cat is judged on (a) type (b) color and (c) coat texture last. There has been an underlying trend (this is my view) for breeders to consider the typical cat of the past as too “plain” and lacking in elegance, which has manifested itself in a modern cat that is more slender (yet still “balanced” thankfully in the Abyssinian).

This desire for elegance was taken to an extreme in the development of the Siamese cat when she was transformed from the normal to the Modern (contemporary) Siamese. See cat body types. There would also seem to be more exaggerated white markings around the eyes in the 1907 cat (above). These are desirable in a designer cat called the Toyger. In the Toyger, white eye markings are called “headlights”. Click this link to see a Bengal cat with headlights. Another stark difference is the difference in the size of the ears.

The 1907 champion has “Moggie” type ears (in terms of size they are normal). Modern cat breeders like to exaggerate ear size one way or the other to make the cat more outstanding. So for the Persian, a cobby rounded cat, the ears are bred small to avoid breaking the rounded appearance of the head, particularly for the Ultra or flat faced Persian cat. For the modern developed cats such as the Abyssinian or the Serengeti (two random examples) the ears are larger than would be expected.

The Serengeti is bred from the Oriental Shorthair, also a large eared cat. Conversely, the cats that are meant to retain original features such as the Chartreux have normal sized ears. The Abyssinian, although a so called natural breed has through breeder development lost her naturalness. It is only when the breed is founded upon the preservation of originality that the breed remains “natural”.

Abyssinian cat

— Abyssinian cat time line —

BC to 31 AD — Egypt under the Pharaohs – possible origins of Abyssinian.

unknown date — Possibly originate from ancient settlements on islands off the coast of Kenya (east coast) – Lamu (see map above). However, the colony of cats from these islands apparently resemble the Oriental Shorthair, a cat of very different appearance.

unknown date — On the basis of genetic make up this breed possibly originates from the west coast of India and Southeast Asia. See Origins of the Abyssinian cat for a theory.

1830s — Stuffed cat with ticked coat and ruddy (reddish) color in Dutch Museum purchased indicating that the cat was a domestic cat from India.

Dec.1871 — Shown at Crystal Palace (South London) cat show and achieved 3rd prize. The report said that the cat had been captured in the Abyssinian War. This must have referred to the Abyssinian Civil War of 1868-1872. The English forces where in Abyssinia 1867-1868.

Before 1874 — Abyssinia as possible origin of this breed. Abyssinia is now Ethiopia, which is about 1000km south of Egypt on the African continent.

1874 — Allegedly imported into England from Abyssinia at the conclusion of the war (Abyssinian War). The war concluded 1872.

Mid 1800s? — Allegedly a kitten was imported from Egypt by a British soldier to England. This cat was bred with a English tabby and a kitten from the resultant litter bred back to his/her mother forming the foundation of the breed.

1896 — The National Cat Club, England, register first Abyssinians.

1900-05 — 12 more Abys registered in England.

1907 — First few imports from England to US.

1909 — Silver Aby wins Westminster Show (London).

1929 — Abyssinian Cat Club founded in the UK (click on this link to read more).

1930 — Further importations from England to USA. These were show quality Abyssinians, which formed the basis of the breeding program.

c.1934 — Two Abyssinian cats are CFA registered.

1945 — Approximately 12 Abyssinian Cats in England (post war years).

1950 — The breed began to gain in popularity.

1965 — Abyssinian wins 2nd place Best All American Cat.

1920 -present — Selective breeding to improve appearance of this cat.

1970s — In the UK, Abys suffered a setback with outbreak of FeLV.

c.1978 — True pedigree of Abys recorded in UK to ensure true purebred.

1984 — CFA recognize blue color.

1989 — CFA recognize fawn color.

Present — Allegedly still some wild Abyssinians in North Africa.

As a little digression, this cat breed used to be called, and perhaps is still called in certain countries, by the name, Ethiopian cat. The name Algerian cat has also been used. Click on this link for a light-hearted and short discussion on this: Ethiopian cat.

Abyssinian cat

Appearance/Character and Health

If you would like to you can see a slide show of Helmi Flick photographs of the Abyssinian and the CFA breed standard (in summary) on this page.

