The Maine Coon is a natural breed of cat native to North America. These cats are beautiful, big, furry, easygoing, companionable, and intelligent. A generous armful.
America's only natural breed of domestic cat is the descendant of ships' cats who arrived in Maine over several centuries beginning with the early fishermen and traders. They lived on the edge of coastal settlements in barns and other outbuildings. Cats from ports all over Europe were shaped by Maine's climate, especially its long harsh winters, into the Shag, the cats who in the hands of cat breeders became known as the Maine Coon Cat. The Shag can still be found in Maine as pets, farm cats, and feral cats. There are smaller populations in the Atlantic coastal regions of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
There are many stories of the Maine Coon Cat origins for which there is no evidence, either fossil, genetic, or human record.
(1) One such tale has Skogkatts arriving with the Vikings and interbreeding with small native wildcats—there were no such native cats, and recent genetic studies have found no affiliation between Skogkatt descendants and Maine Coon Cats.
(2) A similar tale has European domestic cats interbreeding with Maine bobcats—while this has been done by modern breeders in a few isolated events, there is no genetic evidence of the bobcat in the Maine Coon Cat.
(3) Another tale has Marie Antoinette's pet Turkish Angoras shipped to Maine (without her) and begetting ancestors of the Shag—if they did arrive (in 1793) they would have been met by European cats already in place and have added their genes to the pool.
(4) The silliest tale is that the cats have raccoon ancestors as evidenced by the similarity in tails—actually this is absurd because raccoons and cats cannot interbreed, even if they wanted to (and raccoons are notoriously vicious).
Recent genetic studies have found affiliations of the Maine Coon Cat with British Shorthairs, Ragdolls, Russian Blues, and American Shorthairs.
The origin of the domestic cat is also being revealed by genetic research.
At the inception of the Maine Coon Cat as a recognized breed, individual cats were accepted as "foundation cats" based on their appearance. Two such famous cats, who began the Heido Ho lineage, were found by Connie Condit: Andy Katt was found in Maryland and Bridget Katt was found in Florida. Their grandson Heidi Ho Sonkey Bill was born in 1978 and is the ancestor of a great many existing Maine Coons, including mine.
The Maine Coon Cat was adopted by the Maine Legislature as the state cat on September 19, 1985.
The appearance of the Maine Coon Cat reflects their adaptation to the cold and snow of Maine winters. Their body is rectangular and generally large; 20-pound cats are common, 25-pound cats are rare. Their coat is thick, multi-layered, shaggy, short on the back, and long on the belly and britches. Their hair is fine. They have a neck ruff. Their tail is long, thick, and flowing. They have lynx tips on their ears and hair tufts between their toes. They have long whiskers. The traditional eye color is green-gold.
There are solid colored cats: black, white, gray ("blue"), black and white, blue and white, and calico. There are tortoiseshell colored cats where black and red are brindled. There are tabbied cats: brown, orange ("red"), gray ("blue"), cream, silver, and tabbied tortoiseshell ("torbie"). Tabby cats may have white areas, especially on their paws, chin, and belly.
A breed standard is a written description of an ideal cat that guides breeders and judges in their evaluation of individual cats. It is a goal and it is subjective. The breed standards for TICA, CFA, and MCBFA (see Registries) are basically the same, although they are worded differently. We quote the TICA standard here because that is the one by which our cats were judged.
HEAD Medium size; broad, modified wedge; square muzzle. Firm chin, in line with nose and upper lip. Profile is gentle concave slope. High, prominent cheekbones; distinct stop can be felt under cheekbones.
EYES Large, slightly oval, wide-set. Any shade of green and/or gold. Blue and odd-eyes accepted on whites.
EARS Large, tall ears, wide at base. Bases no more than an ear's width apart. Furnishings and lynx tips.
BODY Large, long, rectangular body. Broad chest. Substantial boning and musculature. Medium long neck.
LEGS AND FEET Legs medium in length; large, round feet, well-tufted.
TAIL Wide at base and tapering to tip. At least as long as the body from shoulders to base of tail. Full, long, flowing fur with a slight undercoat.
COAT Uneven length; shorter over the shoulders, becoming gradually longer down the back and side, with long, full shaggy britches and belly fur. Frontal ruff.
There is a lot of variation by individual cat, not, as supposed, by sex—each cat is an individual! Breeders generally aim for gentle cats because a nasty 20-pound cat can be dangerous.
