Maine Coon is one of the largest domesticated breeds of cat. It has a distinctive physical appearance and valuable hunting skills. It is one of the oldest natural breeds in North America, specifically "native" to the state of Maine (though the feline was simply introduced there), where it is the official state cat.
No records of the Maine Coon's exact origins and date of introduction to the United States exist, so several competing hypotheses have been suggested. The breed was popular in cat shows in the late 19th century, but its existence became threatened when long-haired breeds from overseas were introduced in the early 20th century. The Maine Coon has since made a comeback and is now one of the more popular cat breeds in the world.
The Maine Coon is a large and sociable cat, hence its nickname, "the gentle giant." It is characterized by a prominent ruff along its chest, robust bone structure, triangular body shape, an uneven two layered coat with longer guard hairs with a silky satin under layer undercoat , and a long, bushy tail. The breed's colors vary widely, with only lilac and chocolate disallowed for pedigree. Reputed for its intelligence and playful, gentle personality, the Maine Coon is often cited as having "dog-like" characteristics. Professionals notice certain health problems in the breed including feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and hip dysplasia, but reputable breeders use modern screening methods to minimize the frequency of these problems.
The ancestral origins of the Maine Coon are unknown — there are only speculation and folk tales. One such folk tale involves Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, who was executed in 1793. The story goes that before her death, Antoinette attempted to escape France with the help of Captain Samuel Clough. She loaded Clough's ship with her most prized possessions, including six of her favorite Turkish Angora cats. Although she did not make it to the United States, her pets safely reached the shores of Wiscasset, Maine, where they bred with other short-haired breeds and developed into the modern breed of the Maine Coon.
Another folk tale involves Captain Charles Coon, an English seafarer who kept long-haired cats aboard his ships. Whenever Coon's ship would anchor in New England ports, the felines would exit the ship and mate with the local feral cat population. When long-haired kittens began appearing in the litters of the local cat population, they were referred to as one of "Coon's cats".
A myth which is trait-based, though genetically impossible, is the idea that the modern Maine Coon descended from ancestors of semi-feral domestic cats and raccoons. This myth is likely based on the common color of the breed (brown tabby) and its bushy tail. Another idea is that the Maine Coon originated from the matings of domestic cats and wild bobcats, which could explain the tufts of hair that are so commonly seen on the tips of the ears.
The generally accepted hypothesis among breeders is that the Maine Coon is descended from the pairings of local short-haired domestic cats and long-haired breeds brought overseas by English seafarers (possibly by Captain Charles Coon) or 11th-century Norsemen. The connection to the Norsemen is seen in the strong resemblance of the Maine Coon to the Norwegian Forest Cat, another breed that is said to be a descendant of cats that traveled with the Norsemen.