The Abyssinian cat is a medium sized cat. The body is lithe, strong, muscular. The legs are slender. The breed standard states that this breed should stand on tiptoes, high on the leg1. The head is a modified wedge (another cat fancy term meaning wedge shapped but rounded as heads cannot be exactly wedge shapped – see cat head shape). The ears are large and set apart. The eyes are large and the outside edge should point towards the base of the ears. The body type, as mentioned, is considered to be “foreign” (see cat body types for the meaning of this cat fancy term). The Abyssinian is also people orientated and loyal. This cat likes to head-butt as a greeting, together with a special trill-meow. They are extremely affectionate. The Aby is also active and can be dog-like (a characteristic common to a number of cats) and also likes water. If an Aby likes to drink from a tap, you might consider getting a water fountain as I have read a story about a Bengal that drowned drinking from a tap because her lungs filled up with water. This breed’s liking of water is in common with domestic cats which have a wild heritage, such as the Bengal or Savannah. This is inherited from the wild cat who likes to be near water as it is a source of food in the wild.

ticked coat of Abyssinian catThe outstanding feature of her appearance is her shorthaired ticked coat (this is obligatory for an Abyssinian cat – see photo. Click on this for larger image). This term means that individual hair strands are bicolored, black and gray-yellow (horizontally banded) which gives a “salt and pepper” look. In this cat breed the yellow band can be enhanced or the color given greater depth through careful breeding, which turns this band color to a ruddy-brown from the gray-yellow.

The Abyssinian cat has a type of tabby coat unlike the other two types namely the mackerel and classic blotched tabby coat. In the Abyssinian type of tabby the striping that is prominent in the other two is almost eliminated or greatly minimized. This therefore leaves no pattern but an even and broken appearance. Banding can, though, sometimes be seen on the legs, tail and face (it is sometimes finer). Breeders strive to reduce the black tabby pattern as much as possible or eliminate it. See some more information on Abyssinian cat genetics. The Aby coat is not as silky as, for example, the coat of the Bengal cat. This is due to the individual hairs being a little thicker (src: breeders).

Cat Coats tabby You can read about the tabby cat coat plus see a lot of great examples of a wide range of tabby coats by clicking on the above link.

Agouti ticked cat coat Here’s a really good close up picture of a ticked coat (on a wild cat) plus a discussion on the genetics and pigmentation formation. Abyssinian Cat – Photo of the Week A great photo in large format of a great cat showing the activity levels. The composition comes from the action. Fine photo Helmi. The cat is called “Nobgoblin”

It is the banding that gives this “broken” appearance. Tabby cat coats are the classic cat coat as it provides good camouflage. It is the coat “of choice” for wild cats such as the American Bobcat and Scottish Wildcat. The banding is the result of the presence of the a gene called the “Agouti” gene. Probably the best know gene in cat genetics.

Abyssinian cat

Lonnie – photo copyright Helmi Flick

The “ruddy” base color (my terminology) is the most commonly encountered. This is called “usual” by the GCCF (UK’s premier cat association) in their standard of points. In the UK there are 5 championship colors:

  • Tawny – the foundation color
  • Cinnamon (Sorel)
  • Blue (dilute Tawny) – blue grey ticking
  • Fawn – dilute Cinnamon – dark cream and copper
  • Silver – the equivalent of Tawny, but in Silver
  • Non-championship colors are: chocolate, lilac, red, cream and tortoiseshell.

In the USA, the CFA standard allows ruddy (ruddy brown, burnt sienna), red, blue (see Natalie below), fawn. Polygenes (multiple genes) change the color of the ticking and the ground color. These genes vary in their numbers from cat to cat. A smaller amount results in what is called “cold tabbies”. When the number of polygenes is greater the beige color changes to apricot or burnt sienna. These polygenes also would seem to change the body tabby pattern color to warm brown shades leaving the markings at the extremities dark brown or black. The longer haired Abyssinian is now registered as a separate breed, the Somali. This is a basically a healthy cat (but see below). The author of the Cat Fanciers website says that this breed has on occasion been labeled as suffering from a genetically based disease, Renal Amyloidosis. However it not restricted to Abyssinians apparently so the comment seems a little unfair. Also it is hoped that the best breeders will be dealing with health issues in a proper manner and you can ask pertinent questions when adopting. Updates:

It has come to my notice that the Abyssinian cat breed can (I don’t know the level of incidence) suffer from an inherited disorder called Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). In this cat it is “late onset”. It also affects the Bengals (mid onset – this link takes you to more on this disease) and Persians (early onset). PRA also affects people.

