Gentle Giants

Maine Coon Cat
Photograph by Hillary Steinau

The Maine Coon is one of the most loyal, personable, and lovable cat breeds around.

From our December 2013 issue 
[T]he package that sets the Maine Coon apart, making it at once desirable and distinguished, has also made it rise in the ranks to become the second most popular domestic cat. The cat’s origins are a mystery — its genes tumbled in the salt spray of Maine’s rugged coast and married with the genes of sea captains’ cats from around the world until a perfectly adapted specimen evolved with its own unique attributes. These wild remnants are what is so intriguing about the breed. This untamed visage of the Maine Coon parallels the rustic state from where it hails. Put the cat and the state together and you have an enduring mystique.

Perhaps that is why, in 1985, the Maine Coon became Maine’s official state cat, making it the only true cat breed in the country to serve in this honorable role. There is little debate about why the Maine Coon hovers at the top of the cat popularity charts. It is the combination of striking good looks with a charming personality. They are not haughty or overly aloof — in fact, these cats often have a distinct sense of humor. As one breeder declared, they are “dignified but not pompous; demonstrative but not gushy; definite but not excessive.”

Maine Coons are affectionately known as the “gentle giants of the cat world.” They offer loyalty mixed with the willingness to endure a leash and take a stroll if necessary, the ability to be your best friend, and to even learn a few tricks. Writer Diane Morgan gives this description: “The Maine Coon is loyal and friendly, but not neurotically clingy. This easygoing, tranquil breed will not frazzle your nerves. Probably due to its working heritage, the Maine Coon knows when to dig in and when to take it easy.”

The Rise and Fall of the Maine Coon

The Maine Coon is the only natural American breed of cat.  Yet the breed’s popularity cycled through a myriad of changes between its heyday in the late nineteenth century and present day.

At the first Skowhegan Fair in the 1860s, the Maine Coon competed for Maine State Champion Coon Cat, making this the first cat show exclusively designated for a single breed. During the Victorian Age, the Maine Coon siezed hold of the cat fancy and rode it to the top, becoming a renowned show cat and a desirable pet. At a Boston Cat Show in 1878, twelve Maine Coons were shown. In 1895, at the first national cat show, held at Madison Square Garden, first place and best in show went to Cosey, a Maine Coon brown tabby female. This was the beginning of what is known as “show fever” and the Maine Coons regally rode the wave.

At a Portland Cat Show in 1911, with one hundred seventy entries, a Maine Coon took home the grand prize, the last big win for the cat for the next forty years. “After such an auspicious beginning, snobbery began to raise its ugly head. As cats and their breeding began to attract more interest, improved breeds became status symbols,” said author Marilis Hornidge.

Over the tumultuous four decades to follow, those few Maine Coons still left in the state were highly prized by their Maine families. As a breed, they were tossed aside by the popularity of other exotic imports, but several enthusiasts kept diligent records and didn’t let the breed fall into a feline abyss. The breed was championed by the Central Maine Cat Club. The CMCC was initiated in 1953, and for ten years the group held shows at which the Maine Coon was the hometown hero.

In 1968, in Salisbury, Connecticut, the Maine Coon Breeders and Fanciers Association was formed, an organization still going strong today. Hornidge calls this development “the single strongest force in the last stage of the Maine Coon’s comeback.” The association’s first big project was called a “show-in,” with the goal to put as many Maine Coons in cat shows as they could. The group created a unified breed standard, and five years later all but one of the registering associations of North America had accepted the Maine Coon. Articles about the Maine Coon began appearing all over the world and that photogenic, handsome cat once again stole the hearts of the show halls, the breeding rings, and cat lovers.

Getting Your Own Maine Coon

Why spend another day without a gentle giant by your side? Where do you begin the search? Be wary of pet shops. Buying a cat from this venue leaves no way to determine the conditions in which the kitten was raised. The best way to find a Maine Coon kitten is by going to the place where breeders of high standards go: a cat show. But don’t expect to walk away from a show with a kitten, as reputable breeders will probably have waiting lists and will want to know more about you and your home before they allow one of their cats to live with you. If you cannot find a cat show in your area, peruse the advertisements in various magazines such as Cat Fancy. A nice referral option is the website of the esteemed Maine Coon Breeders and Fanciers Association.

Once you find a cattery that is nearby, visiting is advisable. Seeing the actual site where the kittens are born will allow you to evaluate the cleanliness of the facility and determine if you are comfortable developing a relationship with this particular breeder. Breeder Cat Moody, from Stormwatch Maine Coons, states that the most important question to answer when visiting a cattery is, “Do the breeding cats and resulting kittens seem like beloved family members?” If you have any sense of hesitation, move along.

The breeder may also interview you. Again, Cat Moody advises, “Don’t be surprised if some of the questions seem personal — these kittens are not commodities to the reputable breeder. Most of us are proud of what we do, and happy to hear from informed pet buyers — it makes us feel more confident in the commitment the pet buyer intends to make to this kitten.”

Is My Rescue Cat a Maine Coon?

How can you tell if your beloved foundling is of the Maine Coon class?  Look for these clues:

  • Location, location, location: If you happen to live in Maine, or on the New England seaside, or even in the Canadian Maritimes, then there is at least a chance that you have stumbled upon a naturally bred non-pedigreed Maine Coon.
  • Coat: According to breeder Beth Kus, “a cat showing Maine Coon heritage will have a long, shaggy, uneven coat that is short over the shoulders and longer toward the tail.”
  • Body Shape: The Maine Coon has a stretched-out rectangular shape as opposed to the more square body of Persians or Angora mixes.
  • Personality: Some of the quirky traits of these cats are unique to the breed, 
so pay attention if your cat loves water, acts like a dog, plays fetch, and is exceptionally teachable.

Excerpted from The Maine Coon Cat by Liza Gardner Walsh (Down East Books, Rockport, Maine; softcover; 93 pages; $16.95).

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