Getting to Know the Birman

By Paula Boroff
from The Cat Fanciers' Association Complete Cat Book

A Birman can strike a pose that would entice the finest portrait artist, hypnotizing you with his beautiful blue eyes and luxurious coat and color combinations, immediately followed by a romp down the hall, chasing an invisible mouse. These are color pointed cats, which means they have a darker color on their tail, legs, ears and face, like the Siamese or the Himalayan Division of the Persian. Like other color pointed breeds, they are born with a creamy white coat. When they are just a few days old, their color will begin to appear if they are going to be seal points. Other colors take a few days more to come into view. At the start Birmans were only permitted four point colors to be eligible for CFA championship competition : seal point, chocolate point, blue point and lilac point. Currently, Birmans are accepted in many more point colors than the original four. They are now accepted by CFA in the original four plus a variety of lynx point, parti-color point and red factor solid-color point. The unique white color of the feet and up the back of the hind legs are probably what draw the most attention from spectators at cat shows. They are referred to as "gloves" and "laces." The white color begins to appear on the feet of the darker colors within a few days after they are born.

Although the Birman body is white at birth, a lighter shade of its point color develops on its coat as it matures and is called "golden mist." When a Birman lies in the sunlight, the golden mist is reminiscent of a morning mist hovering near the ground. Beneath the mist lies a lighter shade at the roots.

Their distinctive heads ideally include a strong, broad skull that is rounded with a medium length Roman nose, full cheeks, heavy jaw and a well-developed chin. Their eyes are almost round and blue, set well apart with the outer corner tilted slightly upward. They can steal your heart. The body should be long and stocky with medium length heavy legs, large, round paws and a medium length tail. Females are generally more petite than males but they too have substantial boning in proportion to their size. The standard calls for penalizing of delicate bone structure.

The ideal Birman is a large, long stocky cat. It has long, silky hair, not as thick as the Persian, and does not mat. The color of the coat is light, preferably with a golden cast, as if misted with gold. The "points" are darker, similar to the Siamese and colorpointed Persian. The very distinctive white feet are ideally symmetrical. The "gloves" on the front feet, if perfect, go across in an even line, and the "laces" on the hind feet end in a point up the back of the leg. It is very difficult to breed a cat with four perfect white gloves.

Their Personality


Birmans are often referred to as "middle of the road" cats. Of course, there are variations among the breed, but they do not tend to be as active as shorthaired breeds such as Abyssinians nor as laid back as some of the other longhaired cats such as Persians.

Birmans are loving animals who may prefer to sit beside their human, lay upon their human's lap, or sit on their human's head at 4 o'clock in the morning. Generally a soft-spoken cat, a Birman will let you know when attention is needed NOW! After a brief scratch behind the ears or a major hug, they are ready to go their way until the next time attention is required. It could be in a few minutes, a few hours or a day or two, but they will let you know if they think you are paying insufficient attention.

They are not usually fussy eaters, although they may be deceptive about this. It is common practice to leave various types of dry food in different places around the house, a practice known as free feeding. Kittens are almost always fed canned food while they are being weaned from their mothers until they learn to eat cereal-type food. Canned food may also be given on a regular basis if humans choose to do so. Canned food can also serve as comfort food when a kitten does not feel well or just returned from a visit to the veterinarian for an examination, vaccination or medical procedure such as neutering. They require plenty of fresh drinking water made available for them, as with any breed.

Birmans have been known to be "helpful" when reading the newspaper with the kind of help involving lying in the middle of your paper until you pick them up. It is typical of Birmans not to like being the only animal in a home. They are not very fussy about whether their companion is another Birman, a cat of mixed parentage or even a dog. They are social animals by nature and if their human companions are gone most of the time, they become very lonely. Several people have adopted a Birman, only to add another kitten to their household within a few months.

Coat Care and Grooming

Birmans have semi-long, silky hair that is not inclined to mat because of its texture. Consequently, frequent grooming is not necessary. However, it is a good idea to comb out the coat a few minutes a day as part of the attention your cat receives on a regular basis. An occasional bath will keep a Birman looking great. How frequent you bathe a cat depends on how dirty it gets. A general rule of thumb is once a month.

Any quality brand of cat shampoo can be used to bathe a Birman. Human shampoos are not recommended because the pH factors (the measure of acidity and alkalinity) of human and feline hair are different. For this reason human shampoos will not get the ideal result as will products formulated for cats.