Dr. Turner and Jean Turner (authors of Veterinary Notes for Cat Owners) say that this cat breed may be predisposed to a condition called Psychogenic Alopecia (excessive grooming through behavioral problems leading to hair loss). See Feline Endocrine Alopecia.

The Aby also may have a predisposition to renal amyloidosis, lysosomal storage disease, gingivitis, patellar luxation.

See a full list of genetic diseases concerning a number of purebred cat breeds. I have expanded on Abyssinian cat health problems.

Abyssinian cat

In the demanding world of the show cat, and if you want an Abyssinian that is truly of show cat quality, it is useful to take note of what are considered “faults” in appearance. These are purely cosmetic, of course. Apparently in the 1970s breeders were less rigorous or the standard was a little easier to meet and some cats had a white patch on the neck/chest area (called a “locket” after lockets worn as jewelry). This is now considered a fault and has been largely bred out. White patches are caused by the white spotting gene or piebald gene, which is behind the tuxedo appearance of the well known non-pedigreed black and white cats (Tuxedo cats). As mentioned above, this cat’s popularity is based in part on the beautifully ticked coat caused by the Agouti gene. The coat is also dependent on the presence of the tabby gene, which produces the familiar tabby pattern such as the lines (mackerel) pattern or in the Bengal cat the marbled pattern.

Such patterns are definitely a no go area for the Abyssinian cat as the coat needs to have a pure shaded (used in a laypersons sense) appearance. Patterns are considered a fault. These markings can be apparent as bands (rings) on the tail and legs and breeders use their knowledge of selective breeding to try and eliminate them. In some cats a straight line in profile from the forehead to the end of the nose if considered the objective (I am thinking of the Modern Siamese). This is considered part of the “Oriental” look. The Abyssinian cat profile should have a nose “break”. This means the profile where the top of the nose meets the forehead has an angle to (not straight). The break varies from breed to breed and breed standard to breed standard. In the Abyssinian cat it is a noticeable but not profound nose break.

Abyssinian cat

Abyssinian cat – Natalie – photograph copyright Helmi Flick

If you would like to see a very large format slide show of lots more best photographs of Abyssinian cats by mainly Helmi Flick and other fine photographers then go to this page. You’ll be impressed. I also go over, in outline, the CFA breed standard with reference to fine looking cats.

As to behavioral traits, the Abyssinian cat is very inquisitive and agile. As a consequence a greater awareness of what is going on with our cat than usual is required. Abys are intelligent cats (see cat intelligence). This makes them more amenable to training in leash walking and sitting up, for example. The Abyssinian cat is very affectionate towards people and therefore likes companionship. Despite being able to deal with coohabiting animals in a civilized manner they apparently do not like large groups3. Abyssinian cats are fairly quiet (almost silent2)and have sweet personalities. They are, though, natural athletes2.


Click on this link for Abyssinian Rescue

Abyssinian Cat Club – UK

The Abyssinian Cat Club (link to their website) in the UK was founded in 1929. Their first “members show” took place in an upper room in Brooke Street, Holborn, London, on March 12th 1930 as reported by the Times newspaper.

At the time there were only about 30 Abyssinian cats in England. 21 of them were at the show. The Abyssinian was a rare breed in 1930. It is much less rare today, being almost common (but no less fine a cat). The Times newpaper described the breed as rather small and elegant with quite large ears. The journalist referred to the color of this cat breed as looking like that of a rabbit. One of the Abyssinians was melanistic black and the ticking was referred to as being caused by the tips of the individual hairs being blackish or dark brown. Perhaps of more interest the character was described as being rather shy and gentle and not liking strangers that much but very affectionate (presumably to those people and other animals that he/she was familiar with)4.

Things of Interest

In 1963 an Abyssinian cat was worth about £700 ($1400 approx.). In today’s money that is about £7000+ or $14,000 at least. This is perhaps a reflection of the rarity of the breed at that time. By my reckoning the breed is one of the least rare purebred cats today (see rare cat breeds). {src: Times Archive}

Another page on this cat – a short one with a slide show.

