Ancient. Enigmatic. Athletic. The word you’re looking for is “Abyssinian.” Currently one of the most popular breeds in the world, the Abyssinian, or Aby for short, is also one of the oldest, with origins shrouded in mystery.
Lithe, strapping, and deeply curious, Abys are beloved by owners for their almost dog-like desire to socialize and follow their people around the house. They’re blessed with high intelligence and what seems like a motor that runs almost nonstop, making them natural explorers.
The Abyssinian coat is their most striking feature, with its nuanced, complex ticking, which is a genetic variant of the tabby pattern. Their dense, close-laying fur starts lighter-colored at their bodies, then alternates between bands of lighter and darker shades out to the tip of their tail. A warm, reddish-brown base with black ticking is the breed’s original color, but today variations in fawn and blue are not uncommon.
Outside of their beautiful coloration, the Abys’ next most striking feature is their ears, which are large relative to their body, forward-facing, and well cupped. They sit atop a wedge-shaped head with large, alert, almond eyes.
An Aby’s body is long and slender, giving them a particularly sleek and graceful look. Their paws are small, and the Abys’ natural stance makes them appear to be standing on their tip-toes. Their tails taper and are nearly as long as their bodies.
Abyssinians are incredibly smart and curious. This makes them natural explorers, and you can expect to find your Aby in every corner of your home, on every possible surface, regardless of accessibility.
They are also renowned for their social abilities, and Abys enjoy spirited playtime with their people. They are a breed that is always on the move, so don’t expect a lot of lap-time from them, but do expect to have your every move followed and observed. Abys are remarkably good at training their human companions to do their bidding, so expect to find yourself manipulated into doing what they want. They are also keenly observant, so any treats or toys you secret away in the same place every time are apt to be discovered.
A strong companion cat, if not always a lap one, Abys enjoy the company of their human companions and will often converse with them in soft, pleasant churrups, rather than something akin to the traditional meow.
Abys also do well in households with other animals, thanks to their naturally social disposition. They’re also able to entertain themselves for extended periods of time with something as simple as a bottle cap or piece of rolled-up paper.
This is a cat who loves to get around and explore and is absolutely going to try and find its way up onto high shelves and vantage points. Therefore, multi-level cat apartments or scratching posts are greatly appreciated, as they’ll give your Abyssinian ample opportunity to get as high as her mood desires. Additionally, if you’ve got a large window and an easy perch for her to sit on, she’ll enjoy watching the neighborhood birds or traffic throughout the day.
By and large, the Aby isn’t a breed that’s particularly demanding as far as toys or distractions go. Although wind-up toys are likely to become petty annoyances for you, because once they stop moving your Aby’s apt to ignore them until you wind them up again. Instead, keeping a few simple toys around the house to give her some variety should be all she needs.
Abyssinians don’t tend to be huge shedders outside of their regular shedding seasons, so daily grooming should be relatively straightforward. Weekly brushing is all they’re probably going to need. However, they enjoy a nice hand-rubbing with a chamois, so a daily pat-down can be a nice way of bonding with your Aby and keeping her coat in good shape as well. Additionally, a bath once a month is helpful and can be a pretty easy experience if they are introduced to it as kittens.
One of the things that makes the Abyssinian such a popular breed is their relative healthiness. The breed has had some problems with blindness caused by a hereditary retinal degeneration due to mutations in the rdAc gene, but with the advent of easily accessible rdAc testing, these concerns have been greatly reduced.
Abys are prone to gingivitis, which can lead to periodontal disease and tooth loss if not monitored. You can get into the habit of brushing your cat’s teeth yourself, but results may be mixed and it may not even be possible.
“You’re definitely going to have to start when they're young,” says Michelle Beck, DVM, CCRT, CVA, of the Backlund Animal Clinic in Omaha, Neb. “But honestly, it’s still probably not going to happen. I have two cats and while brushing their teeth is a great idea, it’s very difficult. Their mouths are very small; they’re going to hate being held like that. Regular vet visits and professional dental cleanings at least once a year is a safer way to go.”
“Temperament will vary from cat to cat, of course,” she continues, “and you might find luck with a particular cat. But by and large, I don’t think that’s a feasible thing to ask owners to do with cats.”
Though the Abyssinian is one of the oldest known breeds, their exact origins have always carried an air of mystery. For a number of years, it was popularly assumed they originated along the Nile river basin, and it’s easy to see why: One look at an Aby in a seated position is enough to see the easy parallels between the breed and the statues and depictions of cats in ancient Egypt. However, more recent genetic studies have shown the most convincing argument for their origins to be Southeast Asia and the coast of the Indian Ocean.
The oldest extant example of the cat that would become known as the Abyssinian is from the Leiden Zoological Museum in Holland, which has a taxidermied example that was purchased for the museum around 1834. That specimen is labeled “Patrie, domestica India”, giving further credence to the cat’s Southeast Asian origins.
The name “Abyssinian” comes from Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia), from whence the cats who gave birth to the breed were brought to England after the Abyssinian War in the 1860s. Those first cats featured the trademark ticked coats but were otherwise markedly different from today’s Abys, with stockier bodies and shorter ears. Once they were settled in the U.K., cross-breeding with local cats eventually gave birth to the Abyssinian cat we know and love today.
- In 2007, the Abyssinian’s DNA was decoded to help create a “rough draft” genome for the domestic feline. That decoding has helped our understanding of species domestication and provides insight into a number of feline diseases.
- An Aby was the titular feline in Disney’s 1978 film The Cat From Outer Space.
- The Abyssinian played a key role in developing Australia’s first pedigreed breed of cat, the Australian Mist, which is a Burmese/Aby mix.