During my trip in one picturesque Aegean village, I met one beautiful black tabby and white cat. It had silky long fur, large eyes, and a very big belly.
“She is about to give a birth,” said an elderly woman smiling at me. “She is a Norwegian Forest cat!”
I turned to her and asked in disbelief:
“What? Are you sure?”
An elderly woman was more than sure. She explained that cats that look like that pregnant cat I had just seen indeed were Norwegian Forest cats.
It did not take too long to realize that this was not only that old woman who believed that long-haired Anatolian cats have a mysterious Scandinavian ancestry. I heard the same thing from my friends, my aunt, and strangers on the Internet.
Adoption sites and groups on social media were offering Norwegian Forest cats for free, and I witnessed veterinarians enthusiastically filling this breed’s name in a cat health passport. So why people here want to believe that we have Norwegian Forest cats on the streets? What went wrong?
Why that street cat is not a Norwegian Forest breed
I do not know if any other countries have this trend, but here in Turkey, it became a norm to segregate cats based on their coat color and length. White cats are thought to be the national Turkish breeds called Van and Angora cats, so the thinking goes that cats in other colors should also be breeds, or at least mixed with breeds. After all, Turkey has been a crossroads of civilizations for thousands of years, so there must have been a lot of mixing between cat populations going. Van, Angora, Norwegian Forest cats, Siberians, Russian Blues, Bombay’s, Maine Coons… there is a mosaic of breeds co-existing on Turkish city streets. Or maybe not.
How these Norwegian Forest cats and other breeds ended up on Turkish streets is not explained. Some speculate that cats jumped off European ships when they arrived here, while others believe that cats we see outside are abandoned cat breeds once sold in pet shops. You can choose which story you want to believe, but you should better not, as both are nonsense.
There may be hundreds or thousands of cat breeders in the world who produce Norwegian Forest cats, but I am certain you would not find a single Norwegian Forest cat breeder in Turkey. I bet pet shops were even less interested in this breed. The speculation that Norwegian Forest cats were bought from pet shops and later left on the streets to fend for themselves, is an outright lie. Read on and you will understand the reasons why I say so.
The truth is there are no Norwegian Forest cats on the streets in Turkey. Or any other cat breeds. I know some of you will disagree, but do you really know what is a cat breed? How it came into existence?
Cat breed is not something that occurs naturally on its own in nature or on a street. You do not find a cat breed outside in the same way scientists discover the new animal species. No, a cat breeder decides in his/her head to invent a new breed, then breeders look for cats with the desired look (1). There are two choices: cats living outside (non-breeds) or already existing breeds (Persians, Siamese, and others). It takes more than one generation of breeding to develop a breed with a predictable look, and all is done fully under human control – a process known as artificial selection or selective breeding. Breeders usually keep records (pedigrees) of their cat’s parents, grandparents, siblings and so on.
Norwegian Forest cat breeders stress that any cat without a pedigree is not a Norwegian Forest cat. Believe me, this is perhaps the only thing you can trust about breeders and they know this well because they created and breed these cats.
Now, let’s clarify what are these cats living outside. We call them “natural cats”, but the majority know them as “stray cats” (“sokak kedisi” in Turkish) or feral cats.
People believe that dogs living on the streets are a mix of breeds (some are, but the majority are not; see reference 7). We tend to think that cats have a similar to dog’s history, but hold on – it turns out that cat breed and non-breed cat relation is not as straightforward as believed. The claim that “stray” or feral cats living outside came from cat breeds has been put to the test by scientists.
Geneticists analyzed the DNA sequences of 944 cats from many different regions. What they found is that these cats represented distinct and ancient natural cat populations. One of these unique populations were Anatolian cats(2). It was obvious that natural cats were very different from established cat breeds. Yet, all cat breeds could trace back their ancestry to some of these natural populations. For instance, the Norwegian Forest cat is from natural cats of European origin (2, 4).
