The Burmese is one of a number of purebred breeds that have several recognized varieties. Keeping them straight requires a bit of homework. The Contemporary Burmese is usually the type you’ll see in the champion ring at shows. Medium in size, the Contemporary is powerful with a compact appearance, an ample, rounded chest, and a level back from shoulder to tail. The breed has substantial bone structure, good muscular development, and a surprising weight for its size. The legs are relatively short but in proportion to the body, and end with rounded paws. The tail is straight and medium in length. Adult males weigh 8 to 12 pounds; adult females weigh 6 to 10 pounds. No outcrosses are allowed.
The head is pleasingly rounded without flat planes, whether viewed from the front or side. The face is full with considerable breadth between the eyes, and blends gently into a broad, short, well-developed muzzle that maintains the rounded contours of the head. In profile a visible nose break can be seen. The chin is firm and rounded, reflecting a proper bite, and the neck is well-developed. The medium-size ears are rounded at the tips, broad at the base, and set well apart. They tilt slightly forward, contributing to an alert appearance. The eyes are large and set far apart, with a rounded aperture.
The coat is short and very close-lying with a fine, glossy, satin-like texture. The Contemporary Burmese is universally accepted in four solid colors: sable , champagne , blue , and platinum , although some associations, such as TICA , accept additional colors.
The Traditional Burmese is also a sturdy, muscular cat with substantial bone structure. The most distinctive difference is the head. The face is not as foreshortened as the Contemporary; instead, the head is rounded with an apple-like skull tapering toward a broad, squared, well-developed prominent nose and muzzle. Some fanciers say this head type more closely resembles earlier examples of the breed.
TCA is the only association that has accepted a standard specifically for the Traditional Burmese. Founded in 1987, TCA strives to preserve cat breeds whose body and head types have given way to more extreme forms. However, members of TCA are not the only ones who promote the Traditional Burmese. According to Traditional Burmese fanciers, this is a healthy, hardy cat who lacks the physical problems inherent in the head conformation of Contemporary Burmese. Whether you prefer the appearance of the Traditional or the Contemporary, both have wonderful personalities.
A third type exists: see European Burmese.
The Burmese we know today developed from a single female cat named Wong Mau who was brought to the United States in 1930 from Rangoon, Burma (now called Yangon, Myanmar). A sailor gave the exotic feline to Siamese breeder Dr. Joseph Thompson of San Francisco. Purportedly, Wong-Mau was a small, fine-boned cat, walnut-brown with darker brown points , but more compact than the Siamese of the day with a rounded, short- muzzled head and round eyes that were set far apart.
Thompson served as a U.S. Navy doctor for some years and had developed a strong interest in Asia. He spent time in a monastery in Tibet and became familiar with the shorthaired, solid brown cats in the area. These felines, known as “copper cats” for their rich brown color, have existed in Southeast Asia for centuries. They were described and depicted in the ancient text The Cat-Book Poems, written in the city of Ayudha, Siam (now Thailand) some time between 1350 when the city was founded and 1767 when the city was burned down by invaders.
Thompson was so taken with Wong Mau’s beauty and personality that, with the help of like-minded breeders and geneticists, the doctor began a carefully planned breeding program designed to isolate Wong Mau’s distinguishing characteristics so he could reproduce her type and color. Since no Adam had accompanied Thompson’s Eve on the trip from Burma, Thompson bred Wong Mau to one of his breeding Siamese males, a seal point named Tai Mau. The resulting litter revealed that Wong Mau herself carried a pointed pattern gene, since some of the kittens in her litter were pointed and the gene for the pointed pattern is recessive (both parents need to contribute the gene for the trait to be expressed in the physical appearance of the offspring). Thompson and his team realized that Wong Mau was a Siamese hybrid —half Siamese and half Burmese—because she didn’t breed true. (Today, Wong Mau would be considered a Tonkinese, but this hybrid breed would not be developed until decades later.)
The resulting kittens from matings between Wong Mau and Tai Mau were bred to each other or crossed back to Wong Mau. After two generations, Thompson identified three distinct color and pattern variations: one variety looked like Wong Mau (medium brown with darker points), the second like Tai Mau (seal point Siamese), and the third was solid dark-chocolate brown. Thompson and his team decided the dark-chocolate brown cats (called sable ) were the most beautiful and striking, and they set out to isolate the gene governing this color. The sable cats were crossed with each other or back to Wong Mau, resulting in three generations of Burmese (as Thompson named them) that bred true and possessed what Thompson called the “dark color phase.” The points were darker in color, most noticeable in kittens and less apparent in adults.
Since the Burmese in America began with just one cat, the gene pool was extremely small. Three brown cats were imported from Rangoon in 1941 to increase the gene pool, but most Burmese are descendants of Wong Mau, since she was healthy and produced many litters. To increase the limited breeding stock and to keep the gene pool healthy, outcrossing to Siamese continued in the 1930s and ’40s.
