The Persian is a long-haired breed of cat characterized by its round face and shortened muzzle. Its name refers to Persia, the former name of Iran, where similar cats are found. Recognized by the cat fancy since the late 19th century, it was developed first by the English, and then mainly by American breeders after the Second World War. In Britain, it is called the Longhair or Persian Longhair.
The selective breeding carried out by breeders has allowed the development of a wide variety of coat colors, but has also led to the creation of increasingly flat-faced Persians. Favored by fanciers, this head structure can bring with it a number of health problems. As is the case with the Siamese breed, there have been efforts by some breeders to preserve the older type of cat, the traditional breed, having a more pronounced muzzle, which is more popular with the general public. Hereditary polycystic kidney disease is prevalent in the breed, affecting almost half the population in some countries.
The placid and unpretentious nature of the Persian confers a propensity for apartment living. It has been the most popular breed in the United States for many years but its popularity has seen a decline in Britain and France.
It is not clear when longhaired cats first appeared, as there are no known long-haired specimen of the African wildcat, the ancestor of the domestic subspecies. There were claims in the 19th century that the gene responsible for long hair was introduced through hybridization with the Pallas cat, but research in the early 20th century refutes this theory.
An Angora/Persian from “The Royal Natural History” (1894)
The first documented ancestors of the Persian were imported from Khorasan, Persia into Italy in 1620 by Pietro della Valle, and from Angora (now Ankara), Turkey into France by Nicholas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc at around the same time. The Khorasan cats were grey coated while those from Angora were white. From France, they soon reached Britain. Longhaired cats were also imported to Europe from Afghanistan, Burma, China and Russia. Interbreeding of the various types were common especially between Angoras and Persians.
Recent genetic research indicates that present day Persians are related not to cats from the Near East but to cats from Western Europe. The researchers stated, “Even though the early Persian cat may have in fact originated from ancient Persia, the modern Persian cat has lost its phylogeographical signature.”
The first Persian was presented at the first organized cat show, in 1871 in the Crystal Palace in London, England, organized by Harrison Weir. As specimens closer to the later established Persian conformation became the more popular types, attempts were made to differentiate it from the Angora. The first breed standard (then called a points of excellence list) was issued in 1889 by cat show promoter Weir. He stated that the Persian differed from the Angora in the tail being longer, hair more full and coarse at the end and head larger, with less pointed ears. Not all cat fanciers agreed with the distinction of the two types, and in the 1903 book “The Book of the Cat” Francis Simpson states that “the distinctions, apparently with hardly any difference, between Angoras and Persians are of so fine a nature that I must be pardoned if I ignore the class of cat commonly called Angora”.
Dorothy Bevill Champion lays out the difference between the two types in the 1909 Everybody’s Cat Book:
Our pedigree imported long-hairs of to-day are undoubtedly a cross of the Angora and Persian ; the latter possesses a rounder head than the former, also the coat is of quite a different quality. The coat of the Persian consists of a woolly under coat and a long, hairy outer coat. In summer it loses all the thick underwool, and only the long hair remains. The hair is also somewhat shorter on the shoulders and upper part of the hind legs.
Now, the Angora has a very different coat, consisting of long, soft hair, hanging in locks, inclining to a slight curl or wave on the under parts of the body. The hair is also much longer on the shoulders and hind legs than the Persian, this being a great improvement; but the Angora fails to the Persian in head, the former having a more wedge-shaped head, whereas that of the modern Persian excels in roundness.
Of course. Angoras and Persians have been constantly crossed, with a decided improvement to each breed; but the long-haired cat of to-day is decidedly more Persian-bred than Angora.
Champion lamented the lack of distinction among various long-haired types by English fanciers, who in 1887, decided to group them under the umbrella term “Long-haired Cats”.
The Traditional Persian cat also known as Doll Face Persian is considered as the original breed of Persian cat. The CFA however regulates the “flat faced” persian as the true breed and standard for this breed. This breed did not change its physical appearance but some breeders in America, Germany and Italy and other parts of the world started to interpret the standard differently.
