Burmese 'Knowingness' holds their owners in thrall

It's not often that I set out on an article with an intention to exclude certain cats within the breed group. However, Burmese cats, and their derivatives, the 'Asian' group, are now found in so many exotic colours that it is easy to forget the original, traditional Burmese cats and the amazing impact they had on the cat-loving public.

THE FIRST BURMESE CATS?

Southeast Asia is amazingly significant for those who love pedigree cats. There is much evidence that very important genetic mutations were focused here and then maintained, because there always has been a positive respect for the cat, rather than just tolerance.

The obvious example of a breed developing in Southeast Asia is the Siamese cat with its unusual pattern, shape and behaviour. At a time when cats in other parts of the world were being reviled as witches' familiars, the Thai cats were the subject of illustrated poems. The ancient scroll called Cat-Book Poems or, to give it its proper title, the Smud Koi Scroll can still be seen in Bangkok. It dates from between 1350-1767AD and, apart from the Siamese and Korat cats being clearly shown, there is also an all-brown cat whose name in translation is the 'Copper cat'. The beautiful scroll was saved from the sack of the city of Ayudha in 1767. The attacking forces were Burmese.

BURMESE IN THE WEST

Early in the development of the Siamese cat in Britain, a strain of all brown cats was preferred by a small band of breeders. They were called 'Siamese' cats because they came from Siam (Thailand). Their greatest champions were a Mrs Sutherland and her daughter, but they moved to the South of France and took their cats with them. Although several generations were bred, the brown cats did not gain the approval of the public in the same way as their dramatic seal-pointed cousins.

In the mid-1920s, a little brown female came to Britain. Of no known parentage, she was known as Grumps (sometimes Granny Grumps). She had many kittens, most of whom were Siamese-patterned, including the great Champion Dido. Her brown son was called Timkey Browne and her pedigree line is thought today only to be represented by Abyssinian cats! Her great-granddaughter, Melodious Venture, was used as an outcross for that breed.

And then there was :

WONG MAU

Those of us who are addicted to tracing the origins of the modern pedigree cat scour second-hand bookshops, car-boot sales and even junk shops, searching for elusive written and photographic material from 1871 onwards. (For the uninitiated, 1871 was the year of the very first cat show which was held at the Crystal Palace in London). Occasionally, little nuggets of information turn up, but the history of cat breeding and showing is depressingly vague.

With the Burmese being introduced to the Western world as recently as 1930, one might have thought the circumstances of the introduction would be clear and well-defined. Some hopes!

What is certain is that Dr Joseph C Thompson brought a brown, shorthaired female cat called Wong Mau from Burma to San Francisco 70-odd years ago - or was it in 1932? And did the cat come from India or even Singapore?

Even at this very simple level, authoritative pronouncements over the years indicate disagreement and confusion, made all the worse by Dr. Thompson himself appearing not to have made clear Wong Mau's origins. It seems likely that he got the little brown cat from animal collector Frank Buck whom, it is said, 'collected' the cat when she was on exhibition in a carnival in Rangoon.

Back in San Francisco, Joseph Thompson observed the differences and similarities between his brown cat and his pure-bred Siamese and took the important step of creating a breeding programme to determine the true genetic make-up of Wong Mau.

In this, there was co-operation from breeder/geneticists Virginia Cobb, Clyde E. Keeler and Madeleine Dmytryk. Wong Mau's first mate was an imported Sealpoint Siamese, Tai Mau.

BURMESE GENETICS

Amazingly, Wong Mau turned out to be just like Grumps in that she carried the genetic factor for Siamese pattern. From that first mating, Wong Mau produced Siamese pointed kittens and kittens just like herself. Mated back to one of her brown sons THREE different colours of kittens were produced.

Again, there were the Siamese and the brown kittens, but this time there were also darker, more solid-brown coloured kittens. When these darker brown cats were mated together, they bred true and the gene for the Burmese cat had been discovered.

It's all quite simple really; but then I always say that about genetics!

Imagine a completely black cat. One of the ways in which such a cat can be described genetically is by the use of the upper case letter 'C' which stands for Full Colour.

When that full colour is restricted only to the extremities of the cat, the Siamese cat is produced. This gene is recessive to full colour and so is described by a lower case letter 'c'.

Since the pattern produces a Siamese cat, an additional letter is added so that the Siamese pattern is described as 'cs'.

In exactly the same way, a Burmese cat is described as 'cb'. Our little Wong Mau was proved to have one gene for Burmese and one gene for Siamese (cbcs), which was why she was able to produce Siamese kittens.

She was what is known these days as a Tonkinese, a hybrid variety which creates a cat of near-solid colour, but with darker face, legs and tail.

When Wong Mau was mated to one of her brown sons, another 'Tonk', she was able to produce kittens which had the genetic signature cbcb (these characteristics joining together from both parents), in other words, true Burmese.

BURMESE IN BRITAIN

Despite some teething problems in the States with official recognition being first of all granted to this new breed and then suspended by the Cat Fanciers Association (CFA), the Burmese breed developed and became fantastically popular. It was just a matter of time before these cats came to Britain.

