The Maine Coon cat - America´s First Indigenous Show Cat

I am a dog breeder since many years back and when getting my first Maine Coon cat I wanted a fertile female kitten after health-tested parents and it was important to me that she came from an experienced breeder. I asked a good friend who is a cat breeder herself for advice. She recommended three breeders that she knew well and could vote for. I was very greatful to be entrusted with our first Maine Coon from one of these breeders. Puma is a beautiful, sweet, cuddling cat. This photo of her was taken at her first cat show when she was 5 months old.

Monica Alterskjær Sundset

The history of the Maine Coon cat is presented in many sources including the FIFe standard of the breed (Henning Mueller-Rech 2011/2012). Todays Maine Coon cats trace their origin back to long-haired working cats on farms in the Northeast America. The close relationship between the Maine Coon and random housecats in the New York area of North America has been shown through genetic studies indicating that the breed has been found in the US for a long time (Lipinski et al (2008) The Ascent of Cat Breeds: Genetic Evaluations of Breeds and Worldwide Random Bred Populations. Genomics). Maine Coon cats are more distantly related to Norwegian Forest cats and Siberians. 

Most of today´s pedigree Maine Coons look very different from the original / authentic farm cats of the 1900 century. They are the result of selective breeding to win titles and shows since the foundation of the breed during the 1960-1970s. Only 20 Maine Coon cats were registered in the US March 1970 and the first Maine Coon Club was announced by CFA as late as spring 1974. The members of the club stated that they had now fulfilled all requirements (a standard, a breed club, and 133 cats registered) for recognition of the Maine Coon Cat as a provisional breed. Some of the board members disagreed and wanted a further clarification of the standard – but finally from May 1 in 1975 the Maine Coon was accepted for provisional status, and one year later Champion status occurred according to the Cat Fanciers Association (CFA) website

Many legends exist on the origin of the Maine cats. One is that that they descend from Norwegian Forest Cats travelling with Viking ships to New England around 1000 AD. It is however unlikely that the Vikings could have brought enough cats to enable building a stable population, and as far as we know there were no cats (apart from the puma and the lynx) known to the native people of America before the early settler arrived in America much later.

The most likely story is the one about “Captain Coon” who came to New England with his long-haired cats to do trade with the locals – and when 9 weeks later long-haired kittens started to appear they were referred to as “Coon cats”. There were probably many merchants like “Captain Coon” introducing cats like this. The climatic / environmental factors in the area selected for strong, large cats with dense, insulating coats well adapted to survive the tough winters in the area. These cats were first shown in the 1850s on local agricultural fairs where the most handsome Maine cat was awarded the “Maine State Champion Cat”. The first Maine cats were shown as early as 1870 at show west of Chicago. 

Getting my first Maine Coon kitten I did not know about the genetic bottlenecks of the breed. The more I read up on the genetics and the history of the breed, the more certain I became that in my future breeding I wanted to work to help increase the genetic diversity. I recently bought my second cat – a 4 months old female Maine Coon cat from Sweden. She is an F3 Maine Coon kitten after outcross lines (COI 4.12%). Both her parents are health tested with healthy hips and hearths. Bellona is also a polydactyl cat like many of the original Maine Coon cats. My descition to buy a polydactyl cat meant that I had to leave FIFe, entering TICA instead.

The first standard of the Maine Coons were developed in the early 1950s, and so-called foundation cats from the natural cat population with features desired for the breed were used as the basis by the first breeders who established themselves between mid-1960s and early 1970. The so-called “Top 5 cats” originated from the 3 most well-known initial bloodlines of the 1960s and are found in every pedigree of todays “classic” Maine Coons. These five cats came from all over the US (New York, Maryland and Florida - and Maine). The offsprings after Heidi Ho Sonkey Bill (COI of 37%) and Tanstaafl Polly Adeline are referred to as “clones” because they were almost identical. They all had excellent show quality and were used again and again for breeding. These clones consequently contribute to about 35% of the genetics in today´s Maine Coon cats reared without new foundations in their pedigree.

The Maine Coon cat is currently the most popular pure-bred cat in Europe, with more than 1500 registered breeders in Germany alone – mostly breeding from extremely similar pedigrees. Sadly we see a tendency to more extreme looks and an “overtypification” of the breed – hence a violation of the morphologically and physiologically or also the visually justifiable variation limits by means of increasingly extreme breeding objectives. These animals may be “impressive” but are no longer balanced and in harmony (Henning Mueller-Rech 2011/2012). Such a mass production of genetically almost identical cats is a big problem to the breed. What we need are more breeders that work to increase the genetic diversity and focus on health in their breeding.

In the beginning when the systematic breeding of the Maine Coon cat started, about 40% of the cats were polydactyl. This trait was not acknowledged in the first standard out of fear that this would delay the process of accepting the breed even further. Reading up on Maine Coon cats I realized that extra toes are a controversial topic that stirr up lots of opinions and emotions in the cat world. The big international cat associations have their own individual standards that describes the ideal Maine Coon. At cat shows these are what the cats are measured up to. FIFe did not accept the Maine Coon as a pedigree cat until 1983. And a few years ago, in 2013, FIFe descided that they does not accept breeding on polydactyl Maine Coon cats. Polyvariants are also not permitted on shows by CFA, VCF or FIFe. While TICA since May 1 - 2015 has accepted polydactyl Maine Coon cats on shows and in New Zealand they have been allowed to compete in shows since 2008.

Polydactyli is not a handicap to the cat. It has been suggested that the extra toes may actually represent an advantage to the cat because of the larger stepping area of the paws. Such big paws / “snow shoes” made it simpler for the cat to move around on the snow during the tough winters in New England where the cats had their origin. Stories tell that these cats were fearless and capable hunters that used their big paws to catch live fish and to carry the fish home to the farm to their people. Here in Norway we often refer to polycats as “ship cats”. This because it was thought that the extra toes gave the cats better balance on the ship in bad weather at sea. The sailors also ment that polycats brought good luck and that they were better than other cats in catching rats and mice. They were consequently “hired” as rat killers and “good luck charms” onboard the ships and probably arrived at the east coast of the US with the early British settlers. It is believed that these ship cats maybe contributed to the large numbers of polycats in this area of the US. The fact that polydactyli in cats is inherited through dominant inheritance has been known since 1947 (Danforth CH (1947) Heredity of polydactyly in the cat. J Hered 38: 107-112), and selecting against this trait is consequently easy – you just avoid breeding polycats and hence avoid transferring this genotype to the next generation. The strong selection against polycats has led to a large decrease in the number of polydactyl Maine Coon cats that were once a natural part of the genetic variation of the breed (Sundset 2019). 


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