The Birman cat
The Birman cat is a beauty and charmer.
They’re loving, cuddly, affectionate cats who love nothing more than to spend the day with you. They fit in everywhere: in families with kids – so long as the children have been taught to treat cats respectfully – and dogs, too.
They’re also absolutely stunning: living works of art, with silky, semi-longhaired fur, dramatic color points, adorable mittens on every foot, and brilliant sapphire eyes.
The only thing a little wonky about the Birman is this cat breed’s backstory, most of which is probably fable and nonsense.
But all of that falls away once you meet your first Birman. Whether the breed is truly ancient, as the tales claim, or a product of a mere hundred years of thoughtful breeding, the Birman is a wonderful cat.
The history of the Birman cat
There are no records of the Birman’s origins.
It doesn’t matter what you read, or what someone tells you about the background of this cat breed, the history really starts in the 1920s in France, which is really the first time any one put anything down in writing about the Birman.
The breed name actually comes from the French word for Burma: Birmanie.
Birman cat fables
There is some belief, which may be rooted in truth (or not), that the Birman came from Burma, which is present-day Myanmar.
The breed was known as the Sacred Cat of Burma and also the Tibetan Temple Cat, and legend holds that Birman cats were once the companions of temple priests.
There are fantastical fables about how the Birman acquired its unusual coloring that you can read on almost any cat-breed website. All of them involve a hero Birman named Sinh, who defended his high-priest master when the temple was under attack.
The Birman arrives in France
For the Birman cat, we skip right from ancient history to the modern era. All we really know is that a pregnant Birman cat made its way to France - somehow.
Depending upon whom you ask, a pair might have been given to an officer in the English army, Major Russell Gordon, who was stationed in Burma during the Burmese War of 1885, and an English explorer, August Pavie. The two men helped save the priests and their underground temple from an invasion.
According to another story, the pair was purchased or smuggled out by one of the Vanderbilts who was traveling in the Far East. Yet another story suggests that a Vanderbilt servant, who had been at the temple of Lao-Tsun, where the cats were supposedly kept as sacred animals, gifted the cats to Vanderbilt.
It doesn’t really matter. The part of the story that matters is that only one of the two cats that were gifted, bought, or stolen, survived the journey to France, and she was pregnant.
The first Birman on record was Poupee de Madalpour
The mother cat who made the journey from Burma (or somewhere in Asia) gave birth to only one kitten. Or, only one kitten survived from her litter.
Her French guardian named the kitten Poupee de Madalpour. “Poupee” means “Poppet,” a term of endearment, and Madalpour refers to the name of her father, the male cat who died on the journey to France.
One cat is obviously not enough cats to start a breeding program. Poupee was bred with a Siamese or Siamese-type of cat, and there is a record of one litter. Some say that Poupee is the foundation of the Birman breed.
Were French Birmans really from Burma?
There’s really some question about what happens next.
The records are a little murky (or deliberately unclear). We do know that early Birman breeding programs suffered from fertility problems due to inbreeding.
Was there some crossover between the two breeding programs? Were Birmans were actually “manufactured” using Siamese cats and bi-colored longhaired cats in an attempt to recreate the look of the “real” Birman?
The Birman was nearly lost in World War II
Whatever was created then was nearly wiped out thanks to World War II. At the end of the war, there were only two Birman cats left, Orlaff de Kaabaa, and Xenia de Kaabaa, now considered to be the breed’s foundation cats.
Regardless of their provenance – whether Burma or France – the offspring of the Kaabaas were most definitely crossed with Persians and Siamese cats.
The Birman earns recognition from cat-fancy organizations
The Birman breed was first recognized in France by the Cat Club de France in 1925, then in England by Governing Council of the Caty Fancy (GCCF) in 1966, in the United States by Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) in 1967, and The International Cat Association (TICA) in 1979.
What does a Birman cat look like?
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I can see why the first French breeders wanted to preserve (or emulate) the look of the Birman cat. They’re truly stunning.
A Birman is a stocky cat with a medium-to-large rectangular body. Both males and females average around 12 pounds.
A Birman has a broad skull which makes the face look round. He has a Roman nose, which refers to its prominent bridge, round eyes that are always blue, and smallish ears.
But the fur! It’s medium long, soft, and silky, with a longer ruff around the neck and a fluffy tail. There’s no undercoat, so it tends not to mat and is easy to care for. You’ll only need to run a simple stainless-steel comb, like this one by Andis through the coat weekly to maintain it.
A Birman is always colorpointed. The body is white to cream-colored and the darker points can be seal (dark brown), blue (gray), chocolate (light brown), and lilac (purple-y brown).
All Birmans have white gloves on each paw. The white should cover all of the toes, but stop at the wrist on the front side of the feet. On the back legs, the white will extend up the leg, ending in an upside-down “V.” This special marking is sometimes referred to as “laces.”
What is the personality of the Birman?