In the late 1950s a spontaneous mutation in red and red tabby Persians gave rise to the “peke-faced” Persian, named after the flat-faced Pekingese dog. It was registered as a breed by the CFA but fell out of favor by the mid 1990s due to serious health issues. In fact, only 98 were registered between 1958 and 1995. Despite this, breeders took a liking to the look and started breeding towards the peke-face look. The over-accentuation of the breed’s characteristics by selective breeding (called extreme- or ultra-typing) produced results similar to the peke-faced Persians. The term peke-face has been used to refer to the ultra-typed Persian but it is properly used only to refer to red and red tabby Persians bearing the mutation. Many fanciers and CFA judges considered the shift in look “a contribution to the breed.”
Perhaps in recent times there has been a tendency to over-accentuate this type of short face, with the result that a few of the cats seen at shows have faces which present a peke-like appearance. This is a type of face which is definitely recognized in the United States, and helps to form a special group within the show classification for the Persian breed. There are certainly disadvantages when the face has become too short, for this exaggeration of type is inclined to produce a deformity of the tear ducts, and running eyes may be the result. A cat with running eyes will never look at its best because in time the fur on each side of the nose becomes stained, and thus detracts from the general appearance. The nose should be short, but perhaps a plea may be made here that the nose is better if it is not too short and at the same time uptilted. A nose of this type creates an impression of grotesqueness which is not really attractive, and there is always a danger of running eyes.
While the looks of the Persian changed, the Persian Breed Council’s standard for the Persian had remained basically the same. The Persian Breed Standard is, by its nature, somewhat open-ended and focused on a rounded head, large, wide-spaced round eyes with the top of the nose leather placed no lower than the bottom of the eyes. The standard calls for a short, cobby body with short, well-boned legs, a broad chest, and a round appearance, everything about the ideal Persian cat being “round”. It was not until the late 1980s that standards were changed to limit the development of the extreme appearance. In 2004, the statement that muzzles should not be overly pronounced was added to the breed standard. The standards were altered yet again in 2007, this time to reflect the flat face, and it now states that the forehead, nose, and chin should be in vertical alignment.
In the UK, the standard was changed by the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy in the 1990s to disqualify Persians with the “upper edge of the nose leather above the lower edge of the eye” from Certificates or First Prizes in Kitten Open Classes.
While ultra-typed cats do better in the show ring, the public seems to prefer to less extreme older “doll face” types.
The Himalayan or Colorpoint Longhair was created by crossing the Persian with the Siamese. This crossing also introduced the chocolate and lilac color into solid colored Persians.
In 1950, the Siamese was crossed with the Persian to create a breed with the body type of the Persian but colorpoint pattern of the Siamese. It was named Himalayan, after other colorpoint animals such as the Himalayan rabbit. In the UK the breed was recognized as the Colorpoint Longhair. The Himalayan stood as a separate breed in the US until 1984, when the CFA merged it with the Persian, to the objection of the breed councils of both breeds. Some Persian breeders were unhappy with the introduction of this “hybrid” into their “pure” Persian lines.
The CFA set up the registration for Himalayans in a way that breeders would be able to discern a Persian with Himalayan ancestry just by looking at the pedigree registration number. This was to make it easy for breeders who do not want Himalayan blood in their breeding lines to avoid individuals who, while not necessarily exhibiting the colorpoint pattern, may be carrying the point coloration gene recessively. Persians with Himalayan ancestry has registration numbers starting with 3 and are commonly referred to by breeders as colorpoint carriers (CPC) or 3000-series cats, although not all will actually carry the recessive gene. The Siamese is also the source for the chocolate and lilac color in solid Persians.
The Exotic Shorthair is similar to the Persian in temperament and type, with the exception of its short, dense coat.
The Persian was used as an outcross secretly by some American Shorthair (ASH) breeders in the late 1950s to “improve” their breed. The hybrid look gained recognition in the show ring but other breeders unhappy with the changes successfully pushed for new breed standards that would disqualify ASH that showed signs of hybridization.
One ASH breeder who saw the potential of the Persian/ASH cross proposed and eventually managed to get the CFA to recognize them as a new breed in 1966, under the name Exotic Shorthair. Regular outcrossing to the Persian has made present day Exotic Shorthair similar to the Persian in every way, including temperament and conformation, with the exception of the short dense coat. It has even inherited much of the Persian’s health problems. The easier to manage coat has made some label the Exotic Shorthair the lazy person’s Persian.
Because of the regular use of Persians as outcrosses, some Exotics may carry a copy of the recessive longhair gene. When two such cats mate, there is a one in four chance of each offspring being longhaired. Ironically, longhaired Exotics are not considered Persians by CFA, although The International Cat Association accepts them as Persians. Other associations register them as a separate Exotic Longhair breed.
