Do Persian cats come from Persia?

Today, Persia is Iran. Fortunately, we have at our disposal a well-known study which evaluated the genetics of cat breeds and worldwide random-bread populations. One objective, as I understand it, of this study was to look at the origins of the breeds and see whether the modern-day cat breeds can be traced back to their purported origins.

Young Persian cat

Young Persian cat has his origins in American and European breeders with no connection to his geographical origins. Image: Pinterest.

This group of scientists state, “Even though the early Persian cat may have in fact originated from ancient Persia, the modern Persian cat has lost its phylogeographical signature”. The phrase “phylogeographical signature” means, on my understanding, the linkage of the appearance of an animal with a certain geographical location. What the scientists are saying is that they can’t find any connection between the modern, contemporary Persian with the flat-face and Iran. The connection has been lost if it existed in the first place. Historically people think that the Persian cat hails from Iran but that conclusion is rather speculative and, as mentioned, has now been undermined by the study.

And the reason why there is no longer a connection between the modern Persian cat and Persia as it was called is because of over 100 years of selective breeding by breeders. In the words of the scientist, this cat breed has “undergone selection for an extreme phenotype, which likely involved complex gene interaction”. The word “selection” means selecting certain cats with an appearance which met the standard. This is selective breeding. When you selectively breed you are engaged in artificial selection as opposed to natural selection as espoused by Darwin’s theory of evolution. In other words, you break the route of natural selection. You interrupt and in effect start again with the breeders playing God to a certain extent.

To recap, the old Persian cats going back 150 years or more probably did come from Persia because logically the name indicates that. They would have been longhaired random bred cats by today’s standards, which is somewhat surprising seeing as Iran is a hot country and normally in hot climates you find lots of shorthaired bicolour cats.

However, the contemporary extreme-bred Persian cat with no muzzle and a brachycephalic head has been genetically manipulated through selective breeding so much that it origins have been entirely lost. The origin of the Persian cat is a bunch of breeders in America and in the UK who have operated over something in the order of 150 years.

Interestingly, the scientists found that the Persian cat is now genetically linked with random bred cat populations of Western Europe. I’m going to guess that this is a throwback to the early years of selective breeding in the UK. But that’s just my thought and people should not take that as fact, far from it. The cat fancy in the UK probably started not long before the first cat show that ever took place in 1871 at Crystal Palace, London.

Below is a quote from the study. This is the pertinent and important bit in respect of answering this question.

“Surprisingly, the Persian breed was not genetically associated with random-bred cat populations from the Near East, but grouped with random bred cats of Western Europe. The Persian is perhaps the oldest recognized cat breed and has undergone selection for an extreme phenotype, which likely involved complex gene interaction. Even though the early Persian cat may have in fact originated from ancient Persia, the modern Persian cat has lost its phylogeographical signature.”

The study referred to: The ascent of cat breeds: Genetic evaluations of breeds and worldwide random-bred populations on Science Direct. Lead scientist: Monika J.Lipinski.

Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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