1970s Setback in the UK – this was a major setback in the 1970s when many cats from a large number of catteries suffered from FeLV. Abys are not more susceptible to FeLV than other breeds but this outbreak was successfully dealt with by a co-ordinated effort by all the breeders. The control of this disease was assisted by the small number of studs at the time (less than 12). Testing and isolation controlled the disease. Click on the link to read about FeLV.

C.1978 – pedigree more strictly enforced. It is only over the past 30 years or thereabouts that, in the UK at least, it was necessary for British born pedigree cats to have a full history (known antecdents). This implies that the early Abyssinian cat was more a Moggie but described as an Aby.

Some more pictures of Abyssinian cats

Click on the link to see a careful selection of the best Flickr photographs of Aby cats published under a creative commons license. See more pics of Abys. And if you click on this link you can see a large format slide show of the best Aby pictures plus a brief overview of the CFA breed standard. Finally you can see a video on this page. It is actually a slide show of Helmi’s photos.

What Other Visitors Have Said

Chocolate and lilac Abyssinians are now accepted for championship In TICA and in GCCF, chocolate and lilac Abyssinians are now accepted for Championship status. CFA does not accept them yet and may never accept them,…

Abyssinian Cat Photo I’d like to show you perhaps the best Abyssinian cat photo. If it is not the best it is one of the best. It was taken by Helmi Flick who, however, is definitely …

Pharaoh – An unforgettable Aby! Biru Henry Pawson was the cat who influenced my life. With out him I would not be sitting here now typing this. He was with me from the very beginning …

Chilli was more than just a coincidence Everyone who knows me knows my boy, Chilli. But what many people don’t know is the story behind Chilli and my journey to get him. To start this story …

My Aby Cat Found Me I am a very proud owner of a soon to be 1 year old Aby boy (ruddy color). He is the sweetest boy born on Valentine’s day. I’ve named him Carson. They …

Abyssinian Hybrid 🙂 I have a beautiful F2B Savannah cat with Abyssinian in her cross. Many of the cats in this line, including my Aleiah, were born with a very rare Servaline …

Nile Chilli Pepper An Aby from Aus! Nile Chilli Pepper, or Chilli, is a Tawny Abyssinian cat bred by George and Julie Kennedy of Nile Abyssinians in Sydney Australia. On the 23rd of …

Theatrical Abyssinian Cats of Belgrade I am not a cat lover of the tame variety. However I was in an amateur dramatics at the Belgrade theatre 40 years ago and was invited by a fellow amateur …

First Abyssinian Cat Zula Zula The so called first Abyssinian cat, Zula Zula is shown below. The picture was created in 1874. I don’t know who created it. The timing of its creation …

Helmi Flick chose Sky for Cats USA Magazine The amazing Helmi Flick did it again! She chose another of my Abyssinians, Alexy Blue Cream Sky of Aksum (a blue torbie owned by me and bred by Bruce …

Helmi Flick chose Candy for Kittens USA Magazine Helmi Flick, who I admire greatly, chose my cat Candy (co-owned with and bred by Bruce Alexy of Alexy Abyssinians) as the example of an Abyssinian for …

Aby Taby? We (mom and I) fell in love with a cat, now dubbed Alize but called Liz, found at a local shelter. She’s fun, active, and possibly one of the coolest …

Aby Siamese Mix with a Personality to Match Adidas is our Abyssinian Siamese mix breed . He is the most talkative cat I have ever met and sometimes it seems like he actually might be trying to have …

Abyssinian Cat Behavior While the Abyssinian is well known to be among the more active breeds, cat photographer, Helmi Flick’s husband and cat wrangler, Ken, who coaxes all of …

Abyssinian cat — Sources:

  • CFA
  • Fanciers
  • Breeders sites
  • This is the ABYSSINIAN CAT” by Kate Faler, 1983
  • http://www.fanciers.com/
  • http://www.abyssiniancatclub.com
  • Times Archive
  • Flickr creative commons photographers and Aby cat keepers
  • Medical, Genetic & Behavioral Aspects of Purenbred Cats edited by Ross D. Clark DVM
  • Information for this page also came from Legacy of the Cat and other sources.
References other than stated for Abyssinian cat
1. Legacy of the Cat – by Gloria Stephens and Tetsu

2. Encyclopedia of the Cat – Dr Fogle

3. Medical, Genetic & Behavioral Aspects of Purenbred Cats edited by Ross D. Clark DVM)

4. Times Archive – dated March 13th 1930

Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

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