A number of breeders produce small-statured Persians under a variety of names. The generic terms are “toy” and “teacup” Persians (terms borrowed from the dog fancy), but the individual lines are called “palm-sized”, “pocket”, “mini” and “pixie”. Currently none are recognised as breeds by major registries and each breeder sets their own standards for size.
In the USA, there was an attempt to establish the Silver Persian as a separate breed called the Sterling, but it was not accepted. Silver and Golden longhaired cats, recognized by CFA more specially as Chinchilla Silvers, Shaded Silvers, Chinchilla Goldens, or Shaded Goldens, are judged in the Persian category of cat shows. In South Africa, the attempt to separate the breed was more successful; the Southern African Cat Council (SACC) registers cats with five generations of purebred Chinchilla as a Chinchilla Longhair. The Chinchilla Longhair has a slightly longer nose than the Persian, resulting in healthy breathing and less eye tearing. Its hair is translucent with only the tips carrying black pigment, a feature that gets lost when out-crossed to other colored Persians. Out-crossing also may result in losing nose and lip liner, which is a fault in the Chinchilla Longhair breed standard. One of the distinctions of this breed is the blue-green or green eye color only with kittens having blue or blue-purple eye color.
The popularity of the Persian (blue line) in the UK has declined for the past two decades.
The Persian is the most popular breed of pedigree cats in the United States. In the UK, registration numbers have dwindled since the early 1990s and the Persian lost its top spot to the British Shorthair in 2001. As of 2008, it was the 5th most popular breed, behind the British Shorthair, Siamese and Bengal. In France, the Persian is the only breed whose registration declined between 2003 and 2007, dropping by more than a quarter.
The most popular varieties according to CFA registration data are Seal Point, Blue Point, Flame Point and Tortie Point Himalayan, followed by Black-White, Shaded Silvers and Calico Persians.
A show-quality Persian has an extremely long and thick coat, short legs, a wide head with the ears set far apart, large eyes, and an extremely shortened muzzle. The breed was originally established with a short muzzle, but over time, this characteristic has become extremely exaggerated, particularly in North America. Persian cats can have any color or markings including pointed, golden, tortoiseshell, blue, and tabby.
The Persian is generally described as a quiet cat. Typically placid in nature, it adapts well to apartment life. Himalayans tend to be more active due to the influence of the Siamese. One study compared cat owners’ perception of their cats and Persians rated higher than non-pedigree cats on closeness and affection to owners, friendliness towards strangers, cleanliness, predictability, vocalization and fussiness over food.
Pet insurance data from Sweden puts the median lifespan of cats from the Persian group(Persians, Chinchilla, Himalayan and Exotic) at just above 12.5 years. The modern brachycephalic Persian has a large rounded skull and shortened face and nose. This facial conformation makes the breed prone to breathing difficulties, skin and eye problems and birthing difficulties. Anatomical abnormalities associated with brachycephalic breeds can cause shortness of breath. Malformed tear ducts causes epiphora, an overflow of tears onto the face, which is common but primarily cosmetic. It can be caused by other more serious conditions though. Entropion, the inward folding of the eyelids, causes the eyelashes to rub against the cornea, and can lead to tearing, pain, infection and cornea damage. Similarly, in upper eyelid trichiasis or nasal fold trichiasis, eyelashes/hair from the eyelid and hair from the nose fold near the eye grow in a way which rubs against the cornea. Dystocia, an abnormal or difficult labor, is relatively common in Persians. Consequently, stillbirth rate is higher than normal, ranging from 16.1% to 22.1%, and one 1973 study puts kitten mortality rate (including stillborns) at 29.2%. A veterinary study in 2010 documented the serious health problems caused by the brachycephalic head.
As a consequence of the BBC program Pedigree Dogs Exposed, cat breeders have too come under pressure from veterinary and animal welfare associations, with the Persian singled out as one of the breeds most affected by health problems. Animal welfare proponents have suggested changes to breed standards to prevent diseases caused by over or ultra-typing, and prohibiting the breeding of animals outside the set limits. Apart from the GCCF standard that limits high noses, TICA and FIFe standards require nostrils to be open, with FIFe stating that nostrils should allow “free and easy passage of air.” Germany’s Animal Welfare Act too prohibits the breeding of brachycephalic cats in which the tip of the nose is higher than the lower eyelids.