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The Burmese (Thai: ศุภลักษณ์ "subh-bha-lak" meaning fortunate, beautiful, and splendid appearance) is a breed of domesticated cats split into two subgroups: the American Burmese and the British Burmese (and are not to be confused with "Sacred Cat of Burma," in respect of which, see Birman). Most modern Burmese are descendants of one female cat called Wong Mau, which was brought from Burma to America in 1930. Most cat registries do not recognise a split between the two groups, but those that do formally refer to the type developed by British cat breeders as the European Burmese.
Originally, Burmese cats were exclusively brown (sable), but years of selective breeding have produced a wide variety of colours. Different associations have different rules about which of these count as Burmese. Burmese cats are known for being sociable and friendly with humans, as well as very intelligent. They are also very vocal, and often call to their owners.
The earliest records of a type resembling Burmese come from Thailand, then known as Siam. A series of 17 illustrated poems written in Siam during the period of the Ayutthaya mention three types of cat which appear to correspond to known breeds. These were the Vichien Mat (Siamese), the Si-Sawat (Korat), and the Thong Daeng (Copper, now known as Burmese). These cats are thought to have remained in Thailand until it was invaded by the Burmese in the 18th century; returning soldiers may have taken the temple cats with them back to Burma. However, it is worth noting that cats from South East Asia often share characteristics and it is further breeding that gives them their distinct features.
In 1871, Harrison Weir organised a cat show at the Crystal Palace. A pair of Siamese cats were on display that closely resembled modern American Burmese cats in build, although Siamese in marking. This means that these cats were probably similar to the modern Tonkinese breed. After this, cat fancy began with cat clubs and cat shows forming, although it took many years for breeds to be worked-out and developed. The first Burmese cats in the late 19th century in Britain were considered Chocolate Siamese rather than a breed in their own right, and this view persisted for many years, encouraging cross-breeding between Burmese and Siamese and attempts to breed Burmese to more closely conform with the Siamese build. The breed slowly died out in Britain.
Dr. Joseph Cheesman Thompson imported Wong Mau, a brown female cat, into San Francisco in 1930. As had happened earlier, many breeders considered the cat simply to be a colour variant of the Siamese, but Dr Thompson considered the build sufficiently different to be something else. Without any male of a similar type, Wong Mau was bred with Tai Mau, a sealpoint Siamese from Thailand. Wong Mau was then bred with her son to produce dark brown kittens that were called Burmese cats. In 1936, the Cat Fancier's Association granted recognition to the Burmese breed.
However, due to the extensive breeding with Siamese cats that had been used to increase the population, the original type was overwhelmed. CFA, the leading US cat registry, suspended recognition of the Burmese as a purebred cat on May 8th, 1947. Other American cat registries continued to register the Burmese in America. In 1954, CFA lifted the suspension, and Gerstdale's The Princess of Re-Ru and Hassayampa Spi-Dar of Regal were entered in the Foundation Record of CFA. In 1958, the unaffiliated breed club, United Burmese Cat Fanciers (UBCF) wrote a single standard that was to be used for judging ideal Burmese in all registries. The UBCF standard has remained essentially unchanged since its adoption. This standard is used in all American registries, but European regestries maintained their own standard. Recently, The International Cat Association (TICA) and CFA clubs have started holding shows in Europe and use the American breed standard for judging the Burmese in Europe. During the early period of breed development, it became clear that Wong Mau herself was genetically a hybrid between a Siamese and Burmese type. Such hybrids were later developed as a separate breed, known today as the Tonkinese.
The history of the breed unfolded differently in England. The breed was recognized by the United Kingdom Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF) in 1952. From about 1949 to 1956, the British Burmese population was being enriched with cats imported from America. The cats which fed the British breeding programme were of a variety of builds. By 1952, three generations had been produced in Britain and official recognition was granted by the GCCF and the breed was accorded the breed number 27. Until the late 1960s, the gene pool in Britain was very small, with most Burmese being descended from 6 initial imports and a Burmese/Chinese hybrid from Singapore. In 1969, more were brought over from Canada, and the genepool was widened.
The first blue Burmese was born in 1955 in England. This was to be followed by red, cream, and tortoiseshell kittens over the next couple of decades. Much effort was put in to remove banding patterns from the coats, and to decide whether these new colours counted as Burmese. Champagne coloured cats (known as "chocolate" in the UK) appeared in America, but breeding was impeded by the refusal of breed clubs to acknowledge that Burmese cats could be any colour other than Brown. In 1971, the first lilac kitten was born, being the latest solid colour introduced in Burmese. Throughout the 1970s, brown, chocolate (champagne), blue, and lilac tortoiseshell types were developed in England. In America, the chocolate (champagne), blue, and lilac (platinum) colors were accepted for registration as a separate breed, the Malayan in 1979. In 1984, the champagnes, platinums, and blues were accepted for registration as Burmese. CFA organizes the champagne, blue, and platinums in the "dilute" division and the sables in the sable division. Cinnamon, Fawn, Caramel, and Apricot Burmese were developed in New Zealand from a breeding programme initiated by geneticist Dr. Rod Hitchmough. The first cinnamon Burmese was Arsenios Cinnamon Dream Boy.
From the 1950s onwards, countries in the Commonwealth and Europe started importing Burmese cats from Britain. As a result, most countries based their Standard of Points for this breed on the British model, rather than the American.
