For all the fun involved in living with a cat, the decision to take responsibility for pet care should not be made lightly. But once you’ve decided you have the commitment, the time, the resources and the patience, the next step is figuring out which cat breed is right for you. Here are five attributes that make the Birman a wonderful choice.
Not just any old Tom, Dick or Felix, this cat comes with a back story, centuries old and beginning in Burma. Back then, the Birman looked very different. It was all white, with yellow eyes. A dollop of magic, mixed with a hefty dose of misfortune, effected the transformation.
The Buddhist temple of Lao-Tsun once had 100 of these cats, including Sinh. Devoted to head monk Mun-Ha, Sinh would accompany her master to prayers before the golden, sapphire-eyed statue of Tsim-Kyan-Kse, one of the goddesses of transformation found in many cultures.
During one prayer session, Siamese looters raided the temple and attacked Mun Ha. As the monk lay dying in front of the golden statue, the faithful Sinh climbed onto his chest and tried to comfort him by purring. When the monk died, his soul flowed into Sinh. Instantly, the cat’s eyes changed from yellow to sapphire, just like the eyes of the goddess. Sinh’s coat achieved a golden patina from the statue, as well. Her face, ears, legs and tail darkened to the color of the earth on which Mun-Ha lay. But her paws, in direct contact with the good monk, remained a brilliant white, in honor of Mun-Ha’s pure spirit.
The temple’s remaining 99 cats experienced a similar transformation.
Sinh refused to move from the spot where her master died. Within a week, she, too, was dead. At the moment of her death, Mun-Ha’s soul entered Nirvana.
Cat fanciers must have felt the need for an extraordinary story to explain the extraordinary beauty of this long-coated, silky feline.
One Birman owner, asked to list five virtues of his cat, responded, “Beauty, beauty, beauty, beauty and beauty.”
The markings are certainly extraordinary. Most of the body is whitish, but carries a pale hint of the “point” hue. Like the Siamese and Persian, the Birman is more darkly colored on face, ears, legs and tail. The “point” colors may be seal, blue, chocolate, lilac, red or cream. But the color of the eyes is always sapphire. And the paws are always a brilliant white, in striking contrast to the dark legs.
One of the underpinnings of the Birman’s beauty is balance. The face, framed by a lovely ruff of fur, is neither flattened like the Persian nor pointy like the Siamese. The body is not as rangy as that of the Siamese, nor quite as robust as the Persian’s.
Similar balance is evident in the Birman’s personality. The cat is outgoing, without being pushy. It is curious without being a troublemaker. It enjoys play sessions, but has the composure to amuse itself -- or simply beautify the nearest sofa or bed.
My Birman had a ritual of insisting on a few minutes of play, followed by a few minutes of petting, before her human sacked out for the night. She would then curl up on the adjacent pillow until her human fell asleep. Then she would levitate off the bed and begin her nightly patrol of the house. Although exclusively a house cat, she was a born hunter. Woe unto the mouse that ventured inside.
The Birman’s meow also suggests balance. The cat is not shy about saying hello to humans, expressing hunger or complaining of boredom. But its vocalizations, typically ending in a polite question mark, are more sweet than strident.
The trickiness of achieving breed specifications contributes to the Birman’s uniqueness and to the steep price for a show-quality cat: well over $500. For example, the mating of two champions may not produce offspring with the appropriately shaped gloves (on the front paws) and laces (on the rear paws). The two front gloves should match, ending in a straight line, and the lacings should extend to just below the hocks.
The breed is also unique for surviving the 20th century. European Birmans trace back to a single pair, which traveled from Burma to France after World War I. Burmese monks sent the male and female cats as a gift for two Westerners who had helped the monks during yet another temple raid. Only one of the gift cats survived the journey. Fortunately, she was pregnant.
The Birman flourished in France, where cat fanciers officially recognized the breed in 1925. The name derives from the French word for Burma.
Birmans neared extinction in World War II. According to one story, the breed’s survival depended yet again on a single pair of cats. Years of carefully outcrossing the pair’s descendants with Siamese and Persians finally reestablished the breed in France. Exports to other countries did not begin until 1955. It was not until 1966 that Birmans became an officially recognized breed in Britain. It was not until 1967 that the U.S. Cat Fancy Association gave its imprimatur to the Birman.
It’s Easy to Maintain
Ironically, the cat that came close to extinction several times is a hardy critter. It has no breed-specific genetic diseases. A Birman often lives well into its teens.
Equally amazing is the relatively ease of maintaining that extravagant fur. The Birman, unlike the Persian, does not have a double coat. Its coat consists of modified guard hairs, having a silky texture. Lacking a second, downy undercoat, this long-haired cat is remarkably resistant to matting. Combing a few times a week is recommended, however, to remove dead hair and debris, to distribute natural oils -- and to crank up the purring machine.