The overall impression of the ideal Abyssinian is a medium-sized, colorful cat who is lithe, graceful and regal in appearance. The head is a modified, slightly rounded wedge shape without flat planes, with large, alert, pointed ears and large, expressive, almond-shaped eyes. Eyes are accentuated by a fine dark line, encircled by a light colored area. The muzzle is neither sharply pointed nor square. The Aby’s body is long, hard and muscular, with slim, fine-boned legs and small, oval, compact paws. Males weigh 7 to 10 pounds; females weigh 6 to 8 pounds.
The Abyssinian’s defining feature is a ticked or agouti coat pattern, characterized by alternating bands of color on the hair shafts. The coat should be long enough to accommodate two or three bands of ticking. The classic tabby M decorates the forehead, but other tabby markings are a fault. Four colors are accepted by all U.S. cat associations: ruddy, red (called cinnamon or sorrel in some associations), blue and fawn. Ruddy is the most common color (ruddy brown ticked with shades of darker brown or black); red is second in popularity, followed by blue. Fawn is the least common. Silver Abys existed in England in the late 19th century, according to Harrison Weir, widely considered the father of the cat fancy. In his writings he mentions silver Abys as a new variety, although they are only recognized by three of the nine cat associations today: TICA, AACE and UFO. The color is controversial; while some fanciers believe the gene responsible for the silver effect will cause no problems, others feel it may adulterate the other four colors. In some European countries, however, silver and a number of other Aby colors are accepted. In the silver varieties, the alternating color is icy white, giving an overall sparkling silver effect.
The Aby, as the breed is affectionately known by fanciers, is undeniably one of the oldest known breeds, but where it originated is unknown. Some believe the Aby’s ancestors came from Ethiopia, formerly called Abyssinia-thus the breed’s name. An Abyssinian named Zula was transported from Abyssinia to England at the end of the Abyssinian War in 1868, according to Dr. Gordon Staples in his 1874 book, Cats: Their Points and Their Characteristics, but whether Zula was actually native to Abyssinia is subject to debate. Others think the breed originated on the coast of the Indian Ocean and in parts of Southeast Asia. Still others believe the Aby was recreated in England from existing British Bunny cats that have Aby-like ticking.
However, the tale that’s most often told is that the Aby is a descendant of the sacred cats worshiped by the ancient Egyptians some 4,000 years ago. The Abyssinian resembles the cats depicted in Egyptian murals and sculptures, but so does the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), the species from which experts believe domestic cats arose and that is known to have been mummified by the ancient Egyptians.
Wherever the breed originally came from, the Abyssinian was entered in the first modern-day cat show held in 1971 in London’s Crystal Palace. The show was staged by Harrison Weir, a cat expert and ailurophile whom many regard as the father of the cat fancy. The Abyssinian placed third out of approximately 160 entries, demonstrating that even at the cat fancy’s beginning the Aby was appreciated for its beauty and grace.
The Abyssinians who became the foundation of today’s North American breed were imported to North America from Britain in the 1930s. The Aby gained popularity as cat lovers became familiar with the breed’s remarkable traits. Today, the Abyssinian is one of the most popular shorthairs.
Abyssinians are generally healthy but are prone to plaque, tartar buildup, and gingivitis. Untreated, gingivitis can lead to the dental disease periodontitis (an inflammatory disease affecting the tissues surrounding and supporting the teeth), which can in turn lead to tissue, bone and tooth loss. Untreated dental disease can undermine an Aby’s overall health. This breed needs annual veterinary checkups, periodic teeth cleaning by your veterinarian, and regular tooth brushing using cat toothpaste and a special cat toothbrush (although a soft child’s toothbrush will work as well).
Renal amyloidosis, a hereditary disease that can lead to kidney failure, and PK deficiency have been found in some Aby lines. Some breeders screen for PK deficiency. Be sure to get a written health guarantee from your breeder.
When choosing a breeder, make sure he or she raises the kittens “by hand” or “under foot.” That usually means they’ve been well socialized. Abyssinians are naturally affectionate, but early socialization is very important. Kittens with little early human contact are less likely to form strong, loving bonds.
Did you know?
The first known widespread domestication of cats occurred in ancient Egypt some 4,000 years ago, and many believe those cats were the direct ancestors of today’s Abyssinian. However, decorative artifacts in a cat burial site on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where cats are not a native species, indicate that domestic cats may have existed there 9,500 years ago, long before the domestication of cats in Egypt.
Life with the active Abyssinian is never boring. You won’t find better entertainment than the rough and ruddy Aby. This is a breed with an agenda—to convert cat loathers into cat lovers with its lively and affectionate personality.
Extremely active and high spirited, these dynamic couch cougars warp into light speed the moment they awaken. Abys are natural athletes and have agile paws and inquiring minds. If there’s a way to the top of the tallest book shelf or the highest window treatment, they will find it. Abys delight in elevated locations and often enjoy taking in the sights from your shoulder. They also have a more than generous dose of curiosity and show interest in everything, particularly anything in which you are involved. Your Aby will tap-dance across your keyboard and head-bump the phone when you’re trying to talk. Abys have an insatiable need to play that continues well into adulthood—it seems to be a basic need of the breed, almost as important as full food dishes and loving caresses from their favorite humans. Provide a cat companion for your Aby if you’ll be away for many hours a day earning the cat food.
Abys aren’t usually lap cats; they prefer to sit beside you rather than on you. Nevertheless, they are affectionate, devoted and loving companions. They follow you from room to room to keep an eye on what you’re doing. Vocally, they tend to be quiet, but purr with great enthusiasm, particularly around dinner time.