The Persian Cat – The Breed Cat’s Pajamas

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The Persian Cat - The Breed Cat's Pajamas
The Persian Cat - The Breed Cat's Pajamas
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The Persian Cat – The Breed Cat’s Pajamas

The snub-nosed Persian Cat ranks number one among cat fanciers. Believed to have originated in Asia Minor, the Persian’s European debut is credited to Pietro Della Valle, an Italian writer, and traveler. The look of the modern Persian Cat has changed drastically since the days of Della Valle.

In 1903 Frances Simpson, an English cat breeder, and judge declared there should be two separate breeds of Persian Cat — the longhair and shorthair. At this same time in the United States, there were several separate standards for Persian cats. Whatever physical standards the Persian Cat may meet, this aristocrat of catdom is well known for its charisma and loyalty.

Persian Cat Is the Top Cat

As the Persian Cat goes, so goes the cat fancy. There are stars and there are superstars, trends and megatrends, plans and master plans. There are 40-some-odd breeds of cats, depending on who’s counting, and there are Persians cats. No offense meant, and none taken I hope, by the faithful communicants in the other denominations of the Feline Church of What’s Happening Now; but when pushed-in-face comes to shove, the Persian is the cat’s meow and the cat’s pajamas, too — the once and present and most likely future pastor of the four-legged congregation in fur.

These days the pastor, like the rest of the pedigreed assembly, is living in somewhat reduced circumstances. Since 1990, when the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) enrolled a record 84,729 new cats and kittens (a record 60,661 of which were Persians cats), registration figures have fallen like a barometer in Kansas when there’s a twister in the works. By 1997, after seven consecutive years of diminishing returns, CFA’s new registrations had dropped to 65,183, a free fall of 23 percent. During those seven years of famine, Persian registrations fell even more freely — to 39,119, a 36 percent plunge. Not to put too blunt a point on things, but if pedigreed cats were a money-market fund, you’d be wise to look for a different broker.




Persian Cat – Scenic Cruise

Admittedly the Persian’s stove-in face is not everyone’s cup of tears. Anybody who owns a Persian Cat has probably been asked by some comedic genius: “What happened to your cat’s face? Did it run into a wall?”

Sometimes that comedic genius is a writer. About six months ago a British newspaper article describing a lost Persian Cat waiting to be adopted from a cat shelter carried the following headline: “All little ugly wants is a little love … Snub-nosed Persian Cat needs a home.” We do not agree with anyone who says Persian cats are ugly, and despite the breed’s present reversal of fortune, let us not forget that three out of every five cats registered these days are Persians. What’s more, this cat possesses a grand, illustrious heritage.

Persian cats are thought to have originated in Asia Minor. They first appeared in Europe — most likely in Italy — early in the 17th century. Pietro Della Valle (1586-1652), an Italian traveler and author, is often credited with being the agent of their importation. A well-schooled member of a noble family, Della Valle left Venice in June 1614, on a pilgrimage that ultimately lasted a dozen years. His travels were inspired, in the beginning at least, by an unfortunate love affair.

Persian Cat – What Grand times those Must Have Been?

When the lovelorn and the heartsick go on a pilgrimage nowadays, they’re most likely to travel through an Internet chat room, a karaoke bar, the local Borders or a Club Med cruise. Della Valle, for his part, went from Venice to Constantinople, Alexandria, Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus, Aleppo and Baghdad. Thanks to the restorative properties of travel, he was able to set aside his melancholy long enough in Baghdad to marry a nice Syrian Christian named Maani, who accompanied him on his further travels.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “It was probably on account of his marriage that [della Valle] visited Persia, for the parents of his wife had been robbed by Kurds. In 1618 he was hospitably received in Northern Persia by the Shah Abbas the Great.”

Acting as the mediator between the shah and the Christians of Persia, Della Valle spent four years exploring that country. Then he spent two years in India, finally returning to Italy in 1626 with his second wife, his first wife having died in 1621.

