The Burmese Cat, all Information you Must be Know
“Probably no other breed has endured so much controversy and political conflict as the Burmese Cat,” wrote former Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) president Richard H. Gebhardt in The Complete Cat Book. If such is the case, the Burmese’s story reflects in its own fashion the uneasy history that characterizes the breed’s homeland, which was known as Burma until 1989, when it officially became The Union of Myanmar.
The Union of Myanmar was chosen to replace Burma in order to publicize the fact that the country is composed not only of the Burman majority but also of various other ethnic groups. This circumstance might warrant affirmation in the political fancy, but in the cat fancy a multiethnic background is often cause for censure. Indeed, the presence of more than one genetic strain in the Burmese Cat led to CFA’s disenfranchising the breed in 1947, but that’s getting ahead of our story.
Said story begins in 1930 with the arrival of a cat named Wong Mau in San Francisco. Some Burmese Cat breed historians write that Wong Mau was given to Joseph C. Thompson, a Navy psychiatrist, by one Buck “Bring ’em Back Alive” Wilson, an animal collector who had acquired Wong Mau in Burma. Other observers suggest that Thompson himself brought Wong Mau back alive from Burma, following a tour of duty as a ship’s doctor.
Whoever escorted Wong Mau to San Francisco, Thompson was fascinated by her appearance, especially by her walnut-brown color. She was much darker than a Siamese, even in those days; and her points — i.e., the color on her face, feet, ears and tail — were darker still. A small cat, Wong Mau was more compact than a Siamese. In addition, she had a shorter tail, a rounder head, a shorter muzzle, rounder eyes and greater distance between the eyes than did the Siamese.
Some writers report that Thompson bred Siamese; others simply assert that he had an interest in genetics. Whatever the case, the more he admired Wong Mau, the more he believed she might be the foremother of a new breed of cat. This notion was not seconded by most Siamese breeders, who considered Wong Mau nothing more unusual than a poor Siamese with poorer color. (Their contention — if not their contentiousness — is easier to understand if we remember that it was not as simple to distinguish a Siamese from Wong Mau in 1930 as it is to distinguish a Siamese from a Burmese Cat today.)
Breeders expressed their discontent loudly when Thompson took Wong Mau to a show in San Francisco. They howled even louder when Wong Mau was bred to seal pointint Siamese male and some of her kittens, born on August 16, 1932, looking for all the world like Siamese. (This union made sense geographically as well as physically, for Siam, now Thailand, forms the southeast border of Burma/Myanmar.)
The other kittens in Wong Mau’s first litter had their mother’s dark-brown body and darker-yet point color. When cats with this coloration were bred to one another, and when dark-bodied males were bred to Wong Mau, they produced even-shaded, dark-all-over kittens, whose color resembled that of today’s Burmese Cat. Such outcomes indicated that although Wong Mau may have had the potential of giving birth to a new breed of pedigreed cat — all modern-day Burmese Cats are, in fact, descended from her — she was not herself a “purebred.”
Persons who know more about genetics than the rest of us conclude that Wong Mau was a mixed-breed cat with at least one Siamese ancestor. What’s more, argued Rosemonde S. Peltz, M.D., in the 1978 CFA Yearbook, in addition to carrying a recessive Siamese gene, Wong Mau was carrying “a previously unidentified allele [gene]” which is dominant to the allele for Siamese markings. Cats with two copies of this previously undiscovered allele subsequently called “the Burmese Cat gene,” inherit the all-brown Burmese color. Cats with one Burmese Cat gene and one Siamese gene look like Wong Mau. Cats with two Siamese genes, naturally, look like Siamese.
Royal Neighbors of Burmese Cat
So great was Wong Mau’s importance to her descendants that little has been written about the cats from which she had descended. As early as 1903, British cat fancier, author and judge Frances Simpson described two kinds of Siamese cats then being exhibited in England. The more popular variety, the Royal Cat of Siam, was a cream-colored cat with dark points and blue eyes. The second variety, known simply as “chocolate,” was virtually identical to the royal cats, save for its coat color, which Simpson described as “subtly shaded … a deep brown with hardly any markings,” and amber-colored eyes. This chocolate cat may have been, if not a distant relative, at least a compatriot of Wong Mau’s.
A third cat from that region of the Far East — this one called a “Rajah” cat — was described by another British cat maven, Harrison Weir, in 1889. According to Weir, the Rajah cat exhibited a uniform chocolate color and deep-amber eyes. Fifty-nine years later Rajah cats were described in an article that appeared in an American cat publication. The author of this piece, a serviceman who had been stationed in the Far East during World War II, reported that Rajah cats were “a recognized breed” and that they resembled Wong Mau.
Burma/Myanmar and Siam/Thailand being neighbors, it is not surprising that the same kinds of fables that attend the origin of the Siamese also grace the stories of the Burmese’ origin. Like the Siamese, the Burmese Cats are said to have been temple cats for whom student monks served as valets. Some writings even suggest that Burmese were favored by royal and/or noble families long before Siamese achieved that status.
We should also note that brown cats, whether even-colored or subtly pointed, are seldom seen in the domestic cat population of Malaysia. Domestic cats in that part of the world, save for a much higher than usual incidence of kinked tails, are not appreciably different from domestic cats anywhere else.