We find that Maine Coons are generally intelligent, loving, friendly, companionable, energetic, athletic, fun-loving, adventurous, and clever. They can easily jump five feet in the air. One of our cats once jumped from the floor to the top of the kitchen cabinets. Blondie is adept at opening drawers and cabinet doors. Captain Courageous opened every door during the short period of time during which our home had door levers instead of door knobs. Miss Spice used to jump to the top rail (one inch wide) of my pencil post bed and walk around it, sometimes in the dark. At certain times of the day the cats rocket around the house, imperiling all breakables. Well, not quite, because all breakables have been already broken or put safely away.
Cats typically adopt certain "practices". Blondie is a "bath cat" that appears next to the tub at the end of my bath. She also gets in my lap towards the end of breakfast when I put a cup of tea on the table. And she likes to crouch on my chest (and be petted) before I get up from bed in the morning. Captain Courageous likes to lick the coconut oil off my body when I've just got into bed. He also likes to taste test the meat when I've started to cut it up for the cats' dinner. And he likes to keep me company when I'm working on the computer; he usually sits in front of the monitor.
Maine Coons generally have soft, small voices and speak in chirps and trills. Miss Spice always chirped before jumping.
Maine Coons take awhile to grow up—about four years. But they are always kittens at heart—alert, lively, and engaged.
Maine Coons shed, and all that lovely fine hair floats about the house and gets everywhere. "At our house, cat hair is a condiment." I am constantly removing cat hair from my clothes.
A cat breed is defined by a set of traits, especially appearance. A cat breed is a classification of domestic cats lower than a subspecies. A cat is considered to be of a certain cat breed if it is truly reflects the traits that define that breed. Two cats of the same breed will accurately reproduce the traits of that breed in their offspring.
Cat breeds come into existence through one of three ways: (1) naturally through environmental conditions, (2) natural mutations, and (3) cross-breeding. The first and second ways develop natural breeds.
A natural breed is a breed of cat which occurred naturally and is not the result of deliberate human-controlled crossings between other breeds. The breed is usually a result of geographical and environmental conditions. Natural breeds can also be hybrids and mutations.
The basic stock of domestic cats are natural breeds: Persian, Siamese, Russian Blue, Turkish Angora, Turkish Van, Norwegian Forest Cat, Siberian, Singapura, Chartreux, Korat, Egyptian Mau, Birman (Sacred Cat of Burma), Japanese Bobtail, and Maine Coon Cat. This list is not meant to be all inclusive.
The domestic cat, Felis silvestris catus was found (in 2007) through genetic testing to share a common ancestor with Felis silvestris lybica, the North African Wildcat and the Near Eastern Wildcat. Furthermore there are five separate lineages (ancestors and their descendants) indicating that domestication happened five separate times. These lineages began in the Fertile Crescent more than 10,000 years ago!
A cat whose ancestry is registered officially is called a purebred cat. Purebred cats are bred only from members of a recognized breed over many generations. A pedigree is a register recording a line of ancestors. A registry is (1) an official record book and (2) an organization that maintains official pedigrees. These organizations ensure that only qualified cats are registered as belonging to a given breed; cats are qualified by virtue of being able to prove their parentage.
Purebred kittens offer the reassurance of being able to accurately predict their grown-up looks and behavior: They will become what their parents are.
Not all Maine Coons are purebred cats. Because the Maine Coon is a natural breed, there are still wild populations of them in and near Maine. And there are domesticated descendants of those cats. I expect most of the latter reside in and near Maine. So if you are in Maine and see a cat that looks like a Maine Coon, it may well be one. However, if you live in California, as I do, and see a nonpedigreed cat that looks like a Maine Coon, it most likely is not.
I often hear people say they have a cat that must be a Maine Coon because it looks and acts like one, or that someone told them was a Maine Coon mix. This is highly unlikely. Stay with me for a minute to hear my reasons. The domestic cat has within its gene pool all the characteristics you have seen in various cats, and then some. Long hair, short hair, straight ears, folded ears, short square bodies, long tubular bodies, lynx tips, no lynx tips, etc. The characteristics that are consistently found in Maine Coons are what define the breed, however they are not the only cats to have those characteristics. So lynx tips do not a Maine Coon make. Nor does a shaggy coat. Nor does a fondness for water or speaking in cheeps and trills.