Della Valle wrote 54 letters describing his adventures on the road. They were published in three volumes between 1650 and 1653. In one letter he rhapsodized over “a species of cats” in the Persian province of Chorazan whose beauty consisted “in the color of their hair, which is gray, soft as silk, and so long that … it forms ringlets in some parts, particularly under the throat.” Della Valle described these gray, longhair cats as “very tame” and reported that the Portuguese had brought them from Persia to India. He also reported that he planned to bring home “four couple” of these striking felines from Chorazan province.




If You’ve Seen One

More than a century after Persian cats was first seen in Europe, the French naturalist Count de Buffon (1707-1778) observed that Persians “have a perfect resemblance to the cat of the Angora.” Thus, de Buffon theorized, Persians and Angoras “constitute but one race, whose beauty proceeds from the particular influence of the climate” in their place of origin.

While de Buffon believed that climate had created “the most beautiful and longest hair” on Persians and Angoras, their coats probably resulted from a more elementary influence: a recessive, mutation gene that was preserved among the cats living in the confined mountain areas of Turkey and Persia.

By today’s standards, incidentally, the original Persian’s coat was relatively short and somewhat coarse. Indeed, the 17th and 18th-century Persian bears about as much resemblance to the late-20th-century model as a crossbow does to an MX missile.

The English Patient – Persian Cat

Pietro Della Valle was not the only traveler to return to Europe with longhair cats from Persia and Turkey. Other tourists, inspired by the popularity and beauty of these exotic creatures, brought additional longhairs to France and, finally, to England, where they were known as French cats until the middle of the 19th century.

Despite these differences, the two types were bred together interchangeably, and their offspring were cataloged and judged under the simple descriptive designation longhairs. Gradually, however, the Angora gave way to the Persian, as did the Russian longhair, a cat that was seen for a time at early shows. By 1903, Frances Simpson, an English cat breeder, author, and judge declared, “There are two distinct breeds, viz., the Long-haired or Persian Cats, and Short-haired or English and Foreign Cats.”

The Governing Council of the Cat Fancy, organized in England in 1910, decided that all cats with long hair — be they Persians, Angoras, Russians or all of the above combined — should continue to be called longhairs and that each longhair color should constitute a separate breed.

Persian Cat – Colors of the Wind

When the cat fancy was getting a claw hold in the United States around the turn of the century, Americans had been importing Persians from England for several years. Nevertheless, until the early 1900s, the Maine coon cat was the dominant longhair at shows in this country. In 1903, the year that Frances Simpson wrote Cats and All About Them, separate standards existed in the United States for blue Persians, orange Persians (both solid colored and tabby), creams (also know as fawns), orange-and-white cats (longhair and shorthair) and white Persians, which were judged in two classes — one for blue-eyed-whites, the other for golden-eyed whites. There were also separate standards for shaded silvers, chinchillas, and tortoiseshells. As in England, Persian cats were registered as longhairs. This custom, which still persists in England today, obtained in the United States until the mid-1950s when Persian, which had long been used as an informal designation, became the official name of the breed, and all Persians were expected to conform to the one standard.

Today, the gray, longhair species that Della Valle described 375 years ago has blossomed into a colorful array. Indeed, so plentiful are the Persian colors that they have been sorted into various color divisions: solid, silver-and-golden, shaded-and-smoke, tabby, parti-color, calico-and-bicolor, and Himalayan. (In most associations the Himalayan is still considered a separate breed rather than a variety of Persian. Himalayans, of course, were created by crossing Persians with Siamese, and Persian cats are still allowable and necessary outcrosses in Himalayan breeding programs.)

The Persian Cat - The Breed Cat's Pajamas
The Persian Cat – The Breed Cat’s Pajamas




Persian Cat – The Mogfather

Although the Persian Cat looks like — and is — the aristocrat of the cat fancy, the breed’s quiet charms, and devotion are its greatest treasures. Few stories we have seen recently better illustrate the Persian’s capacity for companionship than the tales of George A. Smallsreed Jr. and Marco Milano.

