The beautiful Norwegian Forest Cat is becoming increasingly popular, both as a pet and on the show bench. But not many people know about its history. Indeed some think it is the same breed as the Maine Coon, which has fairly similar looks. It is possible that the two breeds have the same ancestry – see later in this article. But they are more likely to have arisen completely separately.
As with many old breeds, a number of myths and legends have grown up concerning the cat's origins. In Norway, these cats were originally thought of as fairy cats. A naturally large breed, they were said to be so huge that not even the gods could lift them. One tale relates how Thor, the strongest of the gods, lost a contest of strength to Jormungand, who was disguised as a Forest cat. Jormungand was the serpent son of Loki, god of mischief and deceit.
Breeders from Finland describe the Norwegian Forest Cat as the 'mystic wildcat of the fairy tales.' Norse mythology tells that these cats were the favourites of Freyja, goddess of love, fertility and the hearth. Freyja travelled in a chariot drawn by either two white or two grey Norwegian Forest Cats. Legend says that the presence of the goddess passing through the countryside caused seeds to sprout and grow. Farmers who left out pans of milk for her divine cats were supposed to be blessed with bountiful harvests. Freyja also symbolized domesticity, and she was often portrayed with Norwegian Forest cats playing around her feet. Lovers wanting to marry used to ask for the blessing of Freyja and her cats. Besides the Norwegian Forest Cat’s role in transporting Freyja about the countryside, they drove her into battle against the Aesirs, the gods of the dark side. They also pulled her chariot to the funeral of Balder, the god of beauty and kindness.
It is known from archeological evidence that the domestic cat was well established in Scandinavia before 1000 AD. The Vikings had traded throughout Europe and even had direct links with the Ottoman Empire. So there were a number of routes through which cats could have arrived in Norway. It could be that the mutation for long hair, thought to have arisen in the near East, arrived in Scandinavia well before it was imported into western Europe in the ancestors of the Persian.
Some people even suggest that the forebears of the Norwegian Forest Cat travelled to North America with the expeditions of Leif Erikson around the year 1000, forming a foundation stock that later became the Maine Coon. This would explain the similarities between the two breeds, and is a good story - but the trouble is that there is no evidence to support it! It is not even certain that the longhair gene was present in Scandinavia at this time.
So the breed's origins are in fact lost in the mist of time. The only thing that is certain is that long haired cats had a great advantage over their short haired cousins when it came to living in the harsh climate of Scandinavia. In addition, the muscular build of the ancestors of the Norwegian Forest Cat made them fearsome predators – cats who were quite able to take care of themselves. So over time, long hair became more common in Scandinavian farm and household cats, and they were more prevalent than short haired cats. But no-one really regarded the long haired cats of Norway as a separate breed until the 20th century.
In the late 1930s, examples of the Skaukatt or Norsk Skogkatt (literally Norwegian Forest Cat) were shown in Germany, to great acclaim. A group of breeders made efforts to preserve the type that had evolved before it faded back into the general feline population. This is always a risk with an unrecognised breed, particularly one with long hair, since this is a recessive trait which would be lost in any crossbreeding with shorthairs. World War II interrupted these efforts, but in the 1950s the task was taken up again. Eventually a formal breed club was established in 1975. The Norwegian Forest Cat reached full championship status in FIFe in 1977, and was also designated the official cat of Norway by King Olaf.
Two years after attaining full recognition in Europe, Norwegian Forest Cats reached the USA, where they were soon nicknamed 'Wegies'. They were recognised by TICA first, in the 1980s, then the CFA and other associations. In the UK, the GCCF began registering the cats in the 1980s, and from a very small start the Norwegian Forest Cat rose to just outside the top ten breeds within twenty years.
he Norwegian Forest Cat is only allowed in the traditional so-called 'Western' colours, ie black, blue, red, cream, tortie, and blue tortie. 'Eastern' colours – chocolate, lilac, cinnamon, fawn, and caramel – are not permitted. So it was an unpleasant surprise, at least for those interested in breeding and showing, when kittens that appeared to be lilac and chocolate turned up in a litter in Sweden in 1993. As it turned out, these apparently Oriental colours were not what they seemed to be. These colours were in fact something new – they change markedly as the cat matures, so that kittens born with black or blue in their coats can later become reddish or yellowish. They have been called 'fox colours', 'x colours', or 'amber colours'. FIFe has now settled on calling the 'amber' and included them within the colour classes, but only as the trait affects black and blue coats. It is generally felt that there needs to be more clarity on how the mutation affects other coat colours and how it can be distinguished from red and cream, before there can be wider acceptance.
Today the Norwegian Forest Cat is widely known and loved on both sides of the Atlantic. Its popularity has extended far beyond Norway, and this looks set to continue.
If you are looking for a cat in the UK, you can visit our Norwegian Forest Cats for Sale section.