Want a high-energy cat that’s as lively as it is lovely? Consider the Abyssinian, affectionately nicknamed the Aby. The short-haired feline is a popular pet choice among cat owners, who prize it for its intelligence and playful disposition. Here are seven facts about one of America’s most beloved breeds.
1. The Abyssinian cat is not actually from "Abyssinia."
Contrary to its name, the Abyssinian cat isn’t actually from Abyssinia, which is a historical name for Ethiopia. The name stems from the popular belief that British soldiers who fought in the Abyssinian War returned to England in the late 1860s with cats they had purchased from local traders. Modern-day genetic research suggests that the cat may have gotten its unique coat pattern from felines who lived in coastal areas of northeastern India or parts of southeast Asia. The breed itself is likely a fusion of tabby British shorthairs and a mysterious imported breed.
Another fanciful origin story is that the Abyssinian is descended from ancient Egyptian cats. This is likely due to their long necks, big ears, and almond eyes, which make them resemble paintings and sculptures of the revered animals.
2. They appeared in early cat shows, breed books, and museums.
No one quite knows when Abyssinian cats first arrived in Europe. However, an Aby made a splash at what's often considered the world's second major cat show, held at London's famed Crystal Palace venue in 1871. Harper's Magazine wrote that the feline was thought to have been "captured in the late Abyssinian War." While that might not have been true, the exotic-looking Abyssinian still won third place.
Abyssinians were also mentioned in one of the earliest English cat breed catalogs. The section included a colored lithograph of a cat named Zulu, who was described as belonging to a Mrs. Captain Barrett-Lennard. Sure enough, the myth that the cat hailed from North Africa persisted: "This cat was brought from Abyssinia at the conclusion of the war …” read the caption.
Meanwhile, the Leiden Zoological Museum in Holland also acquired a stuffed Abyssinian cat purchased around 1834 to 1836. The cat is labeled "Patrie, domestica India," suggesting that the cat indeed hails from Asia instead of Africa.
3. Abyssinian cats have "ticked" coats.
Aside from its almond-shaped eyes, pointed face, and slender, athletic body, an Abyssinian is instantly recognizable by its short, “ticked” coat. Thanks to a genetic variant of the tabby pattern, each hair is banded with alternating light and dark shades, ranging from lighter at the base to darker at the tips.
Abys are born with dark coats, which gradually lighten after a few months. Color-wise, the most widely recognized hue for Abyssinians is a ruddy brown. However, Abys come in several other shades, such as cinnamon, blue, and fawn.
4. An Abyssinian cat's DNA was sequenced.
In 2007, scientists used DNA taken from a four-year-old Abyssinian cat named Cinnamon to sequence the first "rough draft" genome for the domestic cat. Their goal was to find out more about the 250 diseases that affect both felines and humans. So far, the draft genome has helped researchers discover several cat disease genes and learn more about the species’ domestication.
5. An Abyssinian cat starred in a movie.
Long before ALF creator Paul Fusco produced Space Cats, the short-lived 1990s TV show about alien felines, Walt Disney Productions released a film called The Cat From Outer Space. The 1978 movie stars an extraterrestrial Abyssinian named Jake whose spaceship crash-lands on Earth.
6. Abyssinian cats love to jump, climb, and play.
Looking for a cat that’s more of a livewire than a couch potato? The Abyssinian is the pet for you. The feline has a predilection for swinging from curtains and jumping onto high surfaces. (When we say high, we mean high—Abys can leap six feet or more into the air.) Thanks to this trait, they're known as one of the most playful cat breeds.
7. Australia's first pedigreed cat is part Abyssinian.
In the 1970s, an Australian woman named Dr. Truda Straede decided to breed a new feline that possessed attributes of all her favorite cat types. Over the course of nine years, Straede crossed an Abyssinian, a Burmese, and Australian domestic shorthair cats to create a custom breed dubbed the Australian Mist.
The Mist was the first pedigreed cat to be developed Down Under. It boasts the muted coloring and relaxed personality of a Burmese; the liveliness and ticked coat of an Abyssinian; and the marbled stripes and strong immune system of a mutt.
A version of this story originally ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.