They make them big in Maine. Cats, that is.

The Maine coon — the state cat of Maine — is not only one of the largest domestic cat breeds. It's also one of the most popular breeds in the United States. It ranks fifth among the 45 breeds recognized by the Cat Fanciers Association.

The laid-back cats enjoy playing in water, take well to walking on-leash, are known to play fetch, demonstrate mousing prowess, and are usually happy to keep four on the floor instead of seeking out the heights that attract other cats.

No one really knows how the breed was developed, but there are a number of fanciful stories behind its origin. One is that the first Maine coon was the result of a hookup between a cat and a raccoon — or in some tales, a domestic cat and a bobcat.

It's easy to see why those stories popped up, given the Maine coon's long, bushy tail (said to resemble that of a raccoon) and pointed ear tufts (known as lynx tips), like those of a bobcat.

It's also been suggested that they made their way to North America some 1,000 years ago, arriving with Vikings who came, saw, and went back home — perhaps leaving some of their cats behind to colonize the new land. It's true that the Maine coon and the Norwegian forest cat share a resemblance, but breed experts can point out differences in head shape and body type.

Another theory is that Maine coons descend from six of Marie Antoinette's Angora cats, sent to New England in advance of the French queen. Not as lucky as her cats, she was unable to escape before being taken into custody.

The most likely origin story is that New England sea captains and sailors brought home long-haired cats from exotic ports, and that those cats then mixed with the local domestic cats to create the medium- to long-haired beauties we know today.

Nicknamed "gentle giant," or sometimes "coonasaurus," a Maine coon cat can weigh as much as 25 pounds. It can be a surprise when they open their mouth and out comes a small trill, chirp or coo, as well as the usual meows and purrs, all delivered in a quiet tone of voice.

Besides the large size and fancy ears, other distinctive characteristics include: a ruff around the neck; tufted paws; soft fluffs of fur, known as furnishings, inside the ears (protecting the delicate interior from snow, ice and chilly temperatures); and a coat that comes in a wide variety of colors and patterns.

Brown tabby is the classic Maine coon look, but the cats also come in solids, calico, tortoiseshell, parti-color (one color plus white), and more. The only colors or patterns you won't see are chocolate, lavender and Himalayan (pointed).

Not surprisingly, given their shaggy coats, these cats can shed. If you take one home, grooming will become an important part of your life. It's often said that Maine coons don't mat excessively, but that's only true if you comb or brush them out at least weekly. More often is better.

One health issue to be aware of is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), the most common form of heart disease in cats. Using a genetic test, breeders can screen adult cats for the mutation that causes HCM before breeding them. Walk away from kittens whose parents haven't been tested. Maine coons' large size also makes them prone to hip dysplasia, which you may have thought only affected dogs.

For mouse patrol and companionship, you can't go wrong with a Maine coon cat. Given good care and nutrition, the furry giants can live 12 to 15 years or even more.