The Havana Brown is one of several ancient cat breeds, including the Siamese and the Burmese, that’s said to have ties to Siam (today known as Thailand). Get to know the glossy, brown kitty with the sleek body and big green eyes.
1. THE BREED IS A 20TH CENTURY RECREATION.
Nobody quite knows when cats resembling today’s Havana Brown first developed, but historic records indicate that it was likely centuries ago. Produced sometime between the 14th and 18th centuries, a Thai manuscript called the Tamra Maew, or "The Cat Book Poems," provides an early depiction of the country's cats—including a feline that's said to resemble today's Havana Brown.
The cat first left its native shores when it was shipped to Britain in the late 19th century. Records describing the kitty's appearance reportedly referred to it as a "Siamese, with coats of burnished chestnut and greeny-blue eyes," and cat fanciers reportedly nicknamed the brown kitty the “Swiss Mountain Cat.” (It’s unclear whether they thought it actually hailed from Switzerland or not.)
The “Swiss Mountain cats” were exhibited in early cat shows across Europe, but as the Siamese cat’s popularity peaked, enthusiasm for its brown cousin waned. Thanks in part to new standards imposed by the Siamese Cat Club of Britain—who preferred cats with pointed coats and blue eyes—breeders stopped trying to continue the brown cat’s bloodline. By the end of World War II, very few, if any, of these brown cats still existed in Europe.
In the early 1950s, English breeders became interested in recreating the long-lost brown cat. They joined forces to develop a feline with a solid-colored body that matched the shade of a Siamese kitty’s chocolate brown points. By crossing seal point Siamese cats, chocolate point Siamese, domestic black shorthairs, and a little Russian Blue, the breeders eventually achieved their goal of producing a dark-colored feline that resembled its ancient ancestors.
By the 1950s, the British Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF) had accepted the glossy, dark cat for championship status. Around the same time, the first Havana Brown—a female cat named Roofspringer Mahogany Quinn—arrived in the United States. Today, most Havana Brown owners in the U.S. can trace their cat’s lineage back to her. In 1964, the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) officially recognized the Havana Brown for championship status.
2. IT'S UNCLEAR WHERE THE HAVANA BROWN GETS ITS NAME.
“Havana Brown” sounds less like a cat breed name and more like a trendy Pantone color. No one actually knows where the sleek kitty got this unusual moniker—and in fact, it was originally called the Chestnut Foreign Shorthair before its name was changed to the Havana Brown in 1970. (According to some sources, the cat was also called the Chestnut Brown, or the Chestnut Brown Oriental.)
Cat aficionados typically explain its origin with two stories: Some people say the feline was named after the Havana rabbit, a bunny that first appeared in the Netherlands in the late 19th century. It comes in several different shades, including a rich brown that some people say is similar to the Havana Brown cat’s coloring. Meanwhile, others say the Havana Brown was named after the rich, lustrous color of fine Cuban cigars. Both stories might be fictional—but they’re certainly fun to recount to other cat lovers.
3. THE HAVANA BROWN IS SUBTLY DIFFERENT FROM THE SIAMESE.
Early breeders used Siamese cats to create today’s Havana Brown, so the kitty is naturally compared to its sleek, pale relatives. The two have plenty in common: They’re both slender, medium-sized cats with short fur that have heads longer than they are wide. But if you look closely, you’ll see there are differences between the two felines. Aside from its darker fur and brilliant green eyes (the Siamese typically has pure blue eyes), the Havana Brown is a tad stockier than its lithe cousin, and its ears—which are large, round-tipped, and forward slanting—are subtly distinct from the Siamese cat’s "bat-like" flared ears. Its muzzle is rounder than the Siamese’s triangular one, and the Havana Brown is required to have brown whiskers.
4. THE HAVANA BROWN IS A RARE BREED.
Even though the Havana Brown came to the U.S. in the late 1950s, it’s still very rare in the U.S. According to the CFA’s 2014 registration statistics, the kitty was only the 36th most popular cat out of the organization’s 43 listed types. One article estimates that fewer than 1000 Havana Browns exist in the world—and while we don’t have any data to support this claim, Nancy Robbins’s book Domestic Cats: Their History, Breeds and Other Facts (2012) says that by the late 1990s, there were only 12 CFA-registered Havana Brown catteries, and only 130 unaltered pedigreed cats, left in the U.S.
5. THE HAVANA BROWN IS SIMPLY CALLED THE HAVANA (OR THE ORIENTAL) IN EUROPE.
The Havana Brown breed changed dramatically when it left England and came to America during the 1950s. UK breeders continued to further the Havana Brown bloodline by mating the kitty with Siamese cats, but in North America breeders did not use the Siamese. Today, there are two different-looking versions of the cat—one that’s European, and another that’s all-American.
The European cat is more angular, like the Siamese, and has a wedge-shaped head, straight profile, large ears, and an elongated body. From there on, things get a bit confusing: The International Cat Association (TICA) calls the cat the Havana, and accepts a version of the cat in lilac, or pinkish-grey. Meanwhile, other cat registries refer to this type of feline as a variant of another breed, the Oriental Shorthair.
All photos courtesy of iStock.