To those who are not familiar with the marvelous diversity of breeds available to today’s cat fancier, some of our modern varieties might seem a tad—well, unusual. However, even the most uninitiated cat lover can relate to the comfortably familiar American Shorthair, with its sturdy, middle-of-the-road body style and average all-American good looks. Looks can be deceiving, though, because the American Shorthair is a pedigreed breed with as long a history of selective breeding as many of the cat fancy’s exotic felines.
A true breed of working cat, the American Shorthair is solid, muscular and medium to large. The overall appearance is of a strongly built, well-balanced, symmetrical cat with a conformation that indicates power, endurance and agility. The head is large, with a squared muzzle, strong jaws long enough to successfully grasp prey and a full-cheeked face that gives the impression of an oblong that’s just slightly longer than it is wide. The chin is firm and well-developed and the neck is medium in length, muscular and strong. The nose is medium length and is the same width its entire length; viewed in profile, it has a gentle, concave rise from the bridge to the forehead.
Medium in size, the ears are slightly rounded at the tip and placed fairly wide on the head. The eyes are large and wide with the upper lid shaped like half an almond cut lengthwise and the lower lid shaped in a fully rounded curve. The outer corners are set very slightly higher than the inner corners. The eyes are separated by at least one eye width, and are bright, clear, alert and contribute to the sweet, open expression of the face. Eye color depends upon coat color and pattern.
The heavily muscled legs are medium in length and bone, and end with firm, full, rounded paws with heavy pads. The tail is thick, medium long, heavy at the base, and tapers to a blunt end. Fully grown males weigh 10 to 15 pounds; mature females weigh 8 to 12 pounds. However, quality is never sacrificed for size.
This breed’s short coat is thick, even and hard in texture. Regional and seasonal variations in coat thickness are allowed. The coat is dense enough to protect the cat from moisture, cold and superficial skin injuries.
Any evidence of hybridization with another breed, including long or fluffy fur, a deep nose break, bulging eyes, brow ridge, kinked or abnormal tail, and the coat colors chocolate, sable, lavender, lilac, or point-restricted (the Siamese pointed pattern ) is cause for disqualification.
The breed comes in a plethora of colors and in many patterns: solid , shaded, smoke, tabby, particolor and bicolor. The most popular color and pattern is the striking silver classic tabby with dense black markings on a pale, clear, silver ground color; more than one third of all ASHs are this color and pattern. Next in popularity is the brown tabby, with black tabby markings on a rich brown background. However, almost any color or pattern is allowed, except those indicating hybridization. The ASH has no allowable outcrosses.
It’s clear that domestic cats first set paw in North America when the Europeans did, since North and South America have no indigenous species from which domestic cats could have developed. Since it was a common practice to keep cats aboard ships to deal with the ravaging rodents, cats may have been aboard the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria when Columbus sailed in 1492. Cats were definitely present in Jamestown, the first permanent British colony in the New World; we know this because there is a written mention of cats dating from 1609. Who knows? Colonial cats might have snatched bits of turkey and venison off the table at that famous Plymouth Colony Thanksgiving feast in 1621.
At any rate, regardless of when they arrived and with whom, cats were working members of society rather than pampered pets, serving as perfect mouse traps in the barns and fields of colonial America. At this point, function was far more important than form, and folks paid little attention to the color, pattern and body style of their mousers. Through natural selection-life was hard on cats and humans alike-these feline immigrants developed powerful muscles, strong jaws and hardy constitutions.
As life became easier, cats became companions for America’s colonists as well as mouse-catchers. People began to take an interest in the beauty of the feline form and to enjoy the comforting purr from a lapful of warm cat. At first, these hardy shorthairs were welcomed in the newly formed American cat fancy in the late 1800s, although the Maine Coon was more popular. In 1904, the first American-born American Shorthair, Buster Brown, was registered, although at the time the breed was merely called “Shorthair.” Later, the breed was renamed “Domestic Shorthair.”
As time passed, however, familiarity bred contempt for the breed. Fanciers became more interested in imported breeds such as the Persian, Siamese and Angora than in the familiar Domestic Shorthair who had warmed their laps and served them faithfully for so many years. And as these imports were crossbred with the Domestic Shorthair, the pure bloodlines of the American native began to be adulterated. In the early 1900s, a group of people who loved the stalwart look of their valiant all-American cats began a selective breeding program to preserve the breed’s natural beauty, hardiness and mild temperament.
At first, it was slow going and the breed received little respect from other cat fanciers. In the early days, not only did Domestic Shorthairs not win in the show ring against the exotic imports, but often cages were not even provided for the breed and no trophies or rosettes were presented to the Domestic classes. It wasn’t until the early 1940s that the breed began-slowly and with difficulty-to gain some recognition.
