Longhaired cats have always been sought after and admired. Because the gene for long hair is recessive, most moggies are shorthaired, so longhaired cats have always stood out from the crowd. For many people, the words 'longhaired cat' and 'Persian cat' are identical; even today, many people think that any longhaired cat is a Persian. But of course this is not the case these days. Nevertheless, the most distinctive feature of the Persian cat is its long, luxurious fur, and the second thing you notice is the breed's short nose and rather flat face. So where did this popular breed come from?
As with many breeds, particularly ones which have been around for a long time, there are a number of myths and legends concerning their origin.
A 14th Century Persian myth sings the praises of the Persian cat hero in the great battle of the cats and rats. The rodents, the story goes, had superior weaponry, but the Persian felines had their natural defences - claws, wits and fangs. In the final battle, the hero cat was taken prisoner. In one version of the tale, the rats were victorious as a result of this manoeuvre. In other versions, however, the cat hero is greatly underestimated by the rat leader, who merely ties him to a stake. With 'the claw like an eagle and the tail of a serpent', the Persian cat hero bursts his bonds and single-handedly routs all the rats.
Another legend has the first Persian cats as mystical cargo stealthily hidden among the rare jewels and spices of middle Eastern trade merchants. Longhair cats were said to be secreted in baskets of frankincense and myrrh, and were to be traded with British aristocracy. The cats were called 'Persians' after their country of origin, but historical references as early as 1684 B.C. dress their precise origin in the mysterious cloak of an ancient land.
Another legend tells of a spark of fire, the shimmer of far away stars, and a curl of grey smoke being melded into the first Persian cat by a wizard of this ancient land!
So what is the truth? Longhaired cats were brought to Europe from both Persia and Turkey in the 16th and 17th centuries, and it is generally thought that the mutation for long hair arose there. It is possible that some longhaired cats came over earlier during the Crusades, but this is uncertain. The first imports to be reliably recorded were in the 17th century, when longhaired cats were brought from Persia to Italy, and also from Turkey to France. Although today we have both the Persian and the Turkish Angora, they did not descend separately from these two cats. The longhaired imported cats were interbred, and it was said that the Persian and the Angora were one and the same. Indeed, when they arrived in England in the 19th century they were even known as French cats!
Persians were one of the first breeds to be recognised by the cat fancy, and were given their own standard in the late 19th century. However, the standards in both the UK and USA originally classed all longhaired cats as Longhairs, and each colour as a separate breed This has changed over the years as other distinctive longhaired cats came along and were recognised, and now the breed, in all colours, is recognised by all major registries internationally and known as the 'Persian' everywhere. But with this history, it is not surprising that to many people the words 'longhair' and 'Persian' are synonymous, since for a long time that was indeed the case.
The early Persians looked nothing like the Persian cats we know today. Indeed, they were more like the modern day Angora, with longer noses and less luxurious fur which required somewhat less care. But admired traits changed over the years, and, in much the same way as the Siamese has become longer and leaner, winning Persian cats acquired flatter faces and shorter noses, along with more abundant fur. Some people have questioned whether this is a good thing, since the shortened noses makes Persians more prone to breathing and eye problems, and the ultra-long fur means that Persians have no chance of being able to look after themselves without human intervention. Health concerns have led some breeders to breed for longer noses, and the Traditional Cat Association now has its own standard for Traditional or Doll-Face Persians.
Persians have been perceived as high status pets ever since they first appeared. When showing began, they were less popular in the USA than the Maine Coon, but became by far the most popular breed in the 20th century and still lead there by a four to one margin. Elsewhere they are becoming slightly less popular; in the UK they are now in fourth place in the GCCF's list of most popular breeds. This may be due to the amount of time required to groom and care for a Persian cat, which people find hard to find in the modern world. Every year, many Persian cats need to be re-homed since their original owners cannot cope with the time and commitment required.
In the 1930s, American geneticists investigating coat patterns crossed Siamese cats with Persians. The resulting kittens were longhaired with points like the Siamese, and the cats were named Himalayans, after Himalayan rabbits with a similar pointed pattern. However, they were not developed as a breed. In Europe there was already a pointed longhair called the Khmer, and separate efforts were made to create a pointed Persian. The GCCF recognised the Colourpoint pattern as part of the Persian breed in 1955, and the Khmer was absorbed into the group, which became known as Colourpoint Persians. Renewed interest in North America led to acceptance there is 1961, where the breed is known as the Himalayan. Colourpoint Persians have blue eyes like Siamese cats, and come in the same range of pointed colours. They also tend to have very slightly longer faces than other Persian cats.
If you want a Persian cat, they are relatively easy to find, you can view our Persian Cats for Sale section. But do bear in mind that their care requires a lot of time and patience. Do not add to the people who give up their Persian cat for re-homing as they cannot cope!