Dale Midkiff was the leading man in the original "Pet Semetary," but for many viewers, Church the undead housecat stole the movie. To bring the four-legged character to life, director Mary Lambert enlisted over half a dozen British shorthair cats. Reportedly, she chose this breed because — to her eye — the poofy, round-faced felines looked like sentient plush toys.
Lots of people come away with the same impression. British shorthairs have colorful eyes, dense fur and a rotund appearance. Small wonder that some folks call them "Teddy bear cats." One of the world's oldest feline breeds, this is an iconic puss with ties to the very first cat shows.
Do British Shorthairs Have Roman Roots?
A 2007 genetics study claimed that the domestication of cats may have begun 12,000 years ago, when woolly mammoths still drew breath. Your modern-day pet store varieties are all descended from the Felis silvestris wildcat, a species whose native range encompasses much of Africa, Asia and Europe. Being efficient predators, these furballs appealed to early farmers, who needed pest-controllers to keep mice and rats out of grain stores.
Cats were revered in ancient Egypt, and the Roman Empire also had its share of feline aficionados. Housecats are depicted in mosaics which survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. and Agathias, a 6th-century historian, kept at least one.
Under the emperor Claudius, Rome established a foothold in Great Britain during the first century C.E. Some of these expatriates likely brought their housecats along. On English soil, the new arrivals would've encountered a population of untamed wildcats which had been roaming the countryside since the Ice Age.
It's generally thought that the wild felines interbred with stray Roman housecats, producing the earliest forerunners of today's British shorthair.
From Vermin-slayers to Best in Show
Before the Victorian era, Britons tended to see their cats in utilitarian terms. They were regarded as helpful vermin-slayers, but not necessarily family pets or beloved members of the household. That outlook changed in 1871, when animal illustrator Harrison Weir organized the first modern cat show at London's Crystal Palace.
Weir devised anatomical standards by which event judges could evaluate cats of many different breeds — including the British shorthair. By then, these animals had already become entrenched in popular culture. According to some sources, Lewis Carroll based the smiling Cheshire Cat from his 1865 novel "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" on the U.K.'s friendly-looking shorthair breed.
Like Carroll's creation, shorthairs have what you might call "upturned" mouths. The whisker pads — those two fluffy bulges above every cat's upper lip — are pronounced and well-rounded. Roundness is a theme with these guys: The head looks distinctly circular. In a similar vein, the paws have a rounded shape overall. The legs, neck and tail are all thickset while the chest is noticeably broad.
As the breed's popular name implies, it's endowed with short fur. The coloration is highly variable. Many specimens have a solid bluish-gray hue; such animals are usually called "British Blues." (By the way, this was the color variant seen in Mary Lambert's "Pet Semetary.") Shorthairs also come in white, red and black, among other hues. Certain individuals have light-furred underbellies.
Against such backdrops, the wide coppery eyes of this breed really stand out.
British Shorthairs Are Reserved, But Affectionate
British shorthairs are prone to obesity, so keepers are advised to closely monitor their food intake. A healthy adult male should weigh about 9 to 11 pounds (4.3 to 5 kilograms) when full-grown, while females can be slightly lighter. Typically, the felines have a lifespan of 14 to 20 years.
In the parlance of cat fancy, this is a "four paws on the ground" breed. Most British shorthairs dislike being picked up and if you plop one in your lap, it probably won't stay there. None of this is to say that the breed is unaffectionate. On the contrary, British shorthairs are generally polite, sweet-tempered cats. It's just that the majority prefer to cuddle up beside you on their own terms.
Although they rarely meow, British shorthairs will purr when contented. In fact, one specimen — a male named Smokey — set a Guinness World Record in 2011 by emitting a 90-decibel purr. At the time, this was the loudest verified purr ever released by a domestic cat (although another cat beat Smokey's record in 2015).
British shorthairs tend to have laid back attitudes and get along with other household pets. Plus, they're usually great with kids.
And it turns out the breed lends itself to internet memes. In 2007, the photograph of a smiling British shorthair was fitted with the caption, "I can has Cheezburger?" The picture became a cultural touchstone, spawning dozens of imitators across the net. And before the year was out, a popular humor website named icanhascheezburger.com sold for around $2 million dollars.
We're just spit-balling here, but we think Harrison Weir would be proud.