The Burmese cat
I’ve heard it said about the Burmese cat that, like potato chips, you can’t have just one.
Once your first Burmese starts following you around the house, just because he needs to be near you, you might start thinking about how nice it would be to be worshipped by two Burmese cats.
But as lovely as these cats are – and they are lovely – the Burmese is not the cat for every household.
Read to find out why, and a whole lot more about this unusual cat breed. Did you know that there are actually two types of Burmese cats, and that one could argue that there isn’t much Burma in the Burmese cat at all?
It’s a fascinating story.
Where the heck is Burma?
The word “Burmese” refers to anything from the country of Burma, which, actually, is no longer even called Burma.
Today, the country formerly known as Burma, is called Myanmar. It’s the largest country in Southeast Asia, and it’s bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand.
Myanmar is a true melting pot for humans. It’s home to more than 130 ethnic nationalities and its people speak more than 100 different languages and dialects.
Unfortunately, Myanmar has had a tumultuous political history. The country gained independence from British rule in 1948, which was followed by an attempt at democracy. A series of military regimes have held power since. The constant upheaval has turned Myanmar into one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia.
Cats and ancient Burma
Cats of all types have lived in this part of the world for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
How do we know this? There’s a collection of ancient manuscripts from nearby Thailand that likely date back at least 700 years, called the Tamra Maew, or “The Cat-Book Poems.” These manuscripts contain drawings or depictions of ancient cat breeds.
We think we can identify some of the cat varieties described in the poems today, including the Siamese, Supalek, and Korat. It’s possible that a cat called the Thong Daeng (which means “red-gold” or “copper”), mentioned in the document, was a Burmese or Tonkinese cat.
Cats and modern Myanmar
So, Burma and cats go way back.
There’s a story that’s about a thousand years old about a Buddhist monk who died trying to protect his temple from thieves. Burmese cats were once considered to be the divine reincarnation of this monk, and thus were allowed to inhabit Burmese monasteries and temples, and were kept by the king in his palace.
But it’s been a long time since there have been real Burmese cats in Burma.
The country’s last king kept dozens of the cats. But when he was exiled during British colonization of the country in the early 1800s, the cats were presumably released into the streets.
Today, one woman is spearheading a project to return Burmese cats to Myanmar. She started a breeding project seven years ago, using Burmese cats acquired from, ironically, Australia and the United Kingdom.
Today’s Burmese cats
So, how did today’s Burmese cats come to be?
The story starts with Dr. Joseph C. Thompson, a U.S. Naval medical officer, who was a bit of kook. This guy was an American spy posing as a naturalist in Japan, an expert in snakes who kept a rattlesnake as a pet, a Freudian psychoanalyst once described as “insane and dangerous” by a colleague, a friend of L. Ron Hubbard, the future founder of Scientology, and the owner of a Siamese cattery.
Dr. Thompson imported Wong Mau from Burma, a cat he described to The Honolulu Advertiser in 1936 as a Burmese/Siamese mix. He bred Wong Mau to one of his Siamese cats, and then back bred a kitten from this litter to his mother, to found the modern-day Burmese breed.
The whole Burmese cat breed thing kind of fell apart for a while, though. The Cat Fanciers’ Association first recognized the Burmese breed, but was then forced to “unrecognize” the breed when it was discovered that cats who were not really Burmese were being sold as Burmese.
Burmese breeders finally got their act together and the Burmese was restored as a breed again in 1953.
There are two different kinds of Burmese cats
American Burmese cat breeders and European cat breeders went in two different directions as they started to develop the breed. Today, both kinds are called Burmese, they’re considered the same breed, and they’re both amazing.
But it does beg the question whether either cat looks or behaves like the cats who called Buddhist temples, pagodas, and palaces home all those years ago.
Let’s review the differences:
Color. The American Burmese comes in four colors: sable (dark brown), blue (gray), champagne, and platinum (lilac). European Burmese come in these colors, plus six others, including four kinds of tortoiseshell, red (orange), and cream.
Eyes. The American Burmese has round, wideset eyes. The European Burmese has an almost semi-circular eye: straight on top and rounded underneath.
Ears. American Burmese have average-sized ears, wideset, with rounded tips. European Burmese ears are somewhat bigger, set even wider on the head, and inclined forward.
Head. An American Burmese has a round head and full cheeks. A European Burmese has a more oriental-style head: wedge-shaped, with wide cheekbones, and a strong chin.
Body. An American Burmese has a compact, thick, muscled body with round paws. The European Burmese body is more slender and refined, with oval paws.
Both types are small to medium sized, at around nine to 13 pounds.
What is the personality of a Burmese cat?
The Burmese is such a wonderful cat that it’s easy to fall in love with one. But they’re not for everyone.
Burmese are loving and sociable, but almost to a fault: they’ll wither if left alone too long. This is a cat who thrives on attention and will feel abandoned by someone who works long hours.
Read about separation anxiety in cats here. This can be a real problem for Burmese cats.
Burmese want to be with their humans wherever they are. I love this quote from a Burmese breeder, “I have seen a kitten wake from a nap, realize that there was a human (me!) in the room, and literally race over to me, jump up to curl up on my lap, and go back to sleep!”
A Burmese is playful and puppy-like well into adulthood. Most love games like fetch and tag.
They want to be with their people as much as possible: snuggling in bed and on your lap, without being overly demanding. They enjoy all the family members. Most get along with other cats and dogs in the house.
A Burmese can be vocal but with a softer, sweeter voice than a Siamese cat.
Is the Burmese a healthy cat?
The Burmese is generally a healthy breed, expected to live 10 to 17 years.
But there are some health problems a potential guardian should be aware of.
Some breeding lines appear to be susceptible to diabetes, a serious metabolic disorder. A condition involving low potassium, called hypokalaemic polymyopathy, has also been seen, as well as a strange condition called FOPS: Feline Orofacial Pain Syndrome, that has to do with teething in kittens.
There is a gene in some American lines that causes a head and brain deformity.
Gagliosidosis, an inherited metabolic disorder, is a concern in the breed, as well as pica: the compulsion to eat non-food items.
Are you interested in reading about another breed from Burma? Learn all about the Birman 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.
 “Hong Kong Explorer Returns Burmese Cats to Myanmar after a 70-Year Absence.” South China Morning Post, 14 Apr. 2016, www.scmp.com/lifestyle/travel-leisure/article/1935706/hong-kong-explorer-returns-burmese-cats-myanmar-after-70.
 Rigby, Jennifer. “Heading Home: Burmese Cats Going Back to Burma.” The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Nov. 2015, www.smh.com.au/national/heading-home-burmese-cats-going-back-to-burma-20151102-gkoofu.html.
 Hartwell, Sarah. “CATS AND CAT CARE RETROSPECTIVE: 1900s - 1930s: BREEDS AND VARIETIES: SIAMESE, BURMESE, AABYSSINIAN, HAIRLESS AND JAPANESE.” Cats and Cat Care Retrospective: 1900s - 1930s: Breeds and Varieties: Siamese, Burmese, Abyssinian, Hairless and Japanese, messybeast.com/retro1920-breeds-2.htm. Accessed 23 May 2023.
 “European and American Burmese. ‘Let`s Make It Clear!’” European and American Burmese. “Let`s Make It Clear!” - Burmese Cats Portal, burmeseinfo.com/page.php?id=119. Accessed 23 May 2023.