The Siamese cat
The Siamese cat is living work of art. Her body is long, lean, and lithe, and she slinks as much as walks. Her head, wedge-shaped and dramatic, is set off by dazzling blue eyes. Her fur clings to her body; it’s sleek to the touch and a wonder to gaze upon. It’s as if all her coloring has scattered to the edges.
But the Siamese cat (called “meezers” by those who would live with no other breed of cat), is more than beauty. He’s all personality, and he’s not necessarily for everyone. This is a cat who doesn’t just enjoy being with people; he must be with people. A Siamese suffers when left alone too long, and when you are home won’t leave you be. He will follow you about, narrating continuously and offering opinions on everything, whether you were seeking advice or not. A Siamese doesn’t understand the meaning of “quiet,” or if he does, assumes it doesn’t apply to him.
For the right kind of guardian, a relationship with a Siamese can be the most intimate you will ever have with a cat. For the wrong kind of guardian, a Siamese in the house can be crazy-making.
The history of the Siamese cat
The Siamese cat is clearly one of the oldest cat breeds, but we just don’t know exactly how old. Here’s what we do know.
For at least 700 years, the people of Thailand have enjoyed the company of a cat they called Wichienmaat, which translates, loosely, to “diamond mouth” or “diamond gold,” depending upon who you ask. Anyway, it suggests preciousness, whatever the correct translation.
We say 700 years because there is a collection of ancient manuscripts called the Tamra Maew, which means “The Cat-Book Poems,” that date to the Ayutthaya Kingdom in Siam. Ayutthaya was a center of power in Southeast Asia from 1351 to 1767. Siam is modern-day Thailand.
The Tamra Maew depicts cats with slender bodies and legs, often with pale bodies but darker coloring on the ears, faces, tails, and feet. Were these Siamese cats? (The manuscripts also describe the Korat, Konja, and Suphalak cat breeds.)
It’s unfortunately difficult to date the Tamra Maew precisely. It was handwritten on palm-leaf or bark parchment. When an individual manuscript became old and fragile, it was carefully copied by hand, and the damaged pages were discarded. So we have no idea when it was first written, and consequently, how far back Siamese cats in Thailand actually go.
The Siamese cat is introduced to the Western world
In the 19th century, British citizens discovered the Wichienmaat, which looked like no cat they had ever seen before. A British diplomat brought a breeding pair home to his cat-fancying sister who showed them (and their three kittens) at the first modern cat show at the Crystal Palace in London. One journalist at the show called the Siamese “an unnatural, nightmare kind of cat.”
In 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes received a Siamese cat as a gift from the American Counsel in Bangkok, a cat named Siam.
Are Siamese cats royalty?
Siamese cats are often mistakenly called the “Royal Cat of Siam.”
It’s actually a myth that Siamese cats were reserved for royalty. The Zoological Society debunked this myth in 1900, but cat fanciers preferred the exotic backstory of cats kept by Siamese royalty, to the reality that they were just common cats in their home country.
Unfortunately, the myth persists. (But that doesn't stop YOU from treating them like royalty!)
Modern-day Siamese versus the “classic” Siamese
The early Siamese cats who were brought to England looked nothing like the Siamese breed we know today.
The original Siamese were round-headed, solid, and muscular. But Western breeders (and cat-show judges) preferred a more exotic look and began breeding for deeper blue eyes, a more stylized head, and more slender bodies.
But not everybody loved these so-called “improvements.” Many people preferred the less extreme look of the original breed with its rounder head and chunkier body.
Today there are two breeds: the modern Siamese cat with its wedge-shaped head, giant ears, and a muzzle that is sometimes referred to as a “banana nose,” and the “Old-Style Siamese,” sometimes called “Traditional Siamese,” or “Classic Siamese,” and even “Applehead Siamese”, but is more formally known as the Thai Cat in most cat registries. The Thai cat is considered a separate breed from the Siamese, even though they share common roots.