Cat breeds are descended from natural cats – no surprise here. But natural cats did not originate from breeds(1, 2, 3). So first there was a natural cat, then only later came the breed. Cat breeds did not mix with natural cats – that’s the fact we learn from the genetic research, so rumors about abandoned cat breeds are officially dead. The research also goes against the story that Vikings brought cats to what is today modern Turkey from Northern Europe. If that were the case, cats from Turkey would have shown similarities with European cats, but they did not. Instead, scientists found that cats from Turkey were no different than those from neighboring countries (Cyprus, Lebanon, and Israel; 2).
So sorry to burst your bubble, but Norwegian Forest look-alikes are not actual Norwegian Forest cats. In Turkey, they are Anatolian beauties, not Scandinavian imports. Similarly, long-haired cats from other countries are a part of their local populations.
But why our long-haired cats, which do not belong to any breed, look so similar to Norwegian Forest cats?
Superficial similarity to a breed does not imply that a cat is a breed or has some relatives from cat breeds in its family tree. There are 3 logical reasons why natural cats may look similar to breeds:
They share recent ancestors: all domestic cats came from Anatolian wildcats (link). Worldwide cat populations inherited various coat colors and a long fur mutation from these wildcats. Another reason why cats all around the world look similar is that they separated from their ancestors fairly recently. Cats came to Northern Europe not earlier than a few thousand years ago (5). From the evolutionary point of view, there was not enough time for these cat populations to evolve the drastic differences including those related to the appearance.
Cat breeds came from natural cats (1, 2, 3). Since natural cats from Europe look like Anatolian cats, no wonder cat breeds made from European cats appear similar to them.
Not all cat breeds are made to look like freaks. Humans can decide whether their breed will have some weird and unusual traits. Some breeds like Norwegian Forest still resemble the “normal looking” cats because breeders wanted them to be that way (6).
Origins and history of the Norwegian Forest Cat
If you are one of the many Turkish people who adopted a “street” cat from outside, you are probably now asking Google what breed your cat is. You discover that your cat looks very similar to Norwegian Forest cat, and now you can brag to your friends and your grandmother that you have a special breed for which you paid nothing. Although you have the entire world’s knowledge at your fingertips, this does not mean that everything you read on the Internet is guaranteed to be true.
But in the 1930’s there was no internet and no Google. Of course, if there was, Norwegian Forest cat would never show up in search results. Why? Because such a breed had not existed yet. But if you lived in Norway at that time you may have had a chance to see a photograph in a local newspaper of the breeder Haldis Rohlff holding her long-haired cat named “Petten” in her arms.
Rohlff believed that her cat was very different from those “ugly” short-haired cats she saw roaming in her neighborhood. So her cat and other “pretty” long-haired ones, Mrs. Rohlff thought, must be a new cat breed! Norwegian cat breed!
But World War II broke out, and it was the worst time to breed cats. Mrs. Rohlff and her friend’s breeders were afraid that “ugly” short-haired cats will drive “pretty” long-haired cats toward extinction. And yet, they lived with this fear for another 40 years before they actually took action and began breeding the long-haired cats, as they believed was the “national breed of Norway” (6).
In 1973, breeders created the description of an ideal Norwegian cat breed. They made their description, or in words of breeders, a “standard”, according to real, not imaginary cats (yes, this is rare in a cat fancy world!). The cat called Pans Truls became a prototype for the Norwegian cat breed. In a photo below you can see Pans Truls with his short-haired mother.
It would be incorrect to call Pans Truls and a cat Petten from 1930’s as Norwegian Forest cats. They were not, but we know that Pans Truls and its descendants became founders of the breed. It took many generations of controlled breeding in order to create a Norwegian Forest cat as we know it today.
Cat breeding may look like a harmless hobby but it comes at a price for cats (3). Like with most of the breeds, the Norwegian Forest cat has documented health problems. This is because the majority of the cat breeds come from the small group of inbred founders. Besides the desirable phenotypes, founders of the breed carry the recessive disease-causing genes(no population or individual has perfect genes!), therefore by selecting cats for their appearance from this small gene pool of cats, cat breeders also unknowingly increase the rate of deleterious genes in their cat breeds.