Negotiations took place in 1949 and Mr & Mrs Sidney France imported two females and one male. The two ladies, Chindwins Minou Twm and Champion Laos Cheli Wat, had been mated to top-quality 'stud' cats before their journey, but only Minou proved to be in kitten. Sadly, these kittens died in quarantine and the France family were left with just the two females and the male, Casa Gatos da Foong. When these three were joined by two further males, Ch Casa Gatos Darkee (1953) and Darshan Khudiram (1957), the viability of the variety was ensured, with the result that these charming creatures soon captivated the hearts of the cat-loving public, Burmese cats soon becoming the second most-popular variety to Siamese.

THE FIRST BLUE BURMESE

As far as Burmese breeders in the United States were concerned, there was only one colour of Burmese. There it is called the Sable Burmese, while in Britain, perhaps more prosaically, this colour is known simply as the Brown Burmese. No other colour was thought to exist.

However, nature has an interesting way of throwing up little surprises and one such produced a little female kitten. Her mother, Chinki Golden Gay, had been mated back to her father, Ch Casa Gatos Darkee. In hindsight, it is easy to see that if any recessive genes were lurking, this closeness of breeding was the ideal method to reveal them.

During the early struggles of the Burmese to establish themselves, Siamese were frequently used to create new outcross bloodlines. One such must have carried the dilute factor which causes a dark-coloured cat (black or Burmese brown) to have its coat colour diluted to blue. Thus it was that Sealcoat Blue Surprise was born in 1955. This beautiful, gentle cat lived until 1971 and established the blue variant of the Burmese in Britain and, from there, around the world.

Over the years other colour varieties of Burmese have been established, but the chocolates, lilacs and the red series will have to wait for another day.

BURMESE CHARACTER

I have hinted throughout this article that the Burmese cat is rather special. Certainly less vocal than its Southeast Asian cousin, the Siamese, the Burmese soon found a place in the hearts of those who loved the exotic, but were less than happy with the extreme extrovert Siamese.

From the moment they are born, Burmese seem to display an extraordinary 'knowingness'.

They develop all the mobility and cleanliness skills possessed by any kitten within the usual time span, but then they seem set to take on the world with a fearlessness that is quite amazing.

On their strong, but lithe, legs they skitter around, play-fighting, climbing (oh! those curtains!) and cornering at a speed envied by Michael Schumacher.

Burmese cats will settle down as age creeps on, but they are still incredibly youthful in outlook well into their teen years.

There is an apparent extra little intelligence and a loyalty which defies description.

I have often been told that once you are owned by a Burmese, no other variety will do. I've not taken the risk ... yet!

STANDARD OF POINTS:

General Type Standard:

The Burmese is an elegant cat of a foreign type, which is positive and quite individual to the breed. In character, they are alert, intelligent, extremely friendly and affectionate.

Head: carried on a medium neck, it should be in proportion to the body. Viewed from the front, it should form a short wedge, wide at the cheekbones and tapering to a blunt finish at the muzzle. The top of the head should be slightly rounded between the ears, which are set well apart so that the outer line of the ears continues the shape of the upper part of the face. However, in mature males, who have developed full jowls and a sturdy neck, this will not be so apparent. Allowance should be made for a teething pinch in kittens. In profile, the head should show a good depth between the top of the skull and the lower jaw. The brow should be slightly rounded. There should be a distinct nose break, followed by a straight nose ending with the tip of the nose in the same vertical plane as the chin. The lower jaw should show a good depth of chin.

Ears: medium in size, broad at the base, rounded at the tip and, in profile, showing a slight tilt forward.

Eyes: must be set well apart. They should be large and lustrous, the top line of the eye showing a slant towards the nose, the lower line being rounded.

Eye Colour: any shade of yellow from chartreuse to amber, with golden yellow preferred. Burmese eye colour is very sensitive to variations in light intensity and colour. Wherever possible, it should be assessed in north daylight. It is important that, when being judged, the eye colour of all the cats in the class should be assessed under identical light conditions. Allowance should be made for eye colour in a kitten where it may still be developing, and for eye-colour dilution in an older cat.

Body: of medium length and size, feeling hard and muscular and heavier than its appearance indicates. The chest should be strong and rounded in profile, the back straight from shoulder to rump.

Legs and paws: legs should be slender and in proportion to the body, hind legs slightly longer than the front, paws neat and oval in shape.

Tail: straight, medium thickness at the base and tapering to a rounded tip. When the tail is brought gently round the side of the body, the tip should reach the shoulder.

Coat: short, fine, satin-like in texture, lying close to the body. The glossy coat is a distinctive feature of Burmese and is indicative of good health.

Condition: cats should be well muscled with a good weight for size, lively and alert.

Colour: in all colours, the underparts will be lighter than the back, but the shading should be gradual. Ears and face may be slightly darker in colour. A coat free from barring or spotting should be aimed for in all colours. The presence of a few white hairs may be overlooked in an otherwise excellent cat. In all colours, the coat should shade gradually to the roots with no evidence of smoke effect or ticking.

SCALE OF POINTS

Type (65 points)
Head and neck: 20
Ears: 10
Eye shape and set: 5
Body: 20
Legs and paws: 5
Tail: 5

Coat, colour and condition (30 points)

Eyes: 5
Body: 10
Coat Texture: 5
Condition: 10

Temperament 5

Total......................100

© Alan Edwards