The Maine Coon is one of the largest Breeds of domestic Cat, known for its high intelligence and playfulness as well as its distinctive physical appearance. The breed is one of the oldest natural breeds in North America specifically native to the state of Maine (where it is the official State Cat). This cat is known as "Maine Coon", "coon-cat", "Maine Cat" or (colloquially) "the gentle giant."
The Maine Coon is a natural cat breed that originated in Maine. A journal article was published about the coon-cat of the late 1800s stating: "... all of them come from Maine, simply for the reason that the breed is peculiar as yet to that State." "Coon-cats have been recognized as a distinct breed in Maine for so long that the memory of the oldest inhabitant runs back to their beginning." "You will find them in almost any village in that part of the world."
The Maine cat was recognized as a distinct breed of cat long ago and known as the "coon-cat" in the mid 1800s prior to the Civil War in recorded history and documented early descriptions of the Maine cat by a well known and celebrated Maine author who lived in that era prior to 1850.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, domestic cats brought over on ships faced very severe winters in Maine, where only the strongest and most adaptable cats survived. "Natural selection (and climate) has had a significant effect on (longhair/Maine Coon) gene frequency in the 200-300 generations since domestic cats were introduced to America." The Maine Coon developed outdoors into a large, rugged cat with a water-resistant, thick, longhair coat and a hardy constitution. The fur coat developed outdoors into a coat that is particularly unique and distinct from other long-hair breeds.
The origin of the breed (and its name) has several, often fantastic, folklore surrounding it - all coming from Mainers story-telling and dry sense of humor. One tale comes from this journal account of actual story-telling in 1901 by the down east locals.
"Strange to say, there are comparatively few people south or west of New England who know what a coon-cat is. If you ask that question `down in Maine,` however, the citizens will seem surprised at your ignorance, and will explain to you, in a condescending way, that the creature in question is half raccoon -- the descendant of `a cross between a 'coon and a common cat.`" Though biologically impossible, this false story, was the result of Mainer's good old leg-pulling and gullible tourists. According to that 1901 account (as you can see), these cats were still referred to as "coon-cats".
A related story is that the cat was named after a ship's captain named Coon who was responsible for the cat reaching Maine shores. This story comes from a Mainer named Molly Haley (prior to 1820) as her oral history of the cat’s name that was published in this 1986 Maine newspaper article.
(Born 1911 Lida Tarbox) "Her father's account of the Maine Coon goes back to his great-grandmother, Molly Haley, who lived on the Haley farm next to the Tarboxe's, just up from the `pool,`or gut where the Saco River and the Atlantic Ocean meet. This was before Maine became a state (1820) and when the four-masted schooners hauled cargo to Maine from around the world.
A cabin boy named Tom Coon, from which the `coon` cat purportedly gets its name, worked aboard the sailing vessel Glen Laurie. One of his jobs when ashore was to collect cats, which were then used to rid the sailing vessel of wharf rats. On one of these rat-catcher expeditions, Tom smuggled in a beautiful longhair. The safe harbor for both the first coon and her subsequent litter was the Tarbox farm at Biddeford Pool, where the Glen Laurie anchored to take on supplies at the Cutts store at the Pool. When the cabin boy became a captain, he continued to bring the exotic long-hairs to the farm during his ocean voyages." (Documentation of a whaling Captain Coon and his ocean-going family exists in the Maine State Library.)
Another story is a legend from an island dwelling mainer that the breed sprang from pet cats that Marie Antoinette sent to Wiscasset, Maine when she was planning to escape from France during the French Revolution. This story is told in "The Legend of Rosalind of Squam Island".
Nevertheless, most breeders today believe that the breed originated in matings between perhaps pre-existing shorthaired domestic cats and overseas longhairs, perhaps Angora types introduced by New England seamen, or perhaps longhairs brought to America by the Vikings. Maine Coons are similar in appearance to both the Norwegian Forest Cat and to the Siberian (cat).
Maine Coons are very large and energetic cats, sometimes weighing up to around 11-12 kilograms (25 pounds); the average weight is 6 to 9 kilograms (13-20 pounds) for adult males and less (7-11 pounds) for females. Male Maine Coons may grow to a length in excess of 1 meter (40 inches); as of 2006, the longest cat on record is a male Maine Coon measuring 122cm (48 inches) in length. Growth to full size often takes longer than for most cats, with Maine Coons usually reaching full size at age four or five.
The most common color/pattern in the breed is brown with tabby markings. Maine Coons are recognized in all colors, including tortoiseshell, except for chocolate, lavender, ticked tabby, and the point-restricted ("Siamese") pattern. Eye color also varies widely. All patterns may have green, green-gold, or gold. Blue eyes, or one blue eye with one gold eye, are possible in white coat cats. They share similar facial markings, for example, a distinct "M" shape on the forehead.
Maine Coons have medium-long, dense fur, with longer hair, or a ruff, on their chests similar to the Mane of a Lion (which is why the breed is sometimes humorously called the "Mane Coon"). Their fur consists of two layers - an Undercoat and an additional layer of longer Guard hairs, which gives the breed their key physical feature. The fur is generally very soft. Maine Coons have long hair on the backs of their legs (called pantaloons or britches) and between their toes which helps to keep them warm in the cold. They also have bushy plumed tails and broad, angular heads, squared-off muzzles and wide-set ears topped with tufts of fur (known as 'Lynx-tips'). Their tails can be so bushy that the Maine Coon has earned the nickname the 'tail with a cat attached to it'.
