Thursday, February 2, 2012

Persian Cats

My "Persian":  Hershey

Hershey in the garden
Hershey was the most beautiful cat I’ve ever owned. I can’t say he was my favorite, because I like lap cats, and he never sat on my lap. Hershey had the sweet but cool personality that is typical of Persians. He would sleep on my feet when I sat at my desk, and he followed me around outside in the garden.
Hershey's mother was a pedigreed calico Persian, and his father was a neighborhood Siamese. The owner had brought in a Persian stud for her cat, but the mating was unsuccessful. Still in heat, the female went out and had an illicit affair, producing a litter of gorgeous but financially worthless kittens. Hershey was a real prize. I could have almost passed him off as a purebred Birman—a Siamese-Persian breed with perfectly matched white feet.
I was on a roll with color names for my cats. We already had “Silver" and “Midnight,” but what do you call a cat whose colors are white, cream, and chocolate? I named him after a candy bar. My son Chris said the name was stupid and called him “Foo.” Intelligent cat that Hershey/Foo was, he answered to both.
Hershey had Siamese intelligence, but not the Siamese voice. He spoke only when necessary, and then (usually) in a soft, high voice. But on rides to the vet, he screamed with the best of the Siamese. Once, when I was in the car with my daughter, we heard a sound so human that we looked at each other, and asked, “Did you say something?” No, it was Hershey.

Harrison Weir
All by way of introduction to the Persian breed. Despite its exotic name and looks, the Persian is essentially a European cat, a fact proven scientifically by Lyons, in a study which mapped out the phylogeographical structure of domestic cats. (See previous posts for what has been discovered about the uniqueness of the Siamese cat.) The story of the Persian cat is far hazier than that of the Siamese.  At the time that cat fancy began in Britain, Harrison Weir identified three breeds of long-haired cats: the Angora cat,  a slender blue-eyed cat with silky white fur, originating in Turkey; the Persian cat, a stockier cat with gray fur, of far more ambiguous ancestry; and the Russian cat, of even more ambiguous origin, but asserted to have wild ancestry. Weir, father of the cat fancy, wrote in 1889 that he believed there were very few true Angoras left in England. He had seen beautiful cats of a variety of colors, but thought most all of them to be mixed with European stock. There was just as much cross-breeding among the so-called Persians and Russians, Weir said, so that "even at our largest cat shows, for the best long-haired cat, there exists in the eye of the judge no distinction as regards breed." 

Angora or Persian? At the turn of the
 last century, it was hard to tell the difference.

Thus, the Persian is a European creation. In fact, the British Shorthair of today looks like a short-haired Persian, and has a similar temperament.


The Persian is the most recognizable breed, because of their flat baby face with large eyes and very short nose. They have a short and broad body, a massive short neck, short legs. It is the most popular breed in the Cat Fanciers' Association, the largest registry of pedigreed cats in the world. The Persian is slipping in popularity elsewhere, including in the main registry of Britain, where the British Shorthair dominates.

Persians come in many colors, including the Himalayan, also known as Colorpoint Longhair. At one time, the Himalayan was recognized as a separate breed, but it was learned that the Persian bred out of the cat after a few generations, reverting back to a Siamese cat. This is because the long hair gene is recessive. Every few generations, a white Persian must be bred back into the line for the cats to remain Persian.


The Persian requires extensive daily grooming. Although cats in general are lower-maintenance animals than dogs, Persians are high maintenance. Their long hair needs at least 15-minute daily brushing. The books also recommend regular baths. (I never tried baths with Hershey, but I did brush him. frequently. In the summer, he shed tons of thick fur that had grown in over the winter.) His eyes needed to be cleaned frequently.

Jubilee has Persian eyes, which must be cleaned.

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