Origins of the Abyssinian Cat

Charles Darwin 187
Charles Darwin 1879
The Origins of the Abyssinian Cat are shrouded in mystery or at least uncertainty. Here is a theory on the history of this popular cat breed.

In Darwin's "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." (note: this can be reproduced verbatim as it is copyright free due to the passage of time - wrong? please leave a comment).

Felis chaus is called the Jungle cat. This medium/small wildcat is listed as "least concern" under the IUCN Red List (see IUCN Red List for cats). The generous listing is probably a result of the fact that this wildcat is able to integrate with human activity quite well despite being persecuted (as usual) by the human. It seems they almost mimic, in the 21st century, the gradual domestication of the wildcat some 9,000 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 India - src: Wikipedia)

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 looks like this:

Jungle cat Felis chaus
Jungle cat photographed in India

The photo above was taken at Mysore - south west India by S.Das - this would seem to be a non-captive cat and if so well done to the photographer. Published under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs creative commons License. The origins of the Abyssinian Cat is probably in the wildcat Felis Chaus.

Here is another picture that shows a little better the jungle cat's likeness to the Abyssinian cat:

felis chaus or jungle cat
Jungle cat - Photo by bv_madhukar (Flickr)

The Abyssinian is well known and looks like this:

Abyssinian cat
Abyssinian cat - Photograph copyright Helmi Flick

I think we can see the origins of the Abyssinian cat in a comparison of these two pictures. At least it is strongly indicated.

There is of course a distinct similarity even after all the years of "refinement" through selective breeding by cat breeders. Lets remember the Abyssinian as a cat breed has been around since the late 1800s. The obvious similarity is the well known ticked coat of the Abyssinian and Jungle cat. It is thought (though not clear) that the Abyssinian cat originates from the west coast of India (see Abyssinian cat time line). See a great picture and an explanation of the formation of the agouti ticked cat coat. Ticking is a form of tabby cat coat. See cat coats tabby.

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). See largest domestic cat breed for a look at cat sizes and wildcat/domestic cat comparison.

Origins of the Abyssinian Cat - Conclusion - theory:

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 that 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.

One last point. The first Abyssinian cat Zula Zula (early 1870s) was quite a stocky looking cat as where all the early cats of this breed. Selective breeding changed that over time to a more slender body shape.
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Origins of the Abyssinian Cat - sources: Wikepedia for details on the country Abyssinia.
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