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The semi-longhaired Somali cats have become one of the most popular breeds with their distinctive features of dramatic bushy tail, arched back and an impression of walking on tiptoe. Because of their original 'ruddy' (golden brown) colour and bushy tail they were sometimes known as 'fox cats', and it's very easy to see why. They derive from the Abyssinian breed (initially as a complete surprise to the Abyssinian breeders when they appeared unannounced in litters of kittens), and are now often described by devotees as 'Abyssinians in an Overcoat'! The two breeds have many similar characteristics, including their intelligent and playful temperaments, although the Somali tends to have a more laid-back personality, with an alert expression that gives the impression of smiling, and, given half a chance, they will demonstrate their abilities as a natural hunter.
The genetic roots of this breed go back to the early breeding of Abyssinian breeds in Britain during the 1940s, when longhaired kittens sometimes appeared unexpectedly in Abyssinian litters, but nothing much was thought of it at the time. A British breeder named Janet Robinson exported Abyssinians to Europe, the USA, Australia and New Zealand that were later found to carry the longhaired gene and descendents of these Abyssinians sometimes produced fuzzy-coated, dark kittens. In 1963 a Canadian breeder called Mary Mailing entered one of these new variants in her local cat show. One of the judges, Ken McGill, asked her for a similar kitten to breed from, and before long the first 'intentional' Somali was born as May-Ling Tutsuta. When these longer-coated kittens with bushy tails had first appeared in the USA in the 1950s in some Abyssinian litters, many breeders originally thought that they were simply a spontaneous mutation of the Abyssinian breed. However, one American Abyssinian breeder named Evelyn Mague, who was also interested in this longhaired variety, subsequently discovered that the longhair gene may well have been introduced by the cross-breeding of Abyssinians with longhaired cats in Britain, when 12 such cats had been registered with the National Cat Club in 1905. She began a breeding programme with a Canadian breeder called Don Richings, who was using Ken McGill's stock, and from here the Somali was officially born and named as a new breed. The first pure Somalis were imported into the UK in 1980, and by 1991 the breed had gained worldwide recognition.
The Somali should be a beautifully balanced, semi-longhaired cat of medium build and foreign type. The head is broad and curving to a firm wedge set on an elegant neck. The body is firm and muscular of medium length, with a fairly long tapering tail. The head, body, legs, feet and tail should be in proportion, giving a well-balanced appearance, with an alert, almost smiling, expression. The coat Somali is ticked, and each hair has between three to twelve bands of colour in two different shades. The bands themselves are darker than the base colour and produce a glossy, vibrant sheen when the cat is in full coat during the winter. The Somali is now bred in 28 colours in the UK, including usual (a ruddy-red colour), sorrel (an apricot-copper), chocolate, blue, lilac, fawn, red, cream, plus an array of shades of tortie, silver and tortie-silver. Like Abyssinians, they have a dark rim around their eyes that makes them look as if they are wearing theatrical eyeliner and and they have a small amount of white on their muzzles and chins/throats. The eyes are large, almond-shaped, set obliquely and well apart, expressive and bright in shades of amber, hazel and green, the brighter the better. The Somali coat tends to be shed once or twice a year in one go, rather than like the Persians who shed throughout the summer. When they are in full coat, they have a very splendid ruff and breeches effect.
Somalis are very affectionate cats, giving as much love and attention as they receive. They make perfect family pets, always wanting to be in the centre of things, never just sitting in a corner hoping to be noticed. They are very conversational cats, enjoying a good chat with their owners, and yet their voices are not harsh and said to sound more like a chirrup than a conventional meow! They are easy going, sociable cats, getting on with other members of the family, both human and pet. They are fascinated by water, and can open doors quite easily so you may need 'child-locks' for cupboards that they really shouldn't investigate. They will probably find plenty to entertain them inside without wanting to go out of doors, and will be perfectly happy as indoor cats if that suits your lifestyle best. They are good at retrieving objects that are thrown for them and will love to play with a variety of toys. However, they will always appreciate the company of at least one other cat if you are going to be out during the day.
This is generally a very healthy breed of cat without any breed-related defects, and they can live up to 14-16 years. The Somali needs annual vaccination boosters against the common feline ailments of flu and enteritis, as well as against Feline Leukaemia if they go outdoors.
Very cccasional combing will be the only grooming that you will need to give this cat as the coat very rarely gets tangled or matted and stroking will normally remove any loose hairs - they so thrive on human attention that they won't even notice that you are grooming them, and will just treat it as a bonus cuddle! As a larger breed, they may eat a little more than some other breeds. They will eat most good quality brands of cat food, but will also enjoy treats of cooked chicken, ham and grated cheese. However, cows' milk will probably give them a stomach upset, and a bowl of water should always be available.