Get to know the British shorthair, the first cat to be labeled ‘pedigreed’ at the world’s first feline show in 1871, held in London.

Photos by Jeffrey C. Lim

It was towards the end of the 1800s that the man known as the “father of all cat shows,” Harrison Weir, began picking out the best looking of the local felines to distinguish them from imported breeds, and to preserve their bloodlines. “The ordinary garden cat,” he wrote, “has survived every kind of hardship. That he exists at all, is a tribute to his strength of character and endurance.”

Believe it or not, the British Shorthair is one of the most ancient cat breeds; it is theorized that they had their origins with the Egyptian domesticated cats brought to Britain around 400 BC. Brought in to hunt rodents, these cats wound up interbreeding with the local feline population.

But when World War I broke out, the British shorthair almost went extince because other, more exotic cats like Persians were in vogue. Breeders used Persians to save the British shorthair from dying out, adding the Persians to the British shorthair’s bloodlines. Unfortunately, measures to ensure the breed’s ‘purity’ resulted in antother chortage of breeding stock by WWII, and so Russian blue and Persian cats had to be reintroduced to help save the British shorthair.

British Shorthairs tend to be very healthy and sturdy, particularly in countries whose climate matches that of the United Kingdom, and their thick double coats have remained essentially unchanged over the years. Surprisingly, as owner Hansel Sy noted, they don’t require constant airconditioning, though they do need to
keep cool. Gray is the most common color, to the point that sometimes the breed is called the “British Blue.” But aside from its cuddly appearance, there is much more to love in this cat.

The Smart, Calm, and Loyal Cat

Cats are known for being sleek, but the British Shorthair was bred to have a chunky, solid body and a broad face out of which peer gorgeous copper-colored eyes. Its wide-set ears look like the “neko” ear headbands popular among young people today, and may indeed have inspired it. For British Shorthairs who come in colors other than gray, their eyes can be blue or green.

They are the original “smiling cats,” with pleasant faces accentuated by their fairly small ears, placed wide apart from each other—though there are also the “dignified grandfather” types like Carl, who seem very serious because of their jowls (especially the males). This gives their faces a very round look. People who like even-tempered cats will find that the British Shorthair makes great company, being very calm and good-natured; owners on cat forums online often note that the cat carries itself in a very dignified, even majestic or royal manner.

Strangers don’t scare them quickly, and they adapt well to children and other pets. Indeed, Hansel keeps birds at home, and the two species get along quite well. British Shorthairs adjust easily to apartment or condominium life, and are good “starter” pedigree cats as they are relatively easy to care for. Just make sure they don’t escape, as they may go with strangers trustingly. It is often noted that given their reserved yet quietly affectionate nature, they reflect many of the best qualities of the British people. People who insist that cats cannot show loyalty have never met British Shorthairs, who tend to become very attached to their owners.

Don’t expect overt affection from most British Shorthairs; while many are not fond of being picked up often and carried, they like to show affection in quiet and subtle ways, such as hanging around their owners wherever they are in the house, says Hansel, who adds that they are rarely, if ever, noisy. Other owners have observed that there are only three circumstances under which they will make noise: when they want to warn you of danger, when they are quite lonely, and when they are very hungry. Another interesting aspect to them is that they are quite intelligent, though they will not show this as openly as, say, a Bengal or a Siamese, and are not destructive cats either.

A Serious Commitment

One caution for those looking to buy a British Shorthair: they are not for everyone in a tropical country. Indeed, while Hansel breeds his British Shorthairs, he is very careful and choosy as to who he sells the kittens to. While they are the most popular breed in Britain, bear in mind that the climate there is much cooler than ours year-round.

This is not a cat you can simply leave behind at home; because it is intelligent and sensitive, it will not be happy if it is treated like a status symbol or a piece of furniture (the way some irresponsible and unkind pet collectors—who buy the in-vogue pet of the year—do, only to discard the animal when it is no longer ‘in’). British Shorthairs require an investment from you in terms of time spent with them and on making sure they are well cared for, and in the creation of a quiet, comfortable living environment for them.

Big Boys and Girls

Adult British Shorthairs are considered big cats, often weighing from 4 to 9 kilograms, and are considered well-proportioned despite their overall roundness: their necks are short, topped off by a round head, they have wide chests, big paws, rounded and prominent whisker pads on the face (which give them their pleasant expression), burly shoulders, and well-muscled legs.

Among the cats, that are slowest to mature, it takes the British shorthair from three to five years to attain full adulthood. This may account for their long lifespans, which can reach from 14 to 20 years.

They are often compared to stocky football players as a result. Their fur—which, interestingly enough, does not have an undercoat but is naturally thick—isn’t as soft as a well-groomed Persian’s; rather, it is plush and comforting, like a carpet. Owner Hansel Sy noted that their coats don’t need grooming very often. He advises that you brush their fur gently twice or thrice a week. This fur is the reason why they are called ‘teddy bear cats’.

One warning both experts and owners like Hansel will give you is to watch over your British Shorthair’s diet. As you can tell from their appearance, they like food, and are prone to becoming overweight. This is especially important if you choose to spay or neuter them. The danger age is from 5 to 10 years old, so give them just the recommended amount of dry cat food They are not naturally playful, so you should invest in cat toys that both of you can enjoy, as this is one breed that needs the exercise!

Don’t let them turn into couch potatoes. Hansel lets his pair out everyday, when it is cool and not raining, into a large yard, where they can roam to their heart’s content. Among the illnesses you need to watch out for are HCM or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, PKD or polycystic kidney disease, and gingivitis.

This appeared in Animal Scene’s July 2015 issue.