Fouling the Pool
Despite the objections of the Siamese set, Joseph Thompson was able to obtain official recognition for his beloved Burmese in two cat associations — CFA and the American Cat Association (ACA) — by the mid-1930s. This achievement, for which he should have received the cat fancy’s equivalent of the Navy Cross, did nothing to disarm Siamese breeders. They raised such a caterwaul when Thompson entered a Burmese Cat in a San Francisco show in 1938 that he withdrew from the proceedings.
The slings and arrows of outraged cat fanciers were not the worst of the Burmese’ problems. Despite the importation of three Burmese Cat from Rangoon in 1941, Burmese breeders were obliged to use sealpoint Siamese in their breeding programs in order to keep the Burmese gene pool from evaporating. Most Burmese cats, therefore, could not meet CFA’s requirement that a purebred cat must be descended from three generations of similar purebred cats, and CFA officially de-recognized the Burmese in 1947.
Fortunately, other cat associations did not drum the Burmese out of the corps, and this continued recognition, coupled with the determination exhibited by some advocates of the breed, helped to save the Burmese from extinction. To be sure, by the 1956-57 show season, there were enough Burmese that met CFA’s three-generation rule to qualify the breed for reinstatement.
Peace did not prevail in the Burmese Cat congregation for long. The next controversy to visit the faithful erupted when some breeders sought to obtain official recognition for the nonbrown kittens that appeared from time to time in Burmese litters. These kittens, who came arrayed in blue, champagne or platinum color, were bequeathed their novel hues by dilute genes. Perhaps Wong Mau possessed these genes, perhaps they were contributed by some of the Siamese that were used to help establish the Burmese in America. The sable-only crowd was more concerned with outcomes than with origins, and the outcome they demanded was the exclusion from polite society of any Burmese that wasn’t done up brown. They were not successful, and eventually Burmese in dilute colors were accepted by all cat associations. True to form, CFA insisted on calling these cats Malayans for a time, while The International Cat Association accepted Burmese in more colors — cinnamon, cream, red and tortoiseshell — than did any other registry.
A New Tradition
When the Burmese faithful weren’t rending their garments over color, they were working up a froth over conformation. Coincident with a big-time increase in the breed’s popularity, which increase began in the mid-1970s, there occurred a transformation in the appearance of some Burmese Cats. Noses became noticeably shorter, skulls became increasingly rounder, and eyes grew obviously more pronounced. This new fashion statement, known as the “contemporary” look, came to dominate the breed by the 1980s; but “in some cases,” wrote Gebhardt, this new look “carried with it certain deformities.” These included cleft palates, skulls that didn’t close and other deformities that affected the survival rate of kittens. Such defects were virtually nonexistent in the soon-to-be-declassed, “traditional” Burmese Cat.
The more sanguine among the new-look breeders claimed that Burmese Cat problems could be bred away or minimized through judicious outcrossing. Advocates of the traditional, less extreme look maintained that only a dedication to the use of cats from traditional bloodlines would solve the problem. The Governing Council of the Cat Fancy in England, weighing in on the side of the traditional American breeders, banned the registration of any Burmese imported from North America, in order to prevent the introduction of “defective” genes into British Burmese catteries.
An article in the Cat Fanciers’ Almanac for June 1997 assured everyone that “the Burmese breed is not suffering from an unusually small or very restricted gene pool. An early result of the Feline Genome Project currently being done by the National Cancer Institute was the finding that the Burmese breed appears to have plenty of genetic diversity.”
Genetic diversity, however, is not the main issue here, so this assurance amounts to an answer in search of a question. There was enough outcrossing done by Burmese breeders, both before and after the breed’s reinstatement by CFA, to ensure a substantial gene pool. The problem is the suspected presence of rogue genes in some Burmese Cat bloodlines, and those breeders who worry about the effect of such genes might point to a drastic decline in Burmese registrations as proof of the legitimacy of their concern.
In 1989 there were 1,206 new Burmese registrations in CFA, and the breed stood fifth among 35 registered breeds. Last year there were 844 new Burmese registrations, and Burms had dropped to 11th among 37 CFA-registered breeds. Considered in isolation, that 30 percent decline in registrations in less than a decade looks imposing. To be fair, however, CFA registrations plummeted 23 percent across the board during that same period. Thus, the fact that Burmese Cat outperformed the market by 7 percent may or may not be significant. One hopes for the sake of the cats that it is not.
“To own one, to know one, is to love them all,” wrote Burmese Cat fancier Doris Springer in 1964 after 30 years’ of knowing, owning, and loving Burmese. “No other cat gives as much affection without reservation . . . and in turn, requires so much love and affection to lead a happy life.”
The Burmese is a most intelligent, devoted and amusing cat — and one that is frequently in the news. A Burmese Cat owner, exasperated because her cat insisted on going walkabout, affixed a phone card to the cat’s collar so that anyone who found her could report her missing without having to pay for the call. An 8-year-old Burmese captured The Daily Telegraph’s (London) cat-burglar-of-the-year award in 1996. The cumulative list of acquisitions he had brought home from other people’s houses during a six-year career include a pink powder-puff mounted on a short handle, three feather dusters, all with 2-foot-long handles, a polo-neck jersey, a fur tippet, a fur hat, numerous socks, six teddy bears, three bunny rabbits, a Mickey Mouse, a panda, a musical tortoise, a dinosaur, a whale, a skunk and a gorilla.
Finally, the notion that once you own a Burmese, you can’t bear to live without one was made distressingly clear five years ago when a 79-year-old man drowned himself rather than continue living without his Burmese cat, who had disappeared 12 months earlier.