Say “Persian cat” and most people think of something longhaired, elegant and quiet. And so they are, although they probably aren’t from Persia.

Their longhaired ancestors were brought to Europe from Turkey around 1520, and Europeans (and later Americans) were taken with these lovely creatures. (One proof of their popularity in the United States: there are more Persians registered with the Cat Fanciers’ Association than any other breed.)

The Persian (or Longhair, as the British call this breed) is fairly stout–bodied and has the trademark “pushed-in” nose, round face, round eyes and soft voice. The Persian is the quintessential lap cat, even though Persians surprise their owners with their mousing ability.

Their long hair is beautiful but needs regular grooming with a fine-toothed comb, particularly if the cat is allowed to wander outside. British (but not American) breeders consider the various Persian color types to be separate breeds.

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Longhairs, in general

Genetically, short hair is dominant in cats, meaning that the default setting for the hair of domestic cats is short, just as it was for their wild ancestors. But there is a recessive gene that results in long hair, and the breeding of longhaired cats was a fairly simple matter of getting together males and females who shared the recessive gene.

Where exactly this first occurred isn’t known for certain, though it was probably in central Asia (which would include Persia, the country we now call Iran). We have it on good authority that some of these longhairs reached France and Italy sometime in the 1500s, and from there they reached other countries in Europe.

No one tried very hard to be “scientific” about naming cats, so longhaired cats might be called Russian, French, even Chinese. (Obviously “Persian” was one name that caught people’s fancy and stuck.) Europeans, especially aristocrats who could afford to buy exotic beasts, were enchanted by longhaired cats, as are millions of people today.

In the descriptions of the longhaired breeds that follow, note that many of them began as longhaired mutations of an existing shorthair breed; for example, the Balinese are descended from longhaired kittens that showed up in litters of normally shorthaired Siamese.

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black and orange.

Calico cats, however, also have a lot of white—in fact, a mix of white, black and orange (or cream) in clearly defined patches—whereas tortoiseshells are black all over with the orange appearing as highlights all over. Put another way, calicos’ coats give the impression of being stitched together from various large scraps of white, black and orange.

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“Lilac” and “apricot”

Here are two other coat color names that, like blue, aren’t meant to be taken quite literally. Lilac, which has also been called “lavender,” is basically a beige-gray or a light brown-gray but is distinctive in having (barely) a hint of pinkish purple. (The colors purple and brown are not that different, as any artist would tell you.)

“Apricot” is a cream color that (again, barely) has a hint of orange-red. Neither lilac nor apricot seems to occur in nature; they are the result of selective breeding.

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“Blue” (but not really) and “ginger”

cat shows, there are no gray cats, only blue ones. (As far as that goes, no human or cat is naturally “red,” yet when we refer to a cat or person having “red” hair, people know exactly what we mean.) Likewise ginger is applied to orangey-coated cats, even though real ginger (the spice, that is) is brown, not orange.

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True tortoiseshell (the shell of an actual turtle, that is) is black with attractive highlights of orange or cream. It has been used for centuries in making furniture inlays and ornamental articles, such as hairbrushes.

The name has long been applied to cats whose coats resemble tortoiseshells—that is, black cats with highlight patches of orange or cream. These beautiful cats are often referred to as “torties.” People often confuse the terms tortoiseshell and calico, but the two are not the same.

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When a cat has a “tipped” coat, the individual hairs are not the same color from root to tip. Rather, the tips are of a contrasting color compared to the rest of the hair. If the tipping is light, the cat is a Chinchilla. If the tipping is medium, the cat is Shaded. And if the tipping is heavy, the cats are Smokes.

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The unicolor

Some cats are consistently the same color all over—that is, each hair is the same color from tip to root, and hairs all over the body are the same color. Among cat fanciers, this is referred to as the “self coat” pattern. It is very attractive, but so are the various patterns listed next.

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“Classic tabby”

As you might guess from the name, the tabby cat is so named because of the coat pattern that people associate with the word tabby. The cat’s coat has clearly defined bands on the body. There are also bars of this darker color on the face, and there is a defined M-shape of the darker color on the cat’s forehead.

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The true meaning of “tabby”

In times past, “tabby” could refer to any house cat, though this name was more often used to refer to a female (as in “toms and tabbies”). Later it came to mean a cat whose coat showed bands, or stripes, of a darker color than the base color. Strictly speaking, there is no cat breed named “tabby,” but, as you will see in the following entries, the word tabby is used among cat fanciers to refer to several types of coat patterns.

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Don’t call it “mane”

lion its distinctive look, has its counterpart in several longhaired breeds of cats. In house cats, however, this thick growth of hair around the face is not a mane but a ruff. (Remember that in the 1500s, a ruff was a very fancy type of lacy starched collar worn by people of the upper classes.) Fans of Persians consider the ruff to be one of this breed’s most attractive features.

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