Is the Abyssinian cat descended from Indian jungle cat hybrids?

Charles Darwin 1879
Charles Darwin 1879
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There is some evidence to suggest that the original Abyssinian cat was a jungle cat hybrid that was imported from the west coast of India to Abyssinia in Africa and thence to England (possibly via Egypt) by an English army officer.

The wild cat hybrid evidence comes from the distinguished scientist, Charles Darwin. In his “The Variation Of Animals And Plants Under Domestication” he writes:

“In India the domestic cat, according to Mr. Blyth, has crossed with four Indian species. With respect to one of these species, F. chaus, an excellent observer, Sir W. Elliot, informs me that he once killed, near Madras, a wild brood, which were evidently hybrids from the domestic cat; these young animals had a thick lynx-like tail and the broad brown bar on the inside of the forearm characteristic of F. chaus.

Sir W. Elliot adds that he has often observed this same mark on the forearms of domestic cats in India. Mr. Blyth states that domestic cats coloured nearly like F. chaus, but not resembling that species in shape, abound in Bengal; he adds, “such a colouration is utterly unknown in European cats, and the proper tabby markings (pale streaks on a black ground, peculiarly and symmetrically disposed), so common in English cats, are never seen in those of India.”

F. chaus is called the Jungle cat. This wildcat is able to integrate with human activity quite well despite being persecuted. It seems they almost mimic, in the 21st century, the gradual domestication of the wildcat some 9,500 years ago when the wildcat become domesticated. The Jungle cat is found in many Asian countries including India (Felis chaus prateri, whose habitat is in the West of India1)

Because of this, as Darwin reports, there has been a natural occurrence of hybridization of the Jungle cat with Indian domestic cats. The jungle cat and Abyssinian cat look alike:

Jungle cat and Abyssinian cat

I think we can see the possible origins of the Abyssinian cat in a comparison of these two pictures.

The differences between the two are size and what cat breeders call rufus coloration of the Abyssinian. The Aby has a warm rich color whereas the Jungle cat is a more natural color. The warm rufus coloration is due to selective breeding incorporating polygenes that affect the intensity of yellow. The jungle cat generally is larger than the Abyssinian, perhaps a bit less than twice the size on average but some will be of a similar size (jungle cat weighs from 7 – 22 lbs or 3 – 10 kgs).

Is it not possible that the jungle cat mated with the domestic cats or feral cats of the west coast of India (as described by Darwin) producing an interesting Abyssinian like cat. This cat could have created second and third generation wild cat hybrids, one of which was then noticed, adopted and ultimately transported to Abyssinia by a British Army officer?

This was the time of the British Raj-rule, in India, which commenced in 1858 and concluded in 1947. I speculate that the officer was then ordered to attend the Abyssinian Civil War (the British forces where there in 1867-68) and thereafter he then traveled on to England thereby importing into England the first Abyssinian cat in around 1870, which exhibited at the Crystal Palace (London) cat show of 1871.

Ref and notes:

  1. Wikipedia
  2. Jungle cat – Photo by bv_madhukar (Flickr)
  3. I have lost the name of the photographer of the Abyssinian cat – sorry
  4. This page is a modified and amended version of an original article published on a subdomain of PoC about 4 years ago.

3 thoughts on “Is the Abyssinian cat descended from Indian jungle cat hybrids?”

  1. The Leiden Zoological Museum in Holland has a stuffed Abyssinian-type cat that pre-dates Zula (who is usually credited as being the first Aby). It was purchased between 1834-1836 and labelled as an Indian cat. H.C. Brooke (a breeder and collector of many cat and dog breeds) later described an Indian cat, allegedly from Bombay, and illustrations of the Indian cat in Frances Simpson’s “Book of the Cat” and in other books show a sandy coloured ticked cat very similar to an Abyssinian. Sandy, ticked domestic cats from Sri Lanka are now being bred as Celonese. It is possible that Zula came from India where the British had a strong presence at the time.

    While the Indian cat influence appears to be domestic cats rather than wild cats, wild blood was introduced to the breed early on.

    Champion Southampton Red Rust, Claude Alexander’s exceptional Abyssinian was apparently mated to an “Imported African Wild Cat” (this would be F lybica) and the female offspring, Goldtick, was registered as an Abyssinian. Goldtick was mated to a red self (solid red) called Ras Brouke (owned by Mr HC Brooke in the 1920s) and produced Tim the Harvester, registered as a Ruddy (Usual) Abyssinian. Tim the Harvester was a very influential sire both in the UK and USA and found many breeding lines.

    • Thanks a lot Sarah. You are a walking encyclopaedia of the cat 😉 Very useful information.

      I had read about the cat in Holland. We know that domestic cat sized wild cats can mate freely with domestic cats. The Scottish wildcat is a tragic example. The African wildcat also mates with domestic cats so the jungle cat as a distant ancestor of the Abyssinian seems plausible.

      • The origin of the “chaus contributed to early domestic cats” myth was Roger Tabor a couple of decades ago. He found some F chaus mummies among a cat mummy site in Egypt and hypothesised that the interbred in temples. Later DNA testing of domestic cats (excluding the Chausie of course) found no genetic markers derived from F chaus. The mummies from the Egyptian site also showed no intermediates between F s catus/F s lybica and F chaus. The Egyptians simply liked to mummify wild animals as well as domestic ones.

        So F chaus didn’t contribute to the ancestry of domestic breeds (apart from modern hybrid breeds) otherwise it would have left genetic markers. The ticked tabby mutation is common in SE Asia (it comes from F s lybica). When F chaus was later deliberately hybridised it also introduced new colours such as “grizzle”, which haven’t been seen in the Abyssinian breed.

        Indian domestic cats interbreed freely with F s ornata, the Asiatic Wildcat (aka Indian Desert Cat) – so that’s where wild blood would have come from.


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