Have you ever looked at the face of what you thought was a striped tabby cat, but when you saw the rest of its body, realized it was actually spotted? Most likely you met an Egyptian Mau (“mau” is the Egyptian word for cat.) These elegant, midsized cats are the only natural domesticated breed of spotted cat. And yes, they really did originate in Egypt.
Betsy Whitlock, a cat breeder at Belle Hollow Farms and Exotics in Franklin, North Carolina, says technically, the Egyptian Mau is called a spotted tabby.
“The pattern on them is a tabby pattern, the “M” on the forehead, the stripes by their eyes,” she says. “Their legs are striped. The difference is that primarily on their bodies where they once had stripes, the stripes have broken apart back into spots, which is the natural color of cat, as opposed to stripes. Most wild species are spotted or start spotted and become solid-colored.”
The Origin of the Breed
The Egyptian Mau was originally a well-adapted street cat in Egypt. The breed made its way to Europe but was decimated by World War II. Historical lore tells of an exiled Russian princess, Nathalie Trubetskoy, who brought a number of Egyptian Maus to Italy in the early 1950s for breeding. She later brought the breed to the United States where she established a cattery and began promoting the breed. Eventually Egyptian Maus became more established as additional cats were brought to the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s. The Cat Fanciers Federation accepted the breed for championship in 1968, and the Cat Fanciers Association followed suit in 1977.
In addition to their spots, Egyptian Maus are noted for their gooseberry green eye color – something between green and yellow – and a striking stripe pattern around their eyes sort of like Egyptian makeup.
“Their rear legs are slightly longer than their front legs and they have a flap of extra skin between their belly and their hindquarters which allows them to extend themselves in a running stride faster than other domestic cats,” Whitlock says. “They are extremely fast and they are high energy.”
Some Egyptian Maus have been clocked at 30 miles (48 kilometers) per hour and they have excellent jumping and hunting skills. But even with their outstanding athleticism, Whitlock and many other breeders discourage letting these cats outdoors to run or hunt.
“Nothing good ever happens to a free-ranging cat,” she says. “They can get hurt or killed and they do hunt and might take out some of the bird population you don’t want them to. They’re athletic and fast. If they decide to hunt, they will catch it.”
The Egyptian Mau Makes a Great Pet
Fortunately, Egyptian Maus also have personality in abundance. “They are exceptional as family pets or really [in] any home,” says Whitlock. “The one hallmark of the Egyptian Mau is its extreme adaptability. Being from street cats, it has learned to live with humans on its own, without the benefit of a lot of domestication, and finds itself adaptable to any situation. Wherever it finds itself as a kitten it learns to adapt to that particular lifestyle. We have cats that live on boats, motor homes; cats that live with the very elderly and cats that live with very little children. They’re good with other pets as long as they grow up with them. I like to say you could drop an Egyptian Mau in the ocean and it would make friends with a fish.”
Whitlock says the Egyptian Mau can be shy around strangers but are intensely loyal to its people.
“They know who they belong to,” she says. “They’re not unlike dogs in their temperament. They have loyalty to their owner and sometimes pick special family members they like best.”
“The Egyptian Mau is used in both Bengal and Savannah breeding and basically they brought stability to the personality of those two breeds,” Whitlock says. “Both breeds are based on spotted wild cats but neither spotted wild cat as it stands is a really great pet. But if you mix in the Mau, with that nice stable personality, you ended up with a pretty good hybrid.”
Because they’re bred from such a small gene pool, and a gene pool of basically feral cats, each Egyptian Mau litter produces kittens with dependable personalities. “You don’t see a lot of prima donnas in the Egyptian Mau world,” she says
This article originally appeared on howstuffworks.com