In the late 1950s, Domestic Shorthair breeders secretly began crossbreeding Persians into their Domestic Shorthair lines to “improve” the body type and to introduce the striking silver color to their lines. As a result, the Domestic Shorthair body type began to change, becoming more Persian in style. Since Persians were (and still are) popular in the show halls, these hybrids did well in shows.
Many Domestic Shorthair breeders, however, were appalled at the changes. For years they had struggled to preserve and promote the natural beauty of the breed, and they didn’t want their breed becoming a pseudo-Persian. Therefore, the standard was revised to disqualify any cat showing evidence of hybridization. They did allow the silver coloration to remain, however.
In September 1965, breeders voted to change the breed’s name from Domestic Shorthair to American Shorthair (abbreviated ASH). With the new name came a new image. The same year, an American Shorthair silver tabby male named Shawnee Trademark won CFA Best Cat of the Year, heralding a new era for the ASH. Today, plenty of fanciers pledge allegiance to this all-American breed, and you’ll see the ASH competing beside the finest Persians and Siamese and winning their share of awards.
Because of their hardy constitutions, American Shorthairs usually live long, vital lives—generally 15 years or longer— so be prepared for a long-term relationship. However, some American Shorthair lines are known to have the inherited heart disease feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HMC), a serious condition that is usually fatal. The symptoms of HCM can be so subtle that the first noticeable symptom is sudden death. However, since HCM is the most common heart disease in cats, many schools of veterinary medicine (such as the one at U.C. Davis) and organizations such as the Winn Feline Foundation are working to find ways to treat and cure the disease. An inherited form has been identified in the ASH, and researchers are working on finding a genetic solution to the deadly disease.
Also, some ASH lines are known to have the inherited joint disorder feline hip dysplasia. While hip dysplasia isn’t life threatening like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, hip dysplasia can cause pain, stiffness, and lameness. Breeds most likely to have hip dysplasia are larger, heavy-boned breeds such as the Maine Coon and the Persian, so it’s possible the ASH inherited the disorder from its Persian ancestors. In addition, some lines are prone to polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a serious disease that can cause renal failure, due to the crossbreeding done with Persians. Fortunately, a PKD genetic test is available at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California, Davis, which helps breeders screen out affected breeding stock. Leslie A. Lyons Ph.D., Assistant Professor with the Department of Population Health and Reproduction, recommends PKD testing for Persians, Exotics, Himalayans, American Shorthairs, British Shorthairs, Scottish Folds, and any breed that is outcrossed with Persians. Talk to your breeder about these and any other health concerns and be sure to buy from a breeder who offers a written health guarantee.
Did you know?
The Exotic Shorthair, a shorthaired version of the Persian, was developed in the 1950s when American Shorthair breeders attempted to improve their breed by crossbreeding Persians into their bloodlines.
The expression “all things in moderation” comes to mind when describing the ASH personality. American Shorthairs are neither furry door stops nor bouncing-off-the-walls hyper. The ASH is perfect if you want an affectionate and sociable cat who enjoys being at your side but not in your face, and is a good choice if you must spend time away earning the cat food. Just like the colonists who brought them here, ASHs relish their independence. They’re a four-on-the-floor breed, usually dislike being held, and allow cuddles only when it’s their idea. Nevertheless, they are very intelligent, loving, devoted, and loyal to a fault.
American Shorthairs have a real need for play and they tend to stay active and frisky well into old age. They enjoy romping with their preferred persons, but can just as well amuse themselves with a ball of paper. Probably due to their rigorous development, ASHs have strong hunting instincts and enjoy catching and killing catnip mice—and real ones, too. If you let your ASH outside (not advised by most breeders), expect her to proudly bring home “gifts” for her favorite humans.
American Shorthairs enjoy high places, such as the tops of shelves and cat trees, but can also be trained to stay off furniture. Fascinated by water as long as they aren’t immersed in the horrid stuff, ASHs will often hop into a recently drained sink or tub to investigate.
ASHs adapt well to almost any situation if given time and patience, and with their accepting temperaments they usually make first-class family pets, and good companions to other cats and cat-friendly dogs, as long as they are introduced properly. If you like a little peace and quiet when you come home from a hard day, the ASH is a welcome surprise. Unlike some breeds, they usually aren’t demanding and they rarely vocalize unless they have something very important to say, such as “The food dish is empty!” When they do talk, their voices are usually quiet and high-pitched. They make up for this by purring as loudly as small furry freight trains.