Move over, Siamese cats and Japanese Bobtails: There’s another Asian feline to stroke, play with, and love. The sleek, round-faced Burmese is descended from a kitty that was imported from Burma, or modern-day Myanmar, to the U.S. in 1930. Here are five facts about the beautiful cat from the Far East.
1. MOST BURMESE CATS ARE DESCENDED FROM A KITTY NAMED WONG MAU.
Nobody knows quite where the Burmese comes from, although historical records suggest that copper brown cats resembling the exotic feline have lived in Southeast Asia for hundreds of years. But according to popular belief, the breed we know and love today in in America didn’t exist until 1930, when a sailor gave a small, light brown cat with darker brown points to a Siamese cat breeder named Dr. Joseph Thompson.
The cat was christened Wong Mau. According to American Cat Fanciers Association judge Dolores Kennedy in an essay on the history of the breed, Thompson—a retired Navy doctor who had lived in Asia and was interested in the region's culture—called her a Burmese because she was said to have joined the ship's crew in Burma. Thompson was smitten with his new pet, and teamed up with other breeders and geneticists to create more of them via a selective breeding program.
Since Thompson lived in San Francisco and didn’t have access to more Burmese cats, he mated Wong Mau with a Seal Point Siamese named Tai Mau. They produced several generations of offspring, and Thompson soon noticed that Wong Mau (who Kennedy says today’s cat experts believe was likely part Siamese) gave birth to two (later on three) types of kitten: one that looked like its mother and one that resembled its Siamese father.
Thompson mated these cats with one another, and with Wong Mau. These pairings resulted in three new generations of even darker brown cats—the foundation of the modern-day Burmese breed.
The cats' gene pool was small, so in 1941 Thompson and his breeding group imported three brown cats from Burma to add some genetic variety to the litters. In later decades, they began outcrossing the cats with Siamese kitties to keep the bloodline growing. Today, most Burmese cats can trace their ancestry back to Wong Mau.
Thompson published the results of his experimental breeding program in the April 1943 issue of the Journal of Heredity. Sadly, Thompson died from a heart attack before his article, "Genetics of the Burmese Cat"—which argued that the Burmese was a new, unique breed—was printed.
2. THE BURMESE IS BELOVED (BUT WAS ONCE CONSIDERED CONTROVERSIAL) AMONG CAT FANCIERS.
Siamese lovers in America were initially afraid that the new kitty from Asia might dilute their breed. But many others embraced the glossy brown feline, and it soon grew in popularity. In 1936, the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) accepted the Burmese for registration. As of 2014, the Burmese cat was the 16th most popular cat in America, according to CFA registration statistics.
Still, like many other cat breeds, the Burmese hasn’t escaped controversy. During the breed's earlier years, there were so few Burmese cats in the U.S. but such a high demand that their owners mated them with Siamese cats. When they sold the kittens, they claimed they were purebred Burmese. The number of crossbred cats made the CFA suspend registration for the cat in 1947, and make a rule that the only “true” Burmese eligible for registration were cats that resulted from three generations of Burmese-to-Burmese breeding.
In 1953, the cat was reinstated for registration, and by 1957 it was granted championship status. In 1959, a cat club called the United Burmese Cat Fanciers established a new, official breed standard. It's evolved over the years, but today's Burmese is still medium-sized, compact (some people have described the Burmese as a "brick wrapped in silk"), smooth, and round-faced.
3. TODAY'S BURMESE CATS COME IN A VARIETY OF COLORS.
Some Burmese breeders weren’t too happy when kittens with Siamese-like colored coats—ranging from beige to pale grey, medium grey, and grayish-brown—began popping up in Burmese litters. But over time, the CFA grudgingly accepted these fur shades along with the standard rich brown [PDF]. Today, the organization recognizes the Burmese in four official colors: sable (dark brown), Champagne (beige), blue (a medium grey with light brown undertones), and platinum (a light grey with light brown undertones). The cat's eye color is typically gold or yellow.
4. EUROPE HAS ITS OWN VARIATION OF THE BURMESE.
A few Burmese cats were sent from the U.S. to the UK in the late 1940s. There, they were mated with Siamese and domestic cats, and decades of selective breeding gave them a different look from their cousins across the pond. In the late 1970s, the European Burmese arrived in North America, and it was eventually accepted as a new breed.
Today, the two cats are judged by very different breed standards, even though they share Wong Mau as an ancestor. However, the European Burmese remains rare in North America to this day: In 2014, the CFA analyzed its registration statistics and ranked the feline as its 34th most popular breed.
Today’s European Burmese has a slightly longer (and more pointed) head than the broad-faced American Burmese, and a sleeker body type. Its satiny coat also comes in more colors and patterns, including brown, chocolate, blue, lilac, cream, red, and tortoiseshell [PDF]. And although the CFA and many other organizations have accepted the feline for championship status, a few haven't fully recognized it yet. Meanwhile, the Canadian Cat Association (CCA) and Cat Fanciers Federation (CFF) call the unique kitty by a different name: the "Foreign Burmese."
5. THE BURMESE IS A PLAYFUL AND LOVING CAT.
Looking for a playful, loving lap cat that will play fetch, snuggle with you, and communicate with loud chirping meows? Consider the Burmese. They're also great with children, and ideal to own as a family pet.