Cats (Felis silvestris catus1 or F. catus) originally2 evolved in a warm climate, hunting the small rodents drawn to human food stores. Over the centuries cats adapted to nearly every climate humans found habitable, including some rather inhospitable ones.
Today, there are three domestic cat breeds adapted to extremely cold climates, the Norwegian Forest Cat, the Maine Coon Cat, and the Siberian Cat. All three are natural breeds, meaning they developed without human assistance or interference3.
Cold Weather Adaptations
All three cold-adapted cat breeds have impressive ruffs, tufted toes, and extremely thick, waterproof coats.
Just as we might wear a scarf for warmth, Siberian cats, Norwegian Forest cats, and Maine Coon cats grow long, spectacular ruffs around their necks. Norwegian Forest cats also have spectacular bibs of long dense fur over their chests.
The Norwegian Forest Cat and the Maine Coon Cat have tufts of fur growing from between their toes. This trait is considered desirable but not necessary for the Siberian Cat. Tufted toes provide traction as well as some insulation in icy conditions. This cold weather adaptation is not unique to cats; the Snowshoe hare, the Arctic fox, and the polar bear also have furry feet.
All of the cold weather adapted cat breeds have dense, luxurious coats. Most cats have four types of hair; the three cold-adapted cat breeds just seem to have more of each.
Vibrissae are long, thick, specialised hairs that form a sensory array around the cat's head and forearms, aiding in hunting and navigation. A cat's whiskers are the most obvious vibrissae.
Guard hairs are the long, straight hairs forming most of the cat's top coat. Guard hairs protect the underfur from the elements and distribute the oils from the sebaceous glands, giving these cats their waterproof coats.
The somewhat shorter awn hairs make up the middle part of the coat, protect the down hairs underneath, and provide a layer of insulation.
Down hairs are the fine, soft, wavy hairs closest to the cat's skin. Even down hairs which appear straight to the naked eye have a wavy structure visible under the microscope. A dense layer of down hairs traps air, providing another layer of insulation.
These last three types of hair form the dense, magnificent coats that protect these cold weather adapted cats from the bitter cold of the northern climes. The Norwegian Forest Cat and Maine Coon Cat have shaggy, uneven coats, while the Siberian Cat's coat is plush and more of a length. Their coats, despite length and thickness, require surprisingly little grooming, especially compared with long-haired breeds produced through selective breeding.
The Norwegian Forest Cat
The Norwegian Forest Cat is a very large cat with a powerful build and a triangular face. Males can weigh up to 20 pounds; females are smaller, usually about 12 pounds.
Long fur covers the cat's tail to create a waving banner. Lynx-like tufts extend up from the ears, and dramatically long ear furnishings4 curve around the ear to deflect wind and snow.
The Maine Coon Cat
Like the Norwegian Forest Cat, the Maine Coon Cat possesses a powerful build, with a large frame and lynx-like ear tufts. The most noticeable difference between the two breeds is the shape of the face; the Maine Coon Cat has a square muzzle. Males can weigh up to 25 pounds; females are around 13 pounds.
It seems early New Englanders had little else to do during the long winter than weave fanciful tales about the origin of their impressively large cats:
Raccoons mated with long-haired moggies, imparting the new cat breed with a raccoon's size and distinctively bushy tail. This biologically impossible myth nonetheless gave the Maine Coon Cat its name.
Marie Antoinette sent her beloved Norwegian Forest cats ahead to royalist sympathisers in the New World. When the doomed monarch did not follow, her cats were used to found the Maine Coon Cat breed.
Viking explorers brought the Norwegian Forest cats on board to protect their food stores from rats and mice. A skogkatt (literally 'forest cat') resigned her position as Viking ship's cat to claim a part of the New England forest.
The last story at least has a drop of truth in it. The symbiotic relationship between sailors and cats ensured that no ocean was too wide for a cat to cross.
A more recent explanation is convergent evolution; some hypothesise5 the Maine Coon Cat developed naturally in the New England forests from the short- and long-haired moggies the colonists brought from the Old World.
Whatever the truth of its origin, the Maine Coon Cat is the oldest North American breed and the official state cat of Maine.
The Siberian Cat
The Siberian Cat, also known as the Siberian Forest Cat or the Russian Siberian Cat, is the national cat of Russia.
The overall impression of a Siberian cat is one of roundness. Because a sphere has a smaller surface area to mass ratio than other shapes, developing a round body can be a successful strategy in dealing with extremely cold conditions. The Siberian Cat has a round body and head; even its ears curve.
Generally smaller than the other two breeds, the Siberian cat is still medium-large, averaging about 13 pounds. It has a shorter tail than either of the other two breeds, with long, flowing tail fur.
Some traits the Norwegian Forest Cat, the Maine Coon Cat, and the Siberian Cat share are common to natural cat breeds. All three breeds are known for good health, keen instincts, and the superior problem solving skills necessary for successful hunting. These three cat breeds also share ruffs, tufted toes, and sumptuous coats - adaptations that allow them to survive bitterly cold winters and stalk their prey over slippery ice.