Furthermore, reputable breeders do not allow their cats to breed with non-Maine Coons. Neither do they allow their kitten buyers to do this. Yes, it probably does happen, but not with the frequency that I hear those comments.
How do they get those colors? It's all in the genes, which are transmitted to offspring in predictable ways. The subject can be discussed at book length (and has), but is condensed here to the main points; even condensed, there are a lot of details!
Genetics involves germ cells, chromosomes, genes, and alleles. The nucleus of each cell in the body contains chromosomes. Each chromosome is composed primarily of DNA which has thousands of genes. Each gene controls the development of a specific characteristic of the cat. Each gene has its own position (or "locus") on its chromosome. Some genes have one or more variants that together comprise a group, one of which can occur at the gene's locus. An allele refers to one of a group of genes that can occur at a given locus.
The cat as an entity commences life as the union of two germ cells, an egg and a sperm. The nucleus of each germ cell contains 19 chromosomes. The joining of the two germ nuclei forms a common nucleus (containing 19 pairs of chromosomes, or 38) that enables the egg to commence development as an independent entity. The fertilized egg is tranformed into an embryo and then into a fetus with a body and germ cells of its own.
The basic small wild cat (Felis silvestris) is a short-haired black mackeral tabby. The tabby pattern of solid black mackeral stripes is set on an agouti background. The agouti background is characterized by hairs which have alternating bands of yellow and black pigment. There is great variation possible in the amount of solid black in the stripes and both the deepness of the yellow color and the thickness of its color bands in the agouti. When the black stripes are narrow and the yellow is a rich orange with thick bands, the cat looks more brown than black. This is why the cat fancy calls these cats "brown tabbies".
Here's a list of the genes involved in Maine Coon Cat coat colors:
You need to know a few more terms before the effect of these genes can be explained.
Character refers to a distinguishing inherited characteristic; each aspect of coat color can be said to be a character. Generally, each character corresponds to a gene. Expression refers to the visible appearance (manifestation) of a character.
When a pair of genes (at the same locus in a pair of chromosomes) consist of the same allele, they are said to be homozygous for the corresponding character. When a pair of genes consist of two different alleles, they are said to be heterozygous.
Genotype is the word for the genetic makeup of a cat. Phenotype is the word for the expression of a cat's genetic makeup. When a pair of genes are identical (homozygous), the cat's phenotype is the same as their genotype. When a pair of genes are dissimilar (heterozygous), the cat's phenotype may be different from its genotype; in this case, the phenotype reflects the dominant genes.
Dominance describes the effect of two different alleles at the same locus. Basically, an allele is dominant if, when it exists as only one of a pair, its character is visible in the phenotype. Dominance can be complete or partial. It is not uncommon for one or more alleles of a group to be incompletely dominant to each other, especially those at the bottom of the scale of dominance. Also, the group often affects the particular character (feature) in a progressively severe manner.
Recessive alleles only express themselves when paired with the same allele in the other chromosome.
Some alleles mask the effect of genes at different loci. Masking is called epistasis. While all cats are tabbies (genotype), some alleles can mask the tabby pattern resulting in solid colored cats (phenotype). A ghost tabby pattern visible in a certain light or on young cats is an example of masking that may not be complete at all times or stages of growth.
Some forms of heredity are discrete or discontinuous because the characteristics involved are sharply defined. For example, a solid black and a tabby. Other forms exhibit continuous variation. An example is the variation in intensity of yellow pigmentation which can range from cream to beige, ginger, orange, and rich red orange (sometimes called mahogany). Some of the variation is genetic (and inherited) and some is not. The genetic component is the result of many genes each having minor effects; these are called polygenes. The extreme forms breed relatively true: red tabbies produce red tabbies. Cross-breeding can be expected to have intermediate effects.
Polygenic variation can be subdivided into two groups:
(1) the "pure" state, where no major genes are involved; and
(2) where the variation is associated with the presence of a major mutant gene. An example of (1) is body size and conformation; the individual characteristics of size and shape, like boning and leg length, do not vary independently but are correlated. The second group is more common. Examples include long hair, yellow pigmentation, and blue color. In these cases the associated polygenes are considered to be modifiers.
Three groups of polygenes have been named (although their existence is still tentative). Rufus is the group affecting the intensity of yellow pigmentation. Dilution is the group affecting the depth of blue. Ticking is the group controlling the amount of agouti ticking in the tabby areas.