The Norwegian Forest cats suffer from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (8), abnormal thickening of the heart muscle, pyruvate kinase deficiency (9), a genetic blood disorder that leads to anemia, also a higher rate of diabetes (10) and skin problems (11). Another terrible condition is glycogen storage disease that causes an inability to metabolize glucose properly (12). Kittens with this condition have severe muscular weakness and experience difficulty and pain when walking. These kittens usually die from heart failure.
3 myths about Norwegian Forest cats, debunked
But wait, where are the Vikings? Did Norwegian forest cats not sail with Vikings? – you may ask. Was the Norwegian Forest cat not a natural cat breed that evolved in harsh climate conditions? I have to disappoint you that the only bits of Norwegian Forest cat history that are real are the most boring ones, and if you are reading this, you know them already, while legends of Vikings and forest cats are just that, legends and fairy tales. Here are the explanations:
1. Norwegian Forest cats originated in the forests of Norway. The breed has developed over many years of natural selection.
Norwegian Forest cat is a just a nice sounding name invented by cat breeders. The ancestors of this breed were not some wild cats living in forests, but ordinary long-haired domestic cats from Northern European streets (2). Domestic cats and wildcats, from which they originated, generally stay away from forests. So “forest cat” is an inaccurate name, but breeders do not care about accuracy – they just want to make their breed looks interesting and attractive to people like you.
2. Vikings took Norwegian Forest cats with them on their voyages to ward off mice
Norwegian Forest cat breed is less than 50 years old (6). So how it is possible that these cats were on Viking’s ships more than a thousand years ago? Of course, this is an impossibility. Even though Vikings might have had long-haired cats on their ships, these cats were not from any cat breed, and Norwegian Forest cats had not existed back then. I doubt that Vikings cared for the length of cat’s fur.
3. The long fur of Norwegian Forest cat is an adaptation to cold
Long fur, like various coat colors, is not an adaptation to environmental conditions. The oldest long fur mutation (called c.475A>C) appeared randomly in tame wildcats likely somewhere in Anatolia and was passed onto future generations. Some cats carrying that mutation later moved to other parts of the world, including Northern Europe. Nearly all long-haired cats have this ancient mutation (13). Of course, studies found that European cats have other longhair mutations as well that appear to be recent, but once again these are not adaptations to the cold climate (14, 15). Short-haired cats are in no way disadvantaged in Northern countries and cope with harsh winters quite well – thicker coats they develop at that time are efficiently insulated. If long fur helped cats to survive the winters better, then natural selection would have favored this trait. And yet, short-haired cats always outnumbered long-haired cats everywhere. Long-haired gene is by nature recessive – both parents have to have it in order to produce long-haired kittens – and this is the reason why it is uncommon in most of the cat populations.
But my veterinarian said that my cat is a Norwegian forest!
People telling me that they love cats despite their breed. And yet, I am puzzled when I think that many of them would get Scottish Folds, Persians, and other cat breeds if they had a chance. Because the truth is that in this breed obsessed world, we actually place cat’s value on a label. It is much nicer to think that the black cat is Bombay, the grey cat is Russian Blue, and the long-haired one is the Norwegian Forest rather than just a “mixed breed” or “stray cat”. To be honest the term “stray cat” sounds disrespectful and even derogatory. Why do we call our cats like that?
So what if your veterinarian thinks that your cat is the Norwegian Forest or some other breed? He probably finds cat breed labels as much attractive as you do, even though he is wrong like everybody else. Your cat won’t become the Norwegian Forest because someone with authority believes in it.
Maybe the end of the trend will be when we decide to stop admiring cat breeds for wrong reasons and dismiss our Anatolian and other natural cats as “strays”?
Photo credit: Onur Erman, iStock
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