Nearly 5,000 years ago, North African wildcats wandered in from the wilderness that surrounded settlements in Egypt. The wildcats, which survived by eating the rodents that scavenged grain stores, gave birth to kittens, which were taken in by the people who found them. The cats that grew into ferocious adults were returned to the wild, while the gentler cats were kept and bred. Today, the cat is a universally popular pet with 60 million of them kept in U.S. homes alone.
As the domestic cat population grew, genetic mutations occurred such as variations in the color of their fur, which also began to vary in length and thickness. Early cat breeders selectively encouraged these changes, and over the course of thousands of generations, nearly 60 breeds of cats have come into existence.
Different breeds of cats exhibit distinctive traits, which are most apparent in purebred felines. Possibly the most telling characteristic is their fur, which ranges from the long hair of the Maine coon and Persian to the nearly hairless sphynx and occurs in almost every color. The Abyssinian has large ears and eyes, markedly different from the almond-shaped eyes of the Siamese and Balinese. The Himalayan Persian may share the same type of rounded eye as the Abyssinian, but it distinguishes itself with its small ears that tilt at a forward angle.
New mutations will inevitably give rise to new cat breeds -- it's fascinating to think about what types of cats may exist a hundred years from now -- but breeding should always be left to professionals. Those owners who improperly breed at home are responsible for the millions of cats that are forced into shelters each year. To avoid improper breeding, be sure to have your cat spayed or neutered by your vet.
Marc Morrone, pet expert