Are the Abyssinian, Egyptian mau, chausie, and sphynx really from the heart of the Nile? These striking kitties have some truly interesting history.
Egyptian cat breeds are synonymous with hieroglyphics, ancient tombs, and the Egyptian goddess, Bastet. Although technically not worshipped as folklore has us believe, fine felines from this region were still prized by pharaohs—so much so, many were buried with them. In fact, ancient Egyptian cat mummies are domestic cats, not wild animals.
Does this mean all cats come from Egypt? Not exactly. In fact, not even all breeds considered Egyptian are from the area! (More on that in a moment).
Uncovering the Mystery of Egyptian Cat Breeds
Rowyn Rose is a science communication specialist with Basepaws, a cat DNA test brand. She tells Daily Paws that the oldest known archeological deposits with co-occurrence of cat and human remains date to 9,500 years ago in Cyprus south of Turkey—around 5,000–6,000 years before the ancient Egyptian civilization existed.
“Genetic studies have determined that all domestic cats, including purebred and free-roaming cats, are descended from the North African/Near Eastern subspecies, F.s. libyca,” Rose says. “Domestication likely occurred in the Fertile Crescent (the Levant, southern Turkey, and Iraq) of western Asia.”
Rose adds that modern-day cats rarely have ancestors of a defined breed, because the extremely short history of human-driven selective cat breeding has yet to overcome the much longer history of cats reproducing freely on their own.
So this means that Egyptian cat breeds ancestors are, in Rose’s words, mutts. “The selective breeding of cats for certain desirable traits—primarily aesthetic in nature—has a very short history of only 50-100 years, so our concept of the purebred or pedigree cat is a very new one,” she says. “This means that the feline genetic code has remained exceptionally diverse, even within established pedigree breeds.”
Now that we totally have your curiosity piqued, let’s take a closer look at some Egyptian cat breeds, mixed breeds—and one imposter!
The Egyptian word for cat is mau—pronounced MAH-oo, which might sound like meow sometimes! A rare purebred, currently there are only 7,000 of the unique spotted Egyptian maus registered with the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA).
While all historical evidence suggests the mau is Egyptian, Rose says DNA studies reveal that the breed we know today is actually mostly of European and North American origin. “Based on genetic analysis, the mau is very closely related to the Maine coon, Korat, Turkish van, and American Turkish Angoras (not native Turkish Angoras),” she adds. Nevertheless, maus have roamed their namesake country for many millennia. In 2018, the Jakarta Post reported the discovery of a 6,000 year old pyramid complex, where archeologists unearthed numerous ancient Egyptian maus in both mummy and statue forms.
Engaging and intelligent, Egyptian mau cats are also sweet lovebugs, adoring their human family and usually one person in particular. Quite alert, they especially enjoy surveying their world from on high, so make sure their cat tree is tall—and they’ve been known to spring to heights of 6 ft. with ease. Oh! And they love water!
The full origin of the Shirazi is unknown, but Rose says a commonly accepted story is that this mixed breed was first brought to Europe in the 1620s by an Italian named Pietro Della Valle as a souvenir from Persia, now Iran. Although they likely have mau genes in their mixed ancestry, Shirazis might not be the most ancient Egyptian cat breed.
In 1871, Persians were presented at the world’s very first cat show in London and won best in show. Interestingly, though, Shirazis are currently considered crossbreeds and aren’t registered with any organizations.
You’ll notice characteristics of Persian lineage, especially with their long, flowing smooth coats in varying patterns, such as tabby and blended bronze and golden. The Egyptian Mau Rescue Organization states that Shirazis are smart, playful, and affectionate cats who have a laid-back nature and are exceedingly fond of snuggles.
Nile Valley Egyptian Cat
This pretty kitty, another mixed breed, is a hard one to pin down! Nile Valley Egyptian cats are believed to be native Egyptian maus, and Rose says some feline experts think they’re the ‘missing link’ between an African wildcat progenitor and the fully-domesticated cat. They’re considered one of the few small spotted cats naturally-occurring (not bred by humans) in the world.
Rose adds there are many reports of challenges they face in Egypt, which they largely seem to inhabit as street cats and struggle in cat colonies. A dedicated nonprofit, the Nile Valley Egyptian Foundation, works to rescue these at-risk kitties and find forever homes for them in the U.S.