I love this quote by Birman breeder, Paula Boroff, about what it's like to live with a Birman cat:
“Birmans are very helpful; they love helping you make beds, load the dishwasher, fold laundry, read the newspaper, and work on the computer…You will never be alone with a Birman in your home.”
The Birman is sweet, sociable cat who loves to be with his people. They’re sometimes called “Velcro cats,” because they enjoy our company so much.
Birman cats are really the ideal pet: they’re playful, love attention, and are easy to handle. They’re also patient, even-tempered, and tolerant of respectful children, and sociable with other animals in the home.
They’re not noisy cats. They’re “soft-spoken,” using soft chirps to communicate.
This wonderful breed was used in the development of the Ragdoll cat, which is another sweet, fluffy, blue-eyed feline beauty with a gentle temperament.
Genetic diversity is still a problem with Birmans
If there is a problem with Birmans, it’s the same problem that has plagued the breed since Poupee was born: genetic diversity.
A 2008 study on the genetics of cat breeds found that the Birman has one of the lowest levels of genetic diversity of all the breeds studied.
Why is genetic diversity important?
When there isn’t enough difference between the DNA of individual cats, and cats are effectively mating with their relatives, their offspring can end up with two identical versions of certain gene mutations. If those mutations are harmful, the resulting kittens could be unhealthy.
In diverse populations, those harmful mutations are usually “weeded out,” or at least, they fail to be expressed by cats who carry them. But when numerous members of a group have the mutation, and they are forced to mate with each other, the harmful mutations get “weeded in” instead.
Is the Birman healthy?
Birmans can live for 15 or more years. But they do suffer from some genetic health issues.
Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. In Birmans, HCM, the most common form of heart disease in cats, is inherited as an autosomal dominant trait. This just means that the gene isn’t sex-linked, and that it only takes a single copy of the gene for the cat to inherit this terrible disease. Read more about HCM in this post.
Chronic Kidney Disease. Birmans tend to have a high blood concentration of creatinine, a waste product that is related to the digestion of protein, and symmetric dimethylarginine, a marker for kidney function, which puts them at a higher risk for chronic kidney disease.
Feline Infectious Peritonitis. FIP is a poorly understood disease that is the result of a mutated coronavirus. Birmans are on the list of cat breeds that seem to be inordinately at risk for contracting this almost invariably fatal disease. Read more about FIP in this post.
Feline audiogenic reflex seizures. FARS is a recently discovered type of epilepsy in cats, is believed to be common in Birmans.
Eye problems. Birmans are at risk for eyelid agenesis, in which a malformed upper eyelid leaves the eyes exposed and dry, and requires reconstructive surgery. Birmans are also prone to cataracts, in which a cat’s lenses become cloudy as they age. And finally, Birmans are susceptible to corneal dermoids, in which skin or hair (or both) grow over their corneas. This problem is correctable with surgery.
Congential Hypotrichosis. A recently identified gene mutation that causes Birman kittens to be born without hair and to have a short life (under eight months), has been identified in this breed. An estimated 3% of Birman cats in France may be carriers.
The weird Birman naming convention
If you get a Birman from a breeder she is likely to come with a name. (You can change your kitten’s name. Read all about it here.)
Even American breeders have adopted the peculiar French tradition of giving all kittens born in a certain year names that begin with a specific letter. This tradition spans most, if not all, breeders, so any Birman kitten born in 2016 would have a name that begins with the letter “N.”
In 2017, it was “O,” in 2018 it was “P.” You get the idea.
It makes it easy to identify a cat’s age just from his name.
Are you interested in reading about another breed from Burma? Learn all about the Burmese cat here.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 “FAQ - The Traditional Birman©.” TRADITIONAL BIRMAN CAT - FAQs, breeds.tcainc.org/BreedInfo/FAQTBirman/FAQTBirman.htm. Accessed 11 Sept. 2023.
 Patterson, Jonathan. “The Birman Breed.” Welcome to TICA - The International Cat Association, TICA Cats, TICA Pedigreed Cats, Pedigreed Cats, Pedigreed Cats Registry, Household Pet Cat Registry, Domestic Cat Registry, Savannah Cat, Bengal Cat, Persian Cat, Maine Coon Cat, www.tica.org/breeds/breed-of-the-month. Accessed 8 Sept. 2023.
 “About the Birman.” The Cat Fanciers Association Inc.
 Monika J. Lipinski, Lutz Froenicke, Kathleen C. Baysac, Nicholas C. Billings, Christian M. Leutenegger, Alon M. Levy, Maria Longeri, Tirri Niini, Haydar Ozpinar, Margaret R. Slater, Niels C. Pedersen, Leslie A. Lyons, The ascent of cat breeds: Genetic evaluations of breeds and worldwide random-bred populations, Genomics, Volume 91, Issue 1, 2008, Pages 12-21, ISSN 0888-7543, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygeno.2007.10.009.
 “Serum (Blood) Creatinine.” National Kidney Foundation, 25 July 2023, www.kidney.org/atoz/content/serum-blood-creatinine.
 “Birman.” Wikipedia.