There’s also a longhaired variety of Siamese called the Balinese.
Other cat breeds would not exist without the Siamese
The Siamese cat has had an important impact on cat fancy in general. It’s the foundation stock for many other cat breeds, including the Oriental Shorthair, Himalayan, Cornish Rex, Sphynx, Peterbald, Tonkinese, and Havana Brown, to name a few.
How do Siamese cats get their unusual coloring?
“Colorpointing” is the word that describes animals that have paler bodies with darker coloration on the extremities, specifically the face, ears, feet, and tail (and scrotum in males). Colorpointing is not just limited to cats; it is found in a number of mammals, including rabbits, goats, dogs, rats, sheep, guinea pigs, and horses. It’s sometimes called the “Himalayan pattern”  because certain animals, especially rabbits and goats, from this region sport this unusual colorpointing pattern.
It’s worthwhile to note that all point coloration in cats originated with the Siamese. No other breed is responsible for introducing this color pattern in cats.
The genetics behind colorpointing
This is the craziest thing: colorpointing is actually a form of albinism. Albinism is a genetic mutation in which the body produces little or no pigment. Albino animals are usually all-white or pink.
The genetic mutation that causes albinism affects an enzyme, called tyrosinase, that is involved in the production of pigment, also known as melanin. In Siamese cats, and in other colorpointed animals, the mutated enzyme doesn’t function at normal body temperatures, meaning that it doesn’t produce pigment at all. But it jumps into action in colder temperatures. Thus, cooler areas of the body – the places at the “edges” of the cat – having working tyrosinase that produces melanin.
Here’s another strange fact: Siamese cats who live in cooler environments become darker all over than cats who live in warmer climates. The tyrosinase gets activated, not just on ears and paws and tails, but elsewhere in a colder cat.
Kittens and colorpointing
Did you know that Siamese kittens are born with pure cream or white-colored fur, and no points?
This is because they are kept so warm in the womb that the tyrosinase enzyme doesn’t produce melanin. Siamese kittens, now living in the outside world, begin to develop their points in the first few weeks of life. By four weeks old, breeders can usually tell what color they are going to be, although they tend to continue to darken with age.
Why Siamese cats have blue eyes
An unpigmented cat eye is blue. Kittens are born with blue eyes (which you can’t see until they open them), but, typically, melanin eventually starts to form and the final adult eye color becomes obvious. This is true of most kittens, but not of Siamese kittens, or those of other breeds who retain their blue eyes as adults.
Blue, by the way, isn’t an actual eye color. It’s a kind of illusion. The less melanin there is in the eye, the more light that gets in. Light that makes its way to the back of the eye bounces back. The wavelength of light that bounces back is on the blue color spectrum. Thus, there is no blue coloring in the eye. It just appears blue. It’s more or less the same reason why the sky looks blue to us.
Siamese cats have blue eyes because the mutated gene that prevents melanin from forming elsewhere in their bodies also prevents color from forming in the eye. The blueness never gets covered by another color.
Why do Siamese cats’ eyes glow red in the dark?
Cats (and certain other animals) have a special reflective layer behind the retinas in their eyes that reflects light. This special layer is called the tapetum lucidum and it helps amplify ambient light, helping cats see better in the dark. It also makes cats’ eyes shine silvery-green, silvery-blue or whiteish in the dark.
But Siamese cats either lack a tapetum lucidum, or have a less-reflective tapetum lucidum. The absence of a highly reflective tapetum lucidum makes their eyes appear to glow red in the dark.
It also makes Siamese cats less able to see well in the dark. It makes them especially vulnerable to injury – as from a car – in the dark, and affects their ability to hunt well in low light. It could partly explain their unusual attachment to people, on whom they rely more than other cat breeds do.
(Read about whether cats can see in the dark in this post.)
What do Siamese cats look like?
