Fancy-cats are those carefully groomed felines you see at shows.
The other 80% of the world’s domestic cats — just as beautiful in their own way, but without pedigrees — are sometimes called moggies, a loving nickname derived from “mongrel.”
There is a big difference between mutts and moggies, though.
While unpedigreed dogs, a/k/a mutts, are descended from purebreds, all of the first fancy-cats started out as moggies.
But first . . .
What exactly is a cat breed?
Aristocrats, scholars, and naturalists in Western Europe have discussed “breeds” since at least the 1700s, though it was more opinion than fact.
For instance, most people referred to longhaired cats, first introduced to Europe from Asia Minor in the 1500s, as angoras (even when the animals weren’t actually from Ankara, Turkey).
That vagueness makes it difficult nowadays to follow the early history of two traditional longhaired breeds: Angoras and Persian cats.
Things are much more formal today. Cat fanciers worldwide have detailed written standards for more than 100 breeds.
That’s what everyone has in mind now when talking about breeds.
Nevertheless, what Wright and Walters wrote in 1980 is still true (emphasis added):
It is impossible to give a rigid definition of a breed. Generally speaking, the term is usually applied to individuals of a definite, unique body conformation, colour pattern, hair type, and/or exotic geographic origin.
For those of us outside the detail-oriented cat fancy, well-known breed examples of each quality include Manx cats, traditional Siamese cats, Cornish and Devon Rexes (look-alikes but considered two breeds because the rexed coat in each comes from a different genetic mutation), and Norwegian forest cats.
Note that these are feline features that only matter to people.
- Cats don’t care about body conformation. When they see another cat, they’re all about domination, flight, or mating — not the other’s physical appearance.
- As for color and patterning, it’s true that we don’t know what personal meaning an individual’s coat qualities might have for other cats. However, there doesn’t seem to be any discrimination based on it. Cats appear to rely more on scent and body posture for social cues.
- Geography: Domestic cats did get isolated in various places after leaving Egypt. The result over time was an amazing variety of feline looks. But cats are very adaptable, which is how they have been able to accompany us all over the world. Today, they’re everywhere, busily exchanging genes — those different looks now must be maintained through selective breeding.
Fancy-cats have always been defined from a human point of view.
Here’s Wright and Walters again:
In one sense, a breed is a group of animals that sufficient people are mutually agreed to recognize as such . . .
So how did “sufficient people” first come together over cats?
Fancy that cat!
Let’s take some shorthaired British and Southeast Asian cats as an example.
Cats traveled to Britain with Romans and stuck around after the Empire collapsed.
Down through centuries of British weather, these shorthairs developed thick coats and sturdy bodies.
It’s a very different look from that of the long-limbed, sleek shorthairs whose Egyptian ancestors accompanied monks and Silk Road traders into Southeast Asia.
Here, the warm climate required less drastic changes in the original sleek “steppe wildcat” physique.
Instead, these Asian cats developed unique fur and eye colors, like these.
At opposite ends of the Eurasian continent, people protected animals they liked — good British mousers, for instance, or cats with mutations like deformed tails on the Isle of Man (Manx), or dark-pointed coats in what was then called Siam.
This preferential treatment, plus some intuitive breeding manipulation long before the science of genetics arrived, “fixed” desired features in the local cat population before genetic drift could erase them.
But it was a highly informal process until the mid-19th century.
At that point, Victorians were enjoying exhibitions and animal shows very much.
Twenty years after the Great Exhibition, one of the world’s first cat shows happened at the Crystal Palace.
Cats were sometimes on display at these shows but as a sidelight, at least in England and in North American cities.
From at least the 1860s on, though, Maine farmers reportedly kept pedigrees for the “coon cats” they displayed proudly at county fairs.
A little later than that, the first organized cat fancy arose in England from a variety of roots.
The nature artist Harrison Weir is often called its founder but he worked with others, including Fred Wilson, the Crystal Palace’s naturalist.
The cat fancy’s beginnings are not always clear-cut. Certainly there were at that time “sufficient people . . . mutually agreed to recognize” cat breeds and hold cat shows all over Britain, especially after the big Crystal Palace cat show in 1871.
Weir did play a key role in it all, though.
He wrote the first guidelines for cat show judges and, in 1887, helped found the National Cat Club (NCC): an event that many consider to be the birth of the cat fancy.
Today’s Governing Council of the Cat Fancy — one of the world’s foremost registries — developed from the NCC.
Across the Atlantic, felinophiles established their own fancy with a championship show at Madison Square Garden in 1895 and by starting the American Cat Club in 1896.
Various complexities happened after that, but two other major modern organizations — the Cat Fancier’s Association (CFA) and The International Cat Association (TICA) — can trace their roots back to the American Cat Club, TICA in the 1970s by way of the American Cat Fancier’s Association.
While there were European cat shows in the 1890s, I think that this region’s major cat-fancy group — Federation Internationale Feline d’Europe (FIFe) — formed after World War II.
Anyway, those are the top four modern fancy-cat organizations. There are many, many others.
Almost all of them register fancy-cats, maintain pedigree and other records, and set breed standards — options that Harrison Weir and the early cat fancy did not have.
Back in the day, people displayed their pet moggies. The formal pedigrees, etc. — in other words, the breeds of today — came later.
Weir was the first to set up written standards, though his “Points of Excellence” in 1871 followed tradition in that classes to be judged were based on fur length, color, and pattern (except for Siamese and Manx cats, which each got a special class).
That’s a far cry from today! Modern cats must have their papers in order, showing at least the minimum number of pedigreed ancestors.
And they are judged by how closely they meet that feline ideal: the breed standard.
Actually, this is to be expected after almost a century and a half of enthusiastic human beings discussing their passionate interest in cats.
Even before genetics was well understood, fanciers understood that keeping pedigrees was the best way to predict the outcome of matings.
And records like these are now also used to avoid or minimize gene-based health problems related to excessive inbreeding or specific breed-related diseases.
Still, the freewheeling old days, when everything was new and fairly simple, are very attractive.
So it’s good to know that many cat shows once again accept household pets.
Your cat won’t have to compete with blue-ribbon champions. It will be judged on its condition, presentation, and temperament (best not to try this if Fluffy doesn’t like noise and crowds).
This is just an overview.
On closer inspection, the cat fancy is more than a little mind-boggling.
It really only makes sense if you think of fancy-breeds as a human construct, with people preserving the idea, and some of the genes, of various old lineages.
The cats themselves know nothing about it, of course. But they do enjoy the attention, and just as much as we do, this 10,000-year-old relationship that we have together.
In the long run, that’s all that really counts for moggies, fancy -cats, and all their human friends.
Featured image: Suphalak, by “Maewboran” via Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SuphalakAyodia.jpg CC BY-SA 3.0
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