Vital Stats:Life Span: 11 to 16 years
Showing cats was all the rage in the late Victorian era. One of the unusual breeds exhibited at the Crystal Palace Cat Show in 1871 was an Abyssinian—“captured in the late Abyssinian War”—who took third place. The report on the cat show, published in the January 27, 1872, issue of Harper’s Weekly, was the first known mention in print of the breed. Unfortunately, no records exist regarding the cats’ origins, although myths and speculation abound, including claims that it was the cat of the pharaohs, and that it was created in Britain by crossing silver and brown tabbies with cats that had “ticked” coats.
Today, genetic evidence suggests that the cats came from Indian Ocean coastal regions and parts of Southeast Asia. British and Dutch traders may well have brought the cats from ports such as Calcutta, India, or the islands of Indonesia. A taxidermied specimen of a ruddy ticked cat exhibited in the 1830s at the Leiden Zoological Museum in The Netherlands, where he was labeled “Patrie, domestica India,” gives creedence to that theory. The cats were probably given the name Abyssinian because Zula, the cat exhibited at the Crystal Palace, was said to have been imported from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). Early pedigrees show crosses to non-Abyssinian cats, which may explain the introduction of new coat colors and the gene for long hair.
Enter the Somali. This longhaired variety of the Abyssinian was first noted in the early 20th century and probably came about when breeders introduced longhaired cats into their breeding programs to augment their stock—especially after World War II, when Abys were few and far between—but they weren’t developed as a breed in their own right until the 1960s and 1970s. They were given the name Somali as a nod to that country’s geographic status as the next door neighbor to Ethiopia (formerly known as Abyssinia).
This is a medium-size cat weighing 6 to 10 pounds.
Like his sibling the Abyssinian, the Somali lives life to the fullest. He climbs higher, jumps farther, plays harder. Nothing escapes the notice of this highly intelligent and inquisitive cat, a quality that makes life with him both endlessly entertaining and continuously challenging. Staying a step ahead of a Somali, or even just keeping pace with him, requires the fancy footwork of a Fred Astaire, the brainpower of an Einstein and a sense of humor that never stops. You never know what he’ll get into next, although you can assume that if you have something or are doing something, your Somali will want to investigate it closely.
Sometimes it may seem as if the Somali never sleeps. He is ever in motion, jumping up in the window to look at birds or squirrels, leaping on top of the refrigerator to supervise meal preparation, perching on your desk to watch your fingers move over the keyboard and then swiping at them so you’ll pay attention to him instead. This is a playful, persistent cat who adores being the center of attention and will do anything to achieve and maintain that status.
The Somali loves to play, so plan on making or purchasing a variety of toys to keep him occupied. Ping-Pong balls, bottle caps, wadded-up pieces of paper, puzzle toys and teasers such as big peacock feathers will all amuse this busy and brainy cat. Teach him to retrieve at your peril. Once you start, he won’t let you stop. He learns tricks quickly and many Abys enjoy running a feline agility course.
A love of heights is a signal trait of the Somali. He likes to be as high up as possible and will appreciate having one or more ceiling-height cat trees. When those aren’t available, he is perfectly capable of making his way to the uppermost point of any room. Fortunately, he is naturally graceful and rarely breaks items unless it is simply out of curiosity.
Somalis are adaptable throughout their lives and fit well into any home where they are loved and given plenty of attention. In a home where people are at work or school during the day, the Somali does best with a companion, ideally another Somali or Aby, who can match his activity level. If left to his own devices, the Somali may well dismantle the house in his search for something interesting to do.
Beware! The Somali can be addictive. Once you’ve had one, you may find that no other cat will do.
Both pedigreed cats and mixed-breed cats have varying incidences of health problems that may be genetic in nature. Problems that may affect the Somali include the following:
- Early-onset periodontal disease
- Hyperesthesia syndrome, a neurological problem that can cause cats to excessively groom themselves, leading to hair loss, and to act frantically, especially when they are touched or petted
- Patellar luxation, a hereditary dislocation of the kneecap that can range from mild to severe. Severe cases can be alleviated with surgery.