The accepted eye colour for the breed is gold or yellow. The coat is known for being glossy, with a satin-like finish. As with most short-hairs, it requires no additional grooming. The shape of the British breed is more moderate but must not be Oriental, while the American breed is sturdier in build. Longer lived than most pedigree cats, they often reach 16 to 18 years of age. Burmese are a small to medium size breed and tend to be about 4-6kg in weight, even though the breed are a lot heavier than they first appear.
Burmese are vocal like the Siamese but have softer, sweeter meows. They are very affectionate and enjoy company, being a people oriented breed who form strong bonds with their owners and gravitate toward human activity. Burmese need a reasonable amount of human attention, are not as independent as other breeds and are not suited to being left alone for extended periods of time. The Cat Fanciers' Association (CFA) breed information on the Burmese implies that all survival instinct of flight or fight seems to have been bred out of them. However, other sources note that, while rarely aggressive with humans, Burmese cats can defend themselves quite well against other cats, even those larger than themselves.
Burmese are known as the 'clowns of the cat world' and maintain kitten interests and energy throughout their adulthood. They have a number of dog-like characteristics, often learning to play fetch and tag. Burmese are good with children and dogs. They are suitable as an indoor breed of cat, will usually stay more affectionate if kept indoors and are comfortable travelling in cars.
As a result of these separate breeding programmes, British Burmese are different from American Burmese. The British build tends to be more Oriental, with a more triangular face, while the American Burmese is stockier and rounder in the body, head, eyes, and feet. It has markedly full cheeks and a short muzzle, sometimes called "pug-like". In the British type, both the American Burmese's "cobbiness" and the obvious Siamese influence long seen in the breed are today considered grave, even disqualifying faults.
Ever since varieties other than sable/brown have existed, there have been conflicts in the world of cat fancy as to which varieties are considered Burmese. In Britain, all the colours listed below are recognised by the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy, Britain's ruling cat association. In the USA, which colours are acceptable depends on which cat registry the cat is registered with. For example, the Cat Fancier's Association only recognises the first four colours below. All varieties should gradually shade from darker backs to lighter underparts. There should be no barring or spotting.
- Brown (UK), Sable (USA) or Seal (Aus/NZ)
- Blue (grey)
- Chocolate (UK) or Champagne (USA)
- Lilac (UK) or Platinum (USA)
- Brown Tortoiseshell
- Chocolate Tortoiseshell
- Lilac Tortoiseshell
- Blue Tortoiseshell
Varieties with more limited recognition:
- Cinnamon Tortie
- Fawn Tortie
- Caramel Tortie
The Burmese Brown coat is caused by the Burmese gene (cb), part of the albino series, which causes a reduction in the amount of pigment produced converting black into brown, and all the other colours into a paler, more delicate shade of their full colour equivalents. The action of the gene causes pigment production to be most limited in the warmest parts of the body, so in some varieties darker areas of pigment are obvious on the colder parts of the body such as the face and ears, the tail and the feet. The effect of restricted pigment is significantly more visible in young kittens.
The Burmese gene is also present in some other cat breeds, particularly the established rex breeds, where it can be fully expressed in its homozygous form (cbcb) and referred to as Burmese Colour Restriction or Sepia, or can be combined with the Siamese gene (cbcs) to form Mink or Darker Points. The Singapura is always homozygous for the Burmese gene, combining it with a ticked tabby pattern and Snow Bengals with eye colours other than blue also have the gene. A breed of cat exists called the Asian which is a breed related to the Burmese, having the same physical type, but occurring in a range of other patterns and colours not recognised as part of the Burmese breed.
For the past thirty years, there has been controversy over the appearance of the breed, which can now be divided into two camps. American breeders prefer the contemporary Burmese (American Burmese) which has shorter noses and rounder skulls. The traditional Burmese (or British Burmese) was declassed by the Cat Fanciers' Association in the 1980s. England's Governing Council of the Cat Fancy took the opposite approach and banned the registration of all Burmese imported from America in order to preserve the traditional' bloodlines.
The controversy revolves around the fact that contemporary Burmese sometimes carry alleles for the "Head Fault", a lethal head defect. The head fault rarely occurs with traditional Burmese. Its widespread presence in the American lineages goes back to a cat named Good Fortune Fortunatas, a fine example of the contemporary body/head type, although the defect was present in Burmese cats before Fortunatas. This individual was extensively mated to Burmese cats in the USA, and today's show-type American Burmese cats can usually trace their lineage back to it.
Contemporary Burmese Breeders have continued with their stock because defective kittens are stillborn or euthanized soon after birth, and because sterilization of all possible head fault carriers would decimate the U.S. Burmese gene pool. While the average, non-breeding pet owner does not ever have to deal with the head fault, it is hoped that the "head fault" allele will eventually be eliminated by a yet-undiscovered genetic test, and then by years of controlled breeding.
Leslie A. Lyons, Ph.D. from University of California, Davis is doing research to locate the gene mutation that is causing the head fault. Resolving these problems would be highly useful, as the "head fault" allele appears to be expressed in recessive or epistatic manner. Therefore, eliminating it from the gene pool by simply culling affected animals is likely a prolonged process, if it can at all be successful (recessive alleles are rarely ever entirely eliminated from all but the most inbred gene pools). A genetic test for the presence of the allele would enormously speed up the process.