By Dr. Becker
Of all the beautiful cats in the world, the Somali breed is one of the most striking, exhibiting a luxurious coat, vibrant coloring, interesting facial markings and an impossibly lush plume for a tail.
Marked characteristics make this lovely feline almost instantly recognizable: tall, pointed ears, often a pronounced “ruff” around their neck, furry haunches called “breeches,” tufts in their ears and between their toes, and, sometimes, darker-hued hocks, the leg area you might compare to the back of a human’s shin.
Perhaps because of the name, Somali cats may denote the exotic air of a wild feline, but they’re 100 percent domestic. Several traits make this breed a favorite among cat lovers.
Somali Cats: Cousin of the Abyssinian
You could say the Somali is the long-haired version of the Abyssinian. Both have soft, dense coats, but while the Aby’s is short, the Somali’s fur is long and silky.
While the Abyssinian breed can come in shades of blue, ruddy (yellow-gold), cinnamon, chocolate, or fawn (a pale, yellowish brown), some clubs recognize 10 to 12 Somali colors and others as many as 28, according to a colorful description from Somali-Cattery:
“The Usual or Ruddy Somali is golden brown ticked with black. There are 28 colours of Somali in total (some organisations accept only some of these colours). All organisations accept Somalis in usual/ruddy, sorrel/red, blue, and fawn.
Most clubs recognise usual/ruddy silver, sorrel/red silver, blue silver, and fawn silver. Other colours that may be accepted include chocolate, lilac, red, cream, usual-tortie, sorrel-tortie, blue-tortie, fawn-tortie, chocolate-tortie, lilac-tortie, and silver variants of all the above colours.”1
Somalis share with Abyssinians something called “ticked” coloring, meaning that each hair is banded with alternating shades, which gives their coats the impression that they’re glowing.
The color of a Somali cat’s fur sometimes seems to shift because of the way the pigments are distributed along the long hair shafts.
Some reports say the Somali originated in Australia while others surmise this breed was influenced by Siamese, Burmese and Russian Blue cats. It was once thought to bear the name of its origin, but, as Cattime.com explains:
“This longhaired variety of the Abyssinian was first noted in the early 20th century and probably came about when breeders introduced longhaired cats into their breeding programs to augment their stock — especially after World War II, when Abys were few and far between — but they weren’t developed as a breed in their own right until the 1960s and 1970s.
They were given the name Somali as a nod to that country’s geographic status as the next door neighbor to Ethiopia (formerly known as Abyssinia).”2
Somali cats have a small, wedge-shaped head and large, almond-shaped eyes, usually green or gold surrounded by one dark and one lighter ring of color. Often their eyes are outlined with dark pigment, giving their gaze an intensity that communicates sharp intelligence.
They have a notably athletic build, characterized by a long, well-constructed body and slender, muscular legs, giving them a well-deserved reputation of being able to run faster and leap higher than most other cats.
Somali Kitties Exhibit ‘Personality Plus’
If you’re looking for a cat with personality to spare, this might be the one for you! One of the most lovable aspects about the Somali breed is their affectionate, playful nature.
Between their clever inquisitiveness and energy, Somali kitties have been compared to clowns and even magicians, as they’re quite adept at opening doors and squeezing their furry selves into small spaces.
Rather than being the type who sleeps away 80 percent of the time, this cat is highly trainable, enjoying and mastering puzzles, clicker commands and even agility courses. They often have very nimble paws and use them almost like fingers.
If you own a Somali and haven’t thought that far yet, you could install a bird feeder outside the window, or even a simple “catio,”3 a cat-sized screened patio of sorts that your kitty can access for fresh air, trees, birds, physical exercise and visual stimulation. Cats enjoy nature just like people do!
Single-kitty households where a Somali is left on his own for long periods of time may find that a companion for him might work out best, simply because this breed’s active nature has a tendency to find trouble throughout the house at times. That mischief tends to be less of a problem with stay-at-home cat owners.
Somali Grooming Tips and Propensities
Long-haired cats require a comb or brush once or twice a week to keep the coat silky and the shedding at a minimum.
Because this breed is prone to plaque build-up, it’s important to brush your kitty’s teeth regularly with pet toothpaste to discourage periodontal disease. A regular vet check in this department is essential. In fact, according to Veterinary Pet Insurance:
“It is suspected that the Somali cat’s dental issues are due to congenital problems enhanced by inbreeding, leading to the removal of adult teeth caused by dental abscesses below the gum line.
If not treated, cats are known to stop eating, which can lead to a life-threatening condition called hepatic lipidosis. Somali breeders have made a concerted effort in the past decade to breed out the congenital issues causing dental problems.”4
Another problem that sometimes develops in this breed is pyruvate kinase deficiency, caused by too few functional red blood cells, resulting in an oxygen deficiency to a cat’s body tissues, which can be fatal. This condition can appear in kittens as young as 6 months or in cats as old as 12 years.
Yellowed skin and gums, fatigue, heavy panting, red-colored urine and even seizures are warning signs, but genetic tests are available which can identify this disorder in both the Somali and Abyssinian breeds. Other disorders include renal amyloidosis, myasthenia gravis, which affects the neuromuscular system, and progressive retinal atrophy, which can eventually cause blindness.
Tips When Adopting a Somali
If you’re adopting a Somali, it’s important to have a background on the cat’s parents, and to go through a reputable breeder who has records with a written health guarantee. This entails homework, which will be well worth the effort for a happy, healthy cat who can live to 10 or 12 years of age.5
You can also contact purebred cat rescue organizations and inquire whether any Somalis are available; if not, ask to be put on a waiting list.
Additionally, any cat does better with people when he’s been accustomed to being around them from the time he’s young, and Somalis are no exception. They’re known to be kid-friendly and can be positively blasé when it comes to the running, screaming and overt affection younger children can impose on cats.6
They’re also generally friendly with strangers and other animals, although like people, they can become shy and disappear into another room. However, bonding with a family or a single individual is always more successful when a kitten has regular interaction with humans from an early age.