- Progressive retinal atrophy, a degenerative eye disease.
- Pyruvate kinase deficiency (PKD), for which a genetic test is available to identify carriers.
- Renal amyloidosis, a heritable disease that occurs when a type of protein called amyloid is deposited in body organs, primarily the kidneys in Abyssinians. It eventually leads to kidney failure.
The medium length coat of the Somali needs a moderate amount of grooming. Comb the coat once or twice a week with a stainless steel comb to remove dead hair, prevent or remove tangles, and distribute skin oils. In the spring, when the cat is shedding his winter coat, you may need to comb him daily. A bath when the cat is shedding will help to remove excess hair more quickly. Check the tail for bits of poop stuck to the fur and clean it off with a baby wipe.
Brush the teeth to prevent periodontal disease. Daily dental hygiene is best, but weekly brushing is better than nothing. Trim the nails every couple of weeks. Wipe the corners of the eyes with a soft, damp cloth to remove any discharge. Use a separate area of the cloth for each eye so you don’t run the risk of spreading any infection. Check the ears weekly. If they look dirty, wipe them out with a cotton ball or soft damp cloth moistened with a 50-50 mixture of cider vinegar and warm water. Avoid using cotton swabs, which can damage the interior of the ear.
It’s a good idea to keep a Somali as an indoor-only cat to protect him from diseases spread by other cats, attacks by dogs or coyotes, and the other dangers that face cats who go outdoors, such as being hit by a car. Somalis who go outdoors also run the risk of being stolen by someone who would like to have such a beautiful cat without paying for it.
Coat Color And Grooming
Except for the additional length, the Somali has the same ticked coat as the Abyssinian. A ticked coat has alternating light and dark bands of color on each hair shaft. The Somali’s ticking may be slower to develop than that of the Aby.
Everything about him suggests his lively, attentive nature. The Somali has a slightly rounded wedge-shaped head topped with large, broad ears, the better to hear you with. Large, almond-shaped eyes of gold or green express interest in everything they see. On the face, dark lines may extend from the eyes and brows.
The muscular body is graceful and athletic. It falls into a middle ground between the stocky, or cobby, body of a breed such as the Persian and the long, svelte body of the Oriental breeds such as the Siamese. The body is supported by slim, fine-boned legs atop small, oval, compact paws. Somalis are often said to look as if they are walking on tip-toe. Swishing behind them is a full brush, or tail, thick at the base and slightly tapering at the end.
Its bands of color give the Somali’s coat a warm, glowing appearance. To the touch, the medium-length hair is soft and silky with a fine texture. The Somali stands out from the Aby for the ruff around his neck and the “breeches” on his legs, which give him a more full-coated appearance than the Aby. Horizontal tufts of fur adorn the inner ears.
The coat comes in four main colors: ruddy brown, more artistically described as burnt sienna and ticked with darker brown or black, with tile-red nose leather and black or brown paw pads; red (sometimes called sorrel), a cinnamon shade ticked with chocolate-brown, with pink nose leather and paw pads; blue, a warm beige ticked with various shades of slate blue, with nose leather described as old rose and paw pads as mauve; and fawn, a warm rose-beige ticked with light cocoa-brown, with salmon-colored nose leather and pink paw pads. Some associations permit additional colors, including chocolate, lilac, and various silver tones.
Children And Other Pets
The active and social Somali is a perfect choice for families with children and cat-friendly dogs. He will play fetch as well as any retriever, learns tricks easily and loves the attention he receives from children who treat him politely and with respect. He’s smart enough to get out of the way of toddlers but loves school-age children because they are a match for his energy level and curiosity. Nothing scares him, certainly not dogs, and he will happily make friends with them if they don’t give him any trouble. Somalis have also been known to get along with large parrots, ferrets and other animals. Always introduce any pets, even other cats, slowly and in a controlled setting.