They share the maus’ similar tender temperaments and curious natures, but might need a little extra love (OK, a lot!) and positive reinforcement training to make the transition into their adopted home environment a good fit.
“The name chausie (pronounced CHOW-see) derives from the Latin name for the jungle cat, felis chaus,” Rose says. “The chausie’s massive size—ranging 8–16 pounds, they’re one of the top 5 largest domestic cats in the world—has inspired some interesting references to the breed, including that they resemble an ‘Abyssinian on steroids’ and are the Arnold Schwarzenegger of cats.”
According to The International Cat Association (TICA), these jungle–domestic cat hybrids explored the world, popping up centuries ago as far away as Southeast Asia and India. But the first recorded deliberate breeding of the two occurred in 1990. The chausie earned TICA foundation registration status in 1995, and Championship status in 2013.
No nook or cranny is safe from an inquisitive and clever chausie. He’ll be an active pet—and with the right harness, probably the perfect adventure cat! Many purrballs are content to sleep most of the day, but not this cutie. He’s always up for nuzzling head bunts and besting engaging toys.
This is the premier Egyptian cat breed, right? Profiled in all the mastabas (‘houses of eternity’), papyrus scrolls, and ancient artifacts. Believed to be the goddess Bastat in cat form. Except …they’re not Egyptian natives. Whhaaaat?
“According to the CFA, recent genetics research provides insight into the possible origin of the Abyssinian breed, tracing it to the coast of the Indian Ocean and areas of Southeast Asia,” Rose says. “Although the Abyssinian as a breed was refined in England, its introduction to that country and others may have been the result of colonists and merchants stopping in Calcutta, the major port for the Indian Ocean.” Additionally, the name ‘Abyssinian’ comes from Abyssinia, now modern-day Ethiopia.
No matter. This sleek companion will always be a regal feline representative in our eyes, and they’re one of the most popular cat breeds in the world for a reason. Naysayers who claim cats are aloof have obviously never met the Abyssinian social butterfly. Almost dog-like in their attention toward their favorite humans, they’ll follow you around, endlessly interested in what’s going on and asking questions about this and that. Expect plenty of pounces from this brainy, athletic kitty when squaring off with interactive toys, too!
This rare mixed-breed beauty prompts a lot of questions, as she’s relatively new to the cat world. Also technically not an Egyptian cat, she appeared on the scene in the mid-1980s as a crossbreed between the wild African serval cat and a domestic Siamese—hence the name Savannah, a reference to the grassy plains servals call home.
Truly a brilliant feline, it’s best to keep a Savannah entertained. You’ve heard of clicker training for cats? She’s a top contender for that, as well as other seemingly non-cat activities, such as indoor treadmills or hiking. Build a multi-level catio to cater to her need for untamed explorations. Savannah cats are also extremely social, bonding easily with humans and other pets.
Here’s another interesting point. Rose says although all cats face a certain risk of developing some health issues that may be genetically inherited, there are currently no known genetic health conditions tightly associated with this particular breed.
Aha! You knew we’d have to get to this guy eventually! Although often thought of as an Egyptian hairless cat breed, the Sphynx is actually a lovable imposter from the Great White North. “Sphynx cats originally came from Canada, and completely accidentally,” Rose says. “One of the first ancestors to the popular breed was Prune, a hairless kitten born in 1966 in Toronto to a black and white domestic cat, Elizabeth.”
Prune was bred with a European Devon rex to create a hairless breed, once referred to as the Canadian hairless cat. But because they so closely resembled cats in Egyptian mythology, the name was changed to Sphynx. Myth: busted! Further breeding to correct health issues created the sweet wrinkled kitty we know today. They entered the CFA’s Championship class in 2002.
Here’s another myth busted: they’re not completely hypoallergenic (no feline is, really). Although they don’t have fur, they still produce the allergen Fel d 7 in their saliva.
Just because they’re snuggly doesn’t mean they’re only trying to stay warm (although they do love snazzy sweaters!) Sphynx cats are devoted to their people, and sometimes suffer from separation anxiety if you’re away too long. So dedicate some quality ‘you and kitty’ moments each day to enrich their lives with activities and playtime.