The British Shorthair Cat Breeds Information
“Where there is one Englishman there will be a garden,” said A.W. Smith. “Where there are two Englishmen there will be a club.” And where there are three Englishmen, Smith might well have added, there will be a cat fancy.
The first modern-day cat show, the original standards for judging cats in competition, the first national cat club and the earliest comprehensive book on exhibiting cats were all produced in England between the particularly fertile years from 1871 and 1889. Prominently displayed, described, and dignified in those creations was a hearty race of British shorthair cat, whose ancestors had arrived in Northern Europe – and subsequently in Great Britain – courtesy of the Roman Empire and its soldiers nearly 1900 years before. During the intervening centuries, the “native” British Shorthair had developed into a strong, effective hunter as well as a loyal, level-headed companion.
Despite their working-class station in life – they had formerly been called mongrel or street cats – British shorthairs appeared in large numbers in cat shows at London’s Crystal Palace during the last quarter of the 19th century. There were classes for solid colors, tabbies, smokes, bi-colors, and tortoiseshells; but Harrison Weir, who founded the cat fancy and wrote the first set of standards by which cats were judged, “deemed it advisable… to give special prizes” to blue British shorthairs because of their beauty and popularity. Indeed, the best-in-show winner at the first cat show, held in the Crystal Palace in 1871, was a 14-year-old blue female that belonged to Weir.
“British blues,” as they were popularly known, were listed separately from the other non-foreign shorthairs by the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy in Great Britain for many years; and some people in this country occasionally refer to the British blue as though it were a separate breed here, also. It is not. It is, rather, one of a large variety of colors in which the British shorthair occurs.
First Aid Kits
Few things in life or in the cat fancy evaporate faster than popularity. By the turn of the century shorthair, domestic cats in Britain had declined in status from something of the cat’s meow to something that the cat fancy had dragged in and then abandoned. When longhair cats began to appear at shows in England, they attracted considerable interest.
“With the majority of fanciers, the long-haired cats are the most popular,” wrote English breeder and judge Frances Simpson in 1903. By that time Persians and other longhair cats – namely the Angora and the Russian – outnumbered shorthairs four-to-one at shows. After spending four and a half pages on longhairs, Simpson begins a two-page discussion of shorthairs with a less-than-enthusiastic “And now to consider …” When she does consider black-and-white and tabby-and-white shorthairs, Simpson declares, “It seems almost a pity to so far encouraging these cats as to give classes for them at our shows.”
Bad came to worse for the British shorthair during World Wars I and II. These conflicts had a detrimental effect on the cat fancy in England, and the British shorthair suffered a near-fatal setback. Breeders had trouble finding suitable studs for their females. Inspired by the twin needs of convenience and survival, British shorthair fanciers resorted to outcrosses to keep the breed alive. Their restorative of choice was the Persian, whose influence eventually spawned a new kind of shorthair cat. Originally described as having “small” heads; noses “rather long than short”; “long and slender” necks; and “narrow. . . graceful” bodies, British shorthairs metamorphosed into the short-faced, close-coupled minivans in fur that they are today.
The Persian influence enhanced the British Shorthair to such an extent that judges were quick to reward these hybrid cats in the show ring. Eventually, however, the breed purity police decreed that “any evidence of hybridization” was cause for disqualification in British shorthair classes, but by then so much hybridization had occurred that the regulation made as little impact as an unarmed policeman. Finally, the Persian was accepted as an allowable outcross for the British Shorthair in Great Britain. This development caused problems for Americans who wanted to import British shorthairs, because cat registries in North America would not register a cat unless it was descended from at least three generations of British-to-British breedings.
When the custom of recording cats’ ancestors began to take root in the United States, the first “American” shorthair cat registered by the Cat Fanciers’ Association was an orange tabby British shorthair male that had been imported from England around 1901. This cat was not only imported but also came flaunting the unlikely name of Belle.
The breed in which Belle and subsequent British imports were enrolled was simply called shorthair. Sometime later domestic was prefixed to that designation, a nod to the presence of “native” sons and daughters – many of unknown parentage – in pedigreed breeding programs in the United States.
Despite the importation of a number of shorthair cats in the early part of this century, American cat fanciers had trouble enough gaining the proper respect for the domestic shorthair without bothering to try to establish an imported shorthair in the bargain. Consequently, there was little continued American interest in pedigreed shorthairs from Great Britain until the mid-1960s. In 1970 the American Cat Fanciers Association became the first American registry to recognize British Shorthairs – in blue and black only. Eventually, all other colors of the breed were accepted by all associations. Today, more British colors are being seen on the show bench than ever before, and the solid – or blue self-color – is not as dominant as it once was.
Although the British Shorthair has achieved moderate popularity in the United States, where it ranked 18th out of 37 breeds registered by the Cat Fanciers’ Association last year, it is considerably more popular in its native land. The Governing Council of the Cat Fancy in England registered 4,572 new British shorthairs last year, an increase of 7 percent over the preceding year, and the British shorthair ranked 3rd out of 26 breeds registered in England during 1998.
The Building Code of British Shorthair
The British Shorthair is a medium-to-large-size cat with a round, substantial chest, broad shoulders and hips, and a level back. Its well-muscled body – “almost square” by some definitions – is supported by stoutly boned, short to medium legs that give the cat a low-slung appearance. This majestic package is wrapped in a short, dense, resilient coat that is somewhat longer than other shorthairs’ but never wooly.
A thick, bull-like neck supports the British shorthair’s broad, massive, well-rounded head, capped with small-to-medium-size ears that are broad at the base and round at the tips. Some associations decree that the base of the inner ear should be perpendicular to the outer corner of the eye, while others merely caution that the ears should be set wide apart but not extreme.
The British Shorthair has large, round eyes. Its nose is short but without a break (a change of direction where the forehead meets the muzzle). Ample cheeks and a well-developed muzzle give the British shorthair, in the words of one association, “a chubby chipmunk appearance.”
British shorthairs bear a remarkable likeness to a plush, stuffed animal. “They have that nice, lavish coat you can sink your fingers into,” says one British shorthair fancier. “And, they have a permanent smile on their faces.”
Temperamentally the British Shorthair is a quiet, unobtrusive cat, the polar opposite of the nervous, busy feline that has to be moving about all the time. In truth, the British certain possesses a certain British reserve. This is an affectionate cat that will seek out and enjoy attention, but quietly and without the clinging obsequiousness that characterizes some breeds of cats.