There is a huge variety of cat breeds these days. Not so long ago there were relatively few breeds – the well known Siamese, the fluffy Persian, and just a few others. But in recent years the number of breeds has proliferated, and breeders put in a huge amount of time, effort, and money to develop their breeds and sometimes found new breeds. So where did all this variety come from, and perhaps more importantly, where is it going?
There are some people who complain that historic breeds have moved away from the way they were originally. In some cases this has resulted in new breed clubs and even new registries, such as the Traditional Cat Association (TCA). Others are quite happy for a breed to change and develop. For instance, mainstream breeders say that the modern 'supermodel' look of the the Siamese, which are now very thin and elegant, is a 'refinement' of the original. But others disagree with this interpretation, and breed Traditional Siamese, and 'Old-Style' Siamese, which are broader and rounder and look more as Siamese cats used to. Similarly, some people bemoan the flatter faces of modern Persians, which are very different from the Persian cats of half a century ago, which look more like the modern Angora than what we now think of as a Persian cat. And disagreement continues as to whether the Birman is an eastern temple cat and an ancient breed, or a newer breed developed in the 1920s.
At the start of the cat fancy, there were very few breeds, all of them existing types. Today, even the most conservative registries recognise over 30 breeds, and the more liberal ones have well over fifty, with the number growing. Some of these newer breeds are foreign imports, long known in distant lands, but new elsewhere. The Maine Coon was unknown outside the USA for many years, but is now growing in popularity worldwide. The Norwegian Forest Cat, Turkish Van, and Siberian cat are similar examples of this. Other breeds are man-made, and exist purely because somebody found them beautiful. For example, the creator of the Burmilla was enchanted with the offspring of an accidental cross between a Burmese and a Chinchilla Persian, and perpetuated them to produce a breed. The Tonkinese arose in a similar way, as a cross between a Siamese and a Burnese. Rex cats and the hairless breeds have often been the result of a mutation producing one kitten with a different look, which a breeder then decided to develop into a new breed. Once the genetics behind feline traits were understood, people didn't just dream of their perfect cat; they set out to create it, and this is happening more and more.
One trend of recent years has been the rise of wild looking cats – domestic cats which resemble tigers, leopards, and similar big cats. The first hint of things to come was the spotted Ocicat. The California Spangled was briefly popular, but then people lost interest in it. The most recent step has been not just to breed cats that looked like wild cats, but to produce real hybrids. The first, and still the most widely accepted, is the Bengal, originally produced from an accidental mating of a domestic cat with an Asian leopard cat. Others followed, including the part serval Savannah, the Toyger, and the Chaussie. Bengals have now been pretty much accepted, but there are still those who claim that hybrid cats are unpredictable and unhealthy. However, modern Bengals are many generations from the wild cat origins, and most owners claim they are friendly relaxed, and make perfect pets.
The other fashion in recent years is in complete contrast to the Wild Cat trend. This has been the rise of what could be termed the 'lap cat'. The classic of this type is the Ragdoll, a breed whose unique selling point was the claim that it flopped placidly when picked up, although this is not strictly true. Nevertheless, Ragdoll cats are very placid and laid back, and their popularity suggested that what people really wanted was a dog-like cat. This may have led more generally to a change in how existing cat breeds are described. While once the aloof, regal image of the cat was iconic, breeders these days emphasise cuddliness and dependence, even in more traditional breeds.
Some people just want a cat that does not look like any other cat. Perhaps this accounts for the popularity of the hairless Sphynx, maybe the strangest looking cat breed around. Other people want to own polydactyl cats, ie cats with a larger than normal number of toes. Although many of the cat registries do not accept these, there are still breeders who produce them in response to popular demand. Similarly some people look for rexed versions of ordinary breeds, such as the 'Maine Wave', a rexed or curly haired Maine Coon, of which a small number appeared in the 1980s. This cat now appears to have almost died out. Other breeders just want to develop new colours of existing breeds, or long haired versions of short haired cats. Sometimes short haired versions of long haired cats are developed too, such as the popular Exotic – a short haired Persian, with the relaxed Persian temperament but requiring none of the intensive grooming of the Persian..
So how will cat breeds develop in the future? No-one can really say, but with newer breeds proliferating in recent years, it seems likely that this trend will continue. Some are likely to be wild looking and beautiful, others laid back and friendly, still others strange and unusual. Meanwhile there will always be those who like their cats looking more traditional, and the way cats have always looked. All that can be said for certain is that cat owners and breeders have different tastes, and it is now becoming easier to develop cats that suit everyone.