When Burmese cats were introduced into America’s show halls in the late 1930s and early 1940s, they were an immediate hit. Despite the hisses and yowls from Siamese breeders, who were afraid Burmese would dilute their pure Siamese stock, most fanciers took to these beautiful brown cats in a big way. In 1936, CFA accepted the Burmese for registration, and with that legitimacy the popularity of the Burmese rose.
Demand was much greater than supply, and to increase the gene pool, breeders continued to breed back to the Siamese, creating lots of hybrids, which some breeders sold as pure Burmese. This caused confusion over what constituted a pedigreed Burmese, and because of this CFA suspended registration of the Burmese in 1947. CFA insisted that three generations of Burmese-to-Burmese breeding was necessary for cats to be registered as members of the breed. Since only three North American cat associations existed at the time, to be excluded from the largest was a major setback. Nevertheless, the dedicated Burmese breeders got to work on the three generations needed to regain their lost status. In 1953, CFA reinstated the Burmese for registration, and in 1957 CFA granted championship status.
In 1958, the newly formed United Burmese Cat Fanciers decided that to avoid problems in the future, they’d develop a single breed standard —one that all breeders and cat associations would use. Keep in mind that a breed standard is not a description of a breed, but a goal for which to strive. Adopted in 1959, the new standard added the words “somewhat compact” to the description—an important change, since today’s Contemporary Burmese are so compact they are called “bricks wrapped in silk.” Later, the word “somewhat” was dropped from the standard. These changes indicated the move away from any hint of the Siamese look, particularly since the Siamese was becoming a svelte breed.
The actual look of the breed has changed over the years, achieving the diversity and current appearance through years of selective breeding. Almost thirty years ago, two distinct head types emerged: the Contemporary Burmese and the Traditional Burmese.
According to researchers, the skull changes that took place as the Contemporary Burmese’s head became more extreme created health problems in some cats, such as cranial deformities, excessive eye tearing, and breathing problems due to the foreshortened nose. Buy from a breeder who will give you a written health guarantee.
According to some fanciers, the Traditional Burmese and European Burmese lack these physical problems because the head type is not as extreme.
Burmese also can be prone to gingivitis. Feeding a high quality tartar-control dry food will remove some of the tartar, but Burmese should get a dental checkup with their yearly physical and professional teeth cleanings as needed. If your Burmese needs it and will allow it, brush your cat’s teeth regularly with cat tooth paste and a child’s size tooth brush—ask your veterinarian for instructions. Left untreated, gingivitis can lead to periodontal disease, which can cause tissue, tooth, and bone loss, and can undermine your cat’s health and affect his nervous system, kidneys, liver, and heart.
The Burmese’s sleek, glossy coat usually requires little care. However, a once-a-week grooming session can reduce hairballs and fur on your furniture, and can help you bond with your Burmese since they usually enjoy the attention.
If you don’t plan to show, you may be able to save money by buying a sable Bombay. Since Burmese are included in Bombay breeding programs, a percentage of sables are born in Bombay litters, but can’t be shown as either Bombays or Burmese in some associations such as CFA. They have the same loving personality and nearly the same appearance as the Burmese.
Did you know?
When the first Burmese, Wong Mau, arrived in the United States, Siamese had rounder, heavier body styles than today’s show Siamese and were similar to Wong Mau’s body type. Today, the Siamese and Burmese have very dissimilar types due to selective breeding.
Don’t buy a Burmese if you want a shy, reserved cat who minds his own business. These heart and lap warmers are people-oriented cats who form strong bonds with the humans who love them. Most play host or hostess when visitors come to call.
Burmese are active entertainers who perform antics for your amusement and theirs. Full of high spirits and friskiness as kittens and young adults, they love to entertain and will execute daring leaps to the top of the entertainment center or bookcase, pausing to make sure their human audience is watching. If their antics go unnoticed—or rudely ignored—they will materialize in available laps, demanding undivided attention or else. A very determined breed, Burmese will win almost any battle of wills. Burmese are more entertaining than most shows on television, say fanciers, and you never have to break for commercials. Burmese only go off the air for dinner time and lap catnaps. They continue to be playful entertainers well into adulthood and even old age.
Because of their heritage, the Burmese talk, but not as loudly nor quite as much as their Siamese ancestors. They typically only speak up when spoken to, or when they have something important to tell you, which fanciers say is often. They use a variety of expressive, raspy meows to get their messages across.
Although playful and spirited, they enjoy a good snooze in a warm lap and caresses from loving hands. Burmese crave and thrive on human attention—lots of it—and have a ready purr for any human who provides it. Fanciers say Burmese are loving and devoted Velcro® kitties who will stick by your side as though attached there.
A solitary Burmese is not a happy cat; members of this breed shouldn’t be left alone for extended periods. They become unhappy or even depressed if their people are away all day or night. If you’re away for long periods, another companionable cat or a cat-friendly dog will keep your Burmese company. If you have space for only one cat and work full time, consider a breed that needs less attention.