The basic coat colors in cats are yellow and black; hair color is caused by pigmentation. "Yellow" is the name for a color that can range from cream to beige, ginger, orange, and red orange; this range is often referred to as intensity. The absence of pigmentation is white.
Every cat contains genes for each of the colors; their appearance (phenotype) depends on which alleles are present, their expression, and which characters are being masked.
The Agouti gene has two alleles: agouti (A) and non-agouti (a). The A allele is dominant. The agouti pattern is characterized by hairs which have alternating bands of yellow and black pigment. Solid black color is the result of the non-agouti allele. Solid black masks tabby patterning.
There are two tabby alleles in Maine Coons: mackeral tabby (T) and classic tabby (tb). The T allele is dominant. In the mackeral tabby the solid black stripes run around the legs, body, and tail. In the classic tabby the solid black areas on the sides are rosettes. The tabby pattern includes a small amount of white around the chin. In cats with a poor tabby pattern there is little difference between the two colors.
"Tabby" has its origins in the Arabic word "attabi" which meant moiré. Moiré is a French word for a wavy wattered appearance (as in wattered silk).
The Solid White gene has two alleles: solid white (W) and non-white (w). The W allele is dominant and suppresses (masks) all other color pigmentation.
The White Spotting gene has two alleles: white spotting (S) and non-spotted (s). The S allele is incompletely dominant to non-spotted. There are grades of spotting that reflect its extent, typically from 1 (little spotting) to 7 (mostly white). The expression of white is very irregular, so that it may be difficult to distinguish between heterozygotes and homozygotes. Spotting variability is partially due to polygenes; it is also due to erratic (non-genetic) development of the white areas during embryonic growth. As a result, no two spotted cats are identical.
The Solid White and White Spotting genes are found on the same chromosome, and are thus transmitted to offspring as a unit.
A red cat is more accurately described as orange; "red" is the word used by the cat fancy for the phenotype. A red cat has hair whose pigment is completely "yellow" (although it can vary in intensity, see the discussion of polygenes); it has no black banding. A red tabby has dark "yellow" stripes on a light "yellow" background.
Because the gene is called Orange, I'll use that word here. The Orange gene has two alleles: Orange (O) and non-orange (o). The O allele is dominant. The O allele masks agouti and non-agouti (solid) but not tabby, thus there are red tabbies but no solid red cats.
The extra complication here is that the Orange gene is sex-linked—it is carried only on the X chromosome. A male, with but one X chromosome, can be orange or not, but a female, with two X chromosomes, can be orange, orange and black (tortoiseshell or calico), or non-orange (black).
The Dilute gene has two alleles: dense pigmentation (D) and dilute pigmentation (d). The D allele is dominant. The dilute allele causes black and yellow pigment to be diluted in intensity: Black is diluted to slate-grey or "blue" and red is diluted to cream. The gene used to be called Maltese after the blue short-haired cats of the same name.
The Inhibitor gene has two alleles: pigment inhibition (I) and normal pigmentation (i). The I allele is dominant. The inhibitor allele suppresses the development of pigment (melanin) in the coat hair, especially at the base of the hair. Its typical expression is white hair with colored tips. It has a greater effect on agouti areas between the tabby stripes. There is a wide variation in expression. The tabby pattern is difficult to recognize in a long-haired cat.
Silver is a typical phenotype for tabbies (with tabby pattern on a white background). Silvering reduces the muddiness of blacks and blues. Solid colored cats have an undercoat that varies from white—rarely—to off-white and bluish. Solid colored cats have three phenotypes that vary by the degree of inhibition: smoke (least), shaded (moderate), and chinchilla (most).
Cameo is the word used for red cats with the inhibitor allele. Cameo is a blend of orange tipping or veiling over a whitish background. In a tortie cameo, the non-cameo areas can be shaded-silver, chinchilla, or smoke. The tabby genes are relatively unimportant; it is suspected that classic tabbies produce darker-shaded forms while mackeral tabbies produce lighter-shaded forms. The (smoke) cameo has rather dense veiling; the shaded cameo has less intense veiling; and the shell cameo has the least veiling. In very light cats, only the tips are orange. Essentially, cameos appear to be white cats frosted with orange. There are also cream cameos, identical to the red cameo with the exception of the addition of the dilute allele.
There is lots of confusion and disagreement about how cats come to be silvered and/or tipped. This discussion of the Inhibitor gene is only one theory.