History

The History of Maine Coon

Maine Coon is a natural breed of cats that appeared in the state of Maine on the northeast coast of the United States. It is considered a very old breed.

An Old Breed

The first descriptions in literature includes the The Book of the Cat from 1903 when Mrs F. R. Pierce from Maine wrote the chapter on the Maine Cat (Kus 1998). Mrs Pierce describes cats in the 1860s and also how these cats have been around in Maine for as long as anyone can remember.

In 1901 a newspaper presented the breed in an article about raising cats to sell: “Coon-cats have been recognized as a distinct breed in Maine for so long that the memory of the oldest inhabitant runs not back to their beginning. You will find several of them in almost any village in that part of the world” (Bache 1901). The cat was presented in cat shows as early as the 1880s. The most common variety was the Brown tabbies, but white cats were also known (Kus 1998).

The age of the breed is supported by genetic testing of cats, published in a scientific journal in 2008. The researchers tested genetic similarity across breeds and regional housecat populations to create a phylogeographical figure (see below). Genetically the Maine Coon is quite close to random housecats found in the New York area of North America (Lipinski 2008). This could be an indication that the breed has been found in America for quite a while. The breed is more distantly related to Norwegian Forest Cats and Siberians who are closer to each other and to European breeds. (Housecat populations shown in italics.)

Lipinski 2008 phylogenetic map of cat breeds

Phylogenetic map of cat breeds from Lipinski 2008. Housecat populations in italics.

Compared to several other breeds, the inbreeding coefficient for Maine Coons were among the lowest for pure bred cats, only surpassed by Siberians, Norwegian Forest Cats, Japanese Bobtails and Sphynx (see below). The breed has a high degree of heterozygosity. These are both strong indications that the Maine Coon is quite old.

heterozygosity cat breeds Lipinski 2008

“Genetic diversity indices of breeds, random bred populations and wildcats: Light bars represent observed heterozygosity (HO) and dark bars represent the inbreeding coefficient (FIS). Populations listed in ascending order of heterozygosity, breeds are on the left, random bred populations in the middle, and wildcat populations to the right. Y-axis represents the proportion of heterozygosity or inbreeding coefficient.” (Lipinski 2008)

 

The Maine Coon cat was popular around the turn of the century, but because of factors like extensive selling (Backe 1901), the wars and the introduction of more exotic cat breeds to the American market, there was a decline of Maine Coons until the 1960s. By then many thought the breed had died out and disappeared. In the early 60s enthusiasts began to register and breed again, and trace and register cats in Maine and other northeast states. A new interest in the breed came, and new breeders. “The Maine Coon Cat is truly the every day cat of New England. Many still do barn-duty and many more are ordinary house pets. Through the efforts of a dedicated group of breeders in the ’60’s, the Maine Coon Cat has found its way back to the fancy show halls, since its heyday in the earliest cat show of America in 1895.” (Kus 1990)

 

Registration in pedigree books started in the 60s, so the oldest lines we know today can be traced back to the Foundation Cats from that time. Since then more than a hundred Foundation cats create the basis for the Maine Coon breed.

Foundation Cat = A novice cat with no registered parentage, being the first cat in a line of pedigree cats. All breeds start with the registration of Foundation cats for the breed.

 

The Gene Pool and Genetic Variation

As particular show lines became more popular, cats descending from a few lines were used more and more in breeding. Today most Maine Coons descend from these cats, and a large part of the genetic pool is from the Top 5 foundation cats and the so-called Clones. A typical Maine Coon will have 35 % of its genes from the “Clones”, a handful cats that were extensively linebred, all from the same dam and sire. This is one of the challenges regarding genetic diversity in the breed.

Among the Foundation cats for the breed, there are some whose descendants were also used extensively, and thus they make up a large portion of today’s genetic base. The top 5 of the Maine Coon foundation cats are:

  • Andy Katt of Heidi Ho – about 20%
  • Bridget Katt of Heidi Ho – about 20%
  • Dauphin de France of Tati-Tan – about 15%
  • Tatiana of Tati-Tan – about 8%
  • Whittemore Smokie Joe (or Smokie Joe of Whittemore) – about 7%

It is estimated by the breeders who created the PawPeds database for Maine Coon, that the genetic make-up of the average pedigree of today, when traced back to foundation, contains approximately:

  • 70% of the top 5 cats
  • 55% of the top 3 cat
  • 40% of the top 2 cats
  • 35% clones

 

Read more about the Top 5 Foundation cats and the Clones at the PawPeds website.

 

References

 

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