This is a beautiful, beautiful cat. There is no denying it. A Siamese cat’s head and face is stunning: the head is triangular with almond-shaped eyes and large ears that are positioned toward the sides of the head.
She has a long neck, and a slender body, with a long tail. She is small to medium-sized, weighing 6-10 pounds. Her fur is short, glossy, and fine, and there is no undercoat.
The largest U.S. cat registry, the Cat Fanciers Association (CFA), recognizes four coat colors for the Siamese:
What is the personality of a Siamese cat?
The Siamese is a wonderful, friendly, social, affectionate, and intelligent cat. They’re true extroverts, and remain active and playful most of their lives.
Siamese cats absolutely need their people (and they fit in well in families with children). They can bond strongly to one person and will follow that person in and out and around every room of the house, demanding attention.
The Siamese cat is a real conversationalist, who keeps a running commentary of the household goings-on all day long. They can be not just chatty but loud. Many have a distinctive meow that is sometimes compared to the sound of a crying baby.
I love this description of living with a Siamese from the question-and-answer website, Quora:
“If you are looking for a laid-back, quiet cat for a pet then a Siamese is not for you. While Siamese are intelligent, they are also strong-willed. If a Siamese cat decides it wants to do something, it will try to do it, regardless of any obstacles. Siamese have clear, loud, and obnoxious voices and, if their needs are not being met to their satisfaction, you will hear it from several rooms away. If you get a Siamese cat you will want to ‘cat proof’ your house as Siamese are notorious for jumping onto shelves or playing with electrical wires. Siamese love to play but they require constant mental stimulation and get bored easily.” 
Siamese cats get lonely and depressed if left alone for too long without their people. If you’re typically gone long hours each day, find another cat breed. Regardless, a new Siamese owner should consider getting at least two kittens from the same litter so they can keep each other company when you’re gone, even if only for a short while.
That being said, Siamese cats can be destructive if left alone for too long, and two Siamese cats can devise double the mischief of one cat.
You must play with your Siamese cat. It is critical to his emotional and mental well-being. A good home for a Siamese cat has perches and toys galore.
How healthy is the Siamese cat?
This question requires two separate answers.
In general, the Siamese cat is a long-lived breed. You can expect yours, if he is in good health, to live for 15-20 years. In fact, Scooter, who was once the Guinness Book’s record holder for the oldest-living cat, was a Siamese who reached the age of 30.
But Siamese cats are prone to quite a number of health issues. They tend to suffer from tumors, especially mammary, intestinal, and mediastinal (an area in the chest) tumors. They can have heart problems and lung problems, including asthma. They are prone to Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA), which can lead to blindness, and for which there is no treatment, and other eye problems, including glaucoma.
Siamese cats can suffer from feline hyperesthesia syndrome, which is a bizarre, extreme skin sensitivity, and vestibular syndrome, in which a cat develops a sudden lack of coordination. Read about in in this post, feline hyperesthesia syndrome.
They have a tendency to develop bladder stones and may vomit more than other breeds. Siamese cats are prone to pica, which is the desire to eat non-food items such as wool or plastic. They a prone to hip displaysia, metabolic diseases, and lysosomal storage diseases in which toxins build up in a cat’s body.
Caring for your Siamese cat
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Fortunately, a Siamese cat is otherwise easy to care for. They shed minimally, and rarely need a bath. You can run a comb quickly through the fur once a week, trim the nails, and brush the teeth. Be sure to give your Siamese regular veterinary dental cleanings (they’re prone to dental disease, too) and your Siamese is good to go!
My favorite Siamese cat story
Sometimes an insatiable curiosity is a good thing. Two Siamese cats living at the Dutch embassy in Moscow helped foil an espionage attempt with their boundless nosiness.
When the two kitties began scratching at a wall in the embassy, their quick-thinking owner suspected they were hearing something his less-sensitive ears hadn’t picked up. He broke through the wall and discovered 30 small microphones that had been eavesdropping on him!
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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.
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