Smallsreed, who died last May 16 at the age of 75, was a racetrack photographer. His longtime companion, a male Persian Cat named Whitey, had died in 1991 in his 18th year. Smallsreed told friends and relatives that when he died, he wanted his cremated remains mixed with Whitey’s, which he had saved. Their ashes, said Smallsreed, should then be scattered at various harness tracks. Unfortunately, a probate court prevented any items from being removed from Smallsreed’s house – including the vase with Whitey’s ashes in it on the mantlepiece. Therefore, until his estate is settled, only Smallsreed’s ashes can be scattered at racetracks holding memorial services in his memory. Nevertheless, a fellow photographer reserved some of Smallsreed’s ashes in 35-millimeter film canisters so that one-day Smallsreed and Whitey will be reunited.

Marco Milano’s story is somewhat less homespun than Smallsreed’s, though no less affecting. Milano, a Mafia member who fled Italy for Canada to avoid the attention of Italian police, agreed in May 1997 after three years on the lam to give himself up, providing be would be allowed to share his prison cell with his Persian cat, Minu. Nicknamed The Mogfather by one writer, Milano, then 36, voluntarily returned from Montreal with Minu after obtaining a pledge from Italian authorities that Minu would be allowed to stay with him at the Sicilian prison where Milano will serve an eight-year sentence for Mafia association.

The Persian Cat Building Code

Through scores of generations of selective breeding, Persian Cat fanciers have honed, refined and polished their creations — and challenged the wisdom of nature along the way. For nature, it has been said, would never have designed a cat that has to wear a bib in the show hall — and sometimes at home — to keep itself clean while it eats. Yet what is animal breeding about if it isn’t about pulling the wool over Mother Nature’s eyes on occasion? And no other cat breed does this with the mellow, seductive, laid-back elan of the Persian. Everything about the cat — beginning with its long, stunningly foppish coat — flaunts a calculated triumph of the recessive over the reasonable.

The Persian sports a broad, massive, carved-out-of-stone head; small, wide-set, almost invisible ears; big, poppy, drive-a-truck-between-’em eyes; and a short, short, short snub nose — so short you often need a search warrant to find it. This arresting head is connected by a size-19 neck (resembling a linebacker on steroids) to a body that is cobby with a capital C, has five-fathom depth throughout shoulders and chest, a hind end like a quarter horse, a tail short enough to be an afterthought and legs like miniature redwoods. All of this substance is wrapped in a stylish, super long coat that manages to be dense in texture and cloudlike in an appearance at the same time. This glorious coat features an immense ruff that continues in a deep frill between the front legs, and pantaloons on the hind legs that cede nothing to the most elaborate, falling-off- the-butt hip-hop trousers.

Such a coat is not without imperatives, however. The Persian’s celestial beauty must be maintained with the earthly toil of combing and brushing on an almost daily basis. The Persian’s face, which is subject to staining and caking from inadequate tear drainage, must also be washed virtually every day.

Persian Cat Personality Profile

Persians Cats are the most mellow, sedentary and equable cats ever created. Sweet of expression and temperament, soft to the touch and to the ear, they are the perfect companions for a quiet, rainy-afternoon nap or a late-night curl-up by the fireplace with a book. As one cat-show judge said to The Florida Times-Union regarding Persians, “If you’re a couch potato, they’ll lie on your lap all day.”

Yet Persians Cats are not totally inert, nor completely incapable of mischief. A Persian Cat named Munchkin who lives in Northwich, England, is suspected of summoning the police to his startled owner’s door. After the woman had convinced the police she hadn’t dialed the 999 emergency number, they were at a loss to determine who had used her phone to dial the number and then whine into the receiver. They got their breakthrough clue when they noticed Munchkin sitting on a windowsill by the telephone. “Munchkin must have sat on the telephone,” said his owner, Linda Seymour, 31, “and somehow [he] activated the hands-free button and dialed the emergency number. The operator could hear him crying and called the police.



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