Most Maine Coons keep their fur in good order without the need for additional human grooming. Maine Coons have large ears, which can be tipped at the end with fur. This is a common trait of a Maine Coon, giving them their Lynx-like appearance. Some Maine Coons may have tufts of fur growing from behind their ears on the sides of their heads. The appearance of these tufts can change over time, sometimes appearing quite large and sometimes being not all that noticeable.
There have always been lots of polydactyl Maine Coons. While the Maine Coon may be polydactyl (having one or more extra toes on their paws), this trait, enjoyed by many, is not yet available in show cats - only in pet cats. This trait is finding a world-wide resurgence and is increasingly popular, as it seems to some, that the polydactyl Maine Coon exhibits even more dexterity and intelligence than the normal-footed. They are nick-named "snowshoe cat" because they can walk through snow more easily, but most often though, they are simply called polys.
Polydactyl bloodlines have long been and continue to be registered to preserve these bloodlines of the breed. Modern show types are rarely polys. However, polydactyls are indeed behind many show champions around the world. The show type "breeds" still ignores the Maine Coon Polydactyl Standard and has culled this vast poly portion of the original gene pool (characteristics and features) from the show types.
The original poly incidence was estimated to be around 40%. Centuries ago it was highly likely that a poly cat from Maine would be a Maine Coon. Polydactylism was (and still is) a distinct visible indicator of a coon-cat's original, natural Maine heritage. Native Maine origin coon-cats still exist and are essential to the health and survival of the breed.
In a mating of heterozygous parents the kittens are 25% normal-footed, 50% heterozygous for polydactyly, 25% homozygous for polydactyly on average.
Maine Coons are a breed distinguished by high intelligence, dexterity, and playfulness. They have a tendency to use their front paws extensively (often curling the paw round to pick objects up) and as a consequence will easily learn to open cabinet doors, turn on water faucets, flush toilets, or pick up small objects. Some Maine Coons will eat, or even drink, from their paws, rather than from the bowl itself.
Due to their above-average intelligence, Maine Coons are known to be one of the easiest cat breeds to train. Maine Coons are noted for their ability to trill their Cat, which sounds like a combination of a purr and a meow, and they tend to make this sound when happy or startled. When they do meow, it tends to be very high in pitch, in comparison to other breeds. They are noted for rarely eating alone, preferring to eat in the company of other cats or humans. Maine Coons are not known to be "lap cats" but of course, this may depend on the individual cat and some may prefer laps.Some Maine Coons enjoy playing with, but not usually in, water. They may dip toys in their water bowls before playing with them, or just tip the water bowl over. They may also skim their paws across the surface of their water bowl or dunk their paw in and drink water from their paws.
Maine Coons can be very dog-like in their behavior. Playing fetch is a favorite game. As with dogs, they will bring their ball, drop it at the feet of their intended playmate and wait for the ball to be thrown. They will often accompany their owner on chores like getting the mail, walking the dog, and may also come when beckoned, even if outside. Maine Coons are typically very calm and listen to their owners.
Maine Coons are as a generality, very healthy and hardy. They thrive on better brands of cat foods and sometimes adding fish oils to the diet helps keep their coat and skin in top health. Maine Coon breeders have worked hard over many years to produce hardy, healthy and beautiful kittens. Almost all knowledgable Maine Coon breeders are able to avoid health problems because of significant new advances in veterinary medical testing in recent years. Past problems did include hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, hip dysplasia, for a brief time: polycystic kidney disease (continues to be rare), and typical feline conditions such as gum inflammation or luxating patellas (are non-breed specific, and may occur in any feline.)
Mutation in the gene that codes for cardiac myosin binding protein C has been shown to cause Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in one particular genetic line of the Maine Coon cat population. Because this line is very popular with show-hobby breeders, approximately one third of Maine Coon cats tested for the mutation have tested positive, and have been removed from the breeding population, although this population sampling is most likely biased, because the high percentage of cats tested were related to that particlular line. Breeders now use the latest DNA sampling methods to improve the breed and ensure its excellent future. Many healthy and hardy Maine Coon lines now exist and the future of the breed is extremely bright.
Until 1988, Taurine deficiency was a common cause of dilated cardiomyopathy in all cats, including Maine Coons. Since the pet food industry started adding more taurine to Cat in the late 1980s, this kind of cardiomyopathy is rare. Taurine-related cardiomyopathy can be cured with the addition of the nutrient to the diet, but genetic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy causes a permanent thickening of the left ventricle and is not curable.
As with all breeds, well outcrossed pedigrees that are outcrossed in the early generations and outcrossed further in later generations are important to vitality, disposition, and longevity.
- Sharyn P. Bass, This is the Maine Coon Cat. T.F.H. Publications Inc., Neptune City, New Jersey. 1996. ISBN 0-87666-867-8
- Marilis Hornidge, That Yankee Cat: The Maine Coon. Tilbury House Publishers, Gardiner, Maine. 2002. ISBN 0-88448-243-X
- Carol Himsel Daly D.V.M. and Karen Leigh Davis Maine Coon Cats (Complete Pet Owner's Manual). Barron's Educational Series, 2006 ISBN 0-76413-402-7
- Tracey K. Hayman, Main Coon Cat. Interpret Publishing, 2001, ISBN 1-84286-011-9
- Frances Simpson, The Book of the Cat. Cassell and Company Ltd., 1903, p.325-341 [LC Call No.: SF447.S62]