The Burmese (Thai: ทองแดง (ศุภลักษณ์) RTGS: Thong Daeng, meaning copper colour) is a breed of domestic cat.
Most modern Burmese are descendants of one female cat called Wong Mau, which was brought from Burma to America in 1930 and bred with American Siamese. From there, unusually among pedigreed domestic cats, American and British breeders developed distinctly different Burmese breed standards. Most modern cat registries do not formally recognize the two as separate breeds, but those that do refer to the British type as the European Burmese.
Originally, all Burmese cats were dark brown (sable), but are now available in a wide variety of colours; formal recognition of these also varies by standard. Both versions of the breed are known for their uniquely social and playful temperament and persistent vocalisation.
The earliest records of a type resembling the modern 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.
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, thus probably similar to the modern Tonkinese breed. The first attempt to deliberately develop the Burmese in the late 19th century in Britain resulted in what were known as Chocolate Siamese rather than a breed in their own right; this view persisted for many years, encouraging cross-breeding between Burmese and Siamese in an attempt to more closely conform to the Siamese build. The breed thus slowly died out in Britain.
Dr. Joseph Cheesman Thompson imported Wong Mau, a brown female cat, into San Francisco in 1930. Dr Thompson considered the cat's build to be sufficiently different from the Siamese to still have potential as a fully separate breed. Wong Mau was bred with Tai Mau, a sealpoint Siamese, and then bred with her son to produce dark brown kittens that became the foundation of a new, distinctive strain of Burmese. In 1936, the Cat Fanciers' Association (CFA) granted the breed formal recognition. However, due to continued extensive outcrossing with Siamese cats to increase the population, the original type was overwhelmed, and the CFA suspended breed recognition a decade later.Attempts by various American breeders to refine the unique Burmese standard persisted, however, and in 1954, the CFA lifted the suspension permanently.In 1958, the United Burmese Cat Fanciers (UBCF) compiled an American judging standard which has remained essentially unchanged since its adoption.
Meanwhile, in the UK, interest in the breed was reviving. The cats which composed the new British breeding program were of a variety of builds, including some imported from America. By 1952, three true generations had been produced in Britain and the breed was recognized by the United Kingdom's Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF). Until the late 1960s, the gene pool in Britain remained 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 gene pool was widened. From the 1950s onwards, countries in the Commonwealth and Europe started importing British Burmese; as a result, most countries have based their standard on the British model.
Currently, the two versions of the breed are kept strictly distinct genetically. British Burmese (also known as "traditional") were declassed as a breed by the CFA in the 1980s. The GCCF, meanwhile, has banned the registration of all Burmese imported from America in order to preserve the "traditional" bloodlines.Most modern cat registries do not formally recognize these dual standards as representing separate breeds, but those that do refer to the British type as the European Burmese. Recently, the International Cat Association (TICA) and CFA clubs have started using the American breed standard at select shows 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. This early hybrid type was later developed as a separate breed, known today as the Tonkinese. Burmese cats have also been instrumental in the development of the Bombay and the Burmilla, among others.
The British Burmese is predisposed to Diabetes mellitus.The incidence of flat-chested kitten syndrome was at one time believed to be particularly prevalent in the Burmese breed, but recent studies have cast some doubt on this hypothesis. A study funded by the UK Burmese Cat Club in 1980 was inconclusive.The breed has an average lifespan of 10 to 17 years.
Certain UK bloodlines suffer from an acute teething disorder in young kittens, where the eruption of the second teeth causes extreme discomfort and the young cat tears at its face to try to alleviate the pain. Veterinary intervention is not useful, since it is the eruption of the new teeth in the jaw that causes the problem; these cannot be removed until they have erupted, by which time the problem ceases. Apart from scarring caused by the self-mutilation, the cat seems to recover completely.
Hypokalaemia, a genetic disease which is characterised by low serum potassium levels, has also been seen in the British Burmese and can similarly be traced to certain bloodlines. The gene is recessive, and both parents must carry it for the kittens to develop the problem. A carrier mated to a non-carrier may pass the problem on unnoticed for several generations. Clinical signs include skeletal muscle weakness, which is often episodic in nature and either affects the whole cat or is localised to the neck muscles. As a consequence the cat can have difficulty in walking and holding their head correctly. Hypokalaemic cats can usually lead a normal life if they get the correct potassium supplement. Onset of symptoms often occurs around puberty and many may never experience another attack. A DNA test is now available to identify cats affected by or carrying this recessive gene.