Chapter 2: What makes a Cat Breed?

Frequently asked questions

This chapter does not refer to the zoological classification of cats, but to cat breeds as used in the organized cat fancy. There are currently over 100 different cat breeds acknowledged at cat show organizations. This chapter deals with the following frequently asked questions: 
  • What features make one cat breed different from another? 
  • Who set breed standards?
  • When does a breed become a breed?
  • Why are there differences on breed standards among countries and organizations?

Breed features

With regards to the question of what makes one cat breed different from another: 
the answer is that there are a combination of factors, not only in cats, but applicable to other mammals, like dogs. 
  1. Skeletal features
    • Body type
    • Head shape
    • Eye shape
    • Nose profile
    • Tail length
  2. Color features
    • Coat colour
    • Eye colour
  3. Ears
  4. Hair type
The above criteria are used by the standards setting bodies within the organized cat fancy to define the so-called “Standards of Points” for each breed. The “Standards of Points” (SOP) may differ slightly from one standards setting body to another because of historical reasons and the approach followed by the different bodies. Read more in chapter 4 regarding the different standards setting bodies.

Body type

Body type is determined by the skeleton of the cat. The skeleton defines the underlying structure of the cat. I always tell people that if you blindfold a person that knows cats, that person will be able to tell you what type of cat in is by merely feeling the body of the cat: Siamese or Oriental; Persian, Maine Coon, Asian, Manx, Munchkin, and so on. 

Different cat breeds have differences in the skeleton. For example, compare the svelte body of a Siamese with a long, whippy tail and long legs to the cobby body of a with short legs and a strong, wide chest.
Skeleton of a svelte cat with a long, lean body, long neck, long tail and long legs. 
Source: University of Washington website [i-1]

Skeleton of a semi-cobby cat with a short neck,
medium tail and medium legs.
Source: [i-2]

Head shape

The skull is another clear example of how cat breeds differentiate, because the underlying structure of the skull is in a significant contributor towards the outward appearance of the cat.


Examples of different skull types
Source: CFA website [i-3]

Eye shape

The skull shape determines the position, shape and size of the eye sockets. For example:
  • In Siamese cats with a wedge-shaped skull, the eyes are almond-shaped and set with a slant.  
  • In Persian cats with a well-rounded skull, the eyes are round, like saucers.
  • In the Original Longhair the skull is not as round as in a Persian, resulting in the eyes being walnut-shaped, instead of round.
Walnut-shaped eyes of Traditional Longhair vs round eyes of Modern Persian [i-4]

Nose profile

The nose length for cats is measured from the tip of the nose to upper break point against the skull.

Measuring nose length [i-5]

The upper break point is determined by the intersection of the frontal bone and two nasal bones of a skull. This intersection is also referred to as the "nasion". Its manifestation on the visible surface of the face is a distinctly depressed area directly between the eyes, just superior to the bridge of the nose.

According to Schultz [29], nose length in primates can only accurately be determined in dead specimens because exact determination of the nasion measuring points is impossible without an incision in the soft tissue. 

The photos above shows how the nose break 
influences the nose profile [i-5]

Tail  profile

Tail length in different cat breeds is another distinguishing factor. Most cat breeds have normal length, straight tails that provide them good balance when they run, jump or climb. 

Tail type mutations gave rise to: 
    • Manx cats
      • Rumpy (no tail)
      • Rumpy Riser
      • Stumpy (tail with short stump) and 
      • Longy.
    • Bobbed tail cats have one-third to one-half the length of a normal cat's tail with one or more kinks that resemble pom-poms, like in the Japanese Bobtail
    • Ring tail cats, like the American Ringtail, are curly-tailed cats whose tails loop over the back or form tight corkscrews. Also referred to as piggy tails. 
In pedigreed cats, each breed has well-defined tail standards. For example, Siamese cats must have long, thin, tails, tapering to a fine point, whilst Persian cats must have short tails, in proportion to body length and carried without a curve and at an angle lower than the back.

In all breeds, a kink in the tail is considered a fault.

Coat and eye color

Coat and eye colour play a major role in setting sub-classes within breeds.  

Coat and eye colour go hand in hand because of the genetic phenomenon of pleiotropy. Pleiotropy is defined as the phenomenon in which a single locus affects two or more distinct phenotypic traits [38]. Most cat coat colour genes have pleiotropic effects on eye colour. For example, the dominant white allele overrides all other genes for pigmentation, resulting in a white coat and blue eyes.

The standards for points on coat and eye colour differ from breed to breed. For example, in the CFA breed standards eye colour for Siamese [8.3] and Persian [8.1] counts 10 out of 100 points, whilst for Burmese [8.3] it is 5 points only. 

The scale of points per breed also varies between cat organizations. An example is Persian eye colour where in the CFA scale of points  is 10 [8.2] in contrast to the WCF standard were it is 15 points [42.2].


The size, setting and shape of the ears play a large part in distinguishing different cat breeds.  For example, for Siamese cats the ears are strikingly large, pointed, wide at base; continuing the lines of the wedge [8.1] In contrast, for Persian cats the ears are small, round tipped, tilted forward, and not unduly open at the base. Persian ears are set far apart, and low on the head, fitting into (without distorting) the rounded contour of the head [8].

According to Schultz [29] ear size is to measure from the base of the notch below the ear opening (lower rim of auditory canal or "meatus") to the most distant point of the margin of the pinna (external ear), measured with calipers, dividers or a ruler. Hairs extending the tip of the ear are not included.

Hair type

(To be completed)

Who set breed standards?

When does a breed become a breed?

Why are there differences on breed standards among organizations?