Place your cat in the sink; wet him down with lukewarm water and work shampoo through the coat. It is important to rinse a Birman's coat thoroughly. Leftover soap can cause the hair to stick together, and he may look worse than he did before you bathed him. A cream rinse is generally not necessary when grooming this breed, but if your cat's coat has a lot of static electricity, one may be used. Birmans usually tolerate an electric hair dryer well, and your cat's coat will look its best if it is blown dry rather than air-dried. Air-drying can also result in the formation of mats, which can be painful to remove later. A Birman who is shown on a regular basis may be bathed each week without causing harm to the coat's naturally silky texture.

If your cat has an upper respiratory infection or has been running a fever, it is not uncommon for white hairs to appear in the mask, especially in darker point colored cats. This is known as "ticking," and will probably disappear the next time your cat sheds his coat.

Birmans mature slowly and may not reach their full growth until the age of three. They are notoriously clumsy. Occasionally one will walk across the back of the sofa or along a ledge, only to fall off for no apparent reason. When you go to check if he is all right, he will look at you as if to say, "I did that on purpose," and continue on his way. If you own more than one Birman, "chaser/chasee" is a popular game. The rules are that one cat chases the other down the hall and through the rooms. On the return trip, the former chaser is now the cat being chased.

These are healthy cats and live relatively long lives. A Birman of 15 years or more is not unusual, and sometimes they just pass peacefully in their sleep at twenty years of age and older.

Breed History

Unlike some of the breeds recognized for championship competition by CFA there is no clear record behind the origin of Birmans. Other CFA recognized breeds can trace their origins to a spontaneous mutation (such as the American Wirehair or the Scottish Fold) or to an intentional cross of other breeds to create a new breed or color, (such as the Bombay, Colorpoint Shorthair or Ocicat). Birmans cannot.

The Birman cat is believed to have originated in Burma, where it was considered sacred, the companion cat of the Kittah priests. There is a legend as to how the Birmans developed the colors they are today: Originally, the guardians of the Temple of LaoTsun were yellow-eyed white cats with long hair. The golden goddess of the temple, Tsun-Kyan-Kse, had deep blue eyes. The head priest, Mun-Ha, had as his companion a beautiful cat named Sinh. One day the temple was attacked and Mun-Ha was killed. At the moment of his death, Sinh placed his feet on his master and faced the goddess. The cat's white fur took on a golden cast, his eyes turned as blue as the eyes of the goddess, and his face, legs and tail became the color of earth. However, his paws, where they touched the priest, remained white as a symbol of purity. All the other temple cats became similarly colored. Seven days later, Sinh died, taking the soul of Mun-Ha to paradise. The modern history of the Birman is almost as shrouded in mystery as its legendary origin. What is known for certain is that, probably around 1919, a pair of Birman cats was clandestinely shipped from Burma to France. The male cat did not survive the arduous conditions of the long voyage, but the female, Sita, did survive, and happily, was pregnant.

From this small foundation, the Birman was established in the western world. The French cat registry recognized the Birman as a separate breed in 1925. By the end of WW II, only two Birmans were left alive in Europe, and a program of outcrossing was necessary to reestablish the breed. Most cat registries require at least five generations of pure breeding after outcrossings to fully accredit a breed for championship competition. Birmans were recognized by England in 1966 and by The Cat Fanciers' Association in 1967.

It took five years from their initial acceptance into championship competition in CFA for the first Birman to earn the title of Grand Champion. This may have been largely because initially there were not many Birmans being shown. Although they may have gotten off to a slow start, Birmans are now well represented in the show ring. The first Birman to earn a national win achieved the feat in 1989.

How Birman Kittens are Named

No story about Birmans would be complete without a few words regarding the convention for naming them. Most Birman breeders in the United States follow the French tradition of naming kittens with the same letter of the alphabet throughout the same year. 2001 was a "Y" year. In 2002 Birman kittens were given names beginning with "Z", and 2003 starts all over again with the letter "A." No letters of the alphabet are skipped, recycling back to "A" every 26 years. This can be a great challenge. In the year of the "Q's" one owner named a cat Qsmakemecrazy.

Whether playing with a feather in a judge's ring or sitting quietly beside its owner, Birmans are wonderful cats. They are at their best as companion animals for children, senior citizens or those anywhere between the two. A Grand Champion who sired several litters of kittens before he was altered now spends his days accompanying his owner to her job at a senior citizen care center. Whether the residents are inclined to play with him or hold him in their laps, he is content spending his retirement with his adopted human retirees.

It has been said that Birmans house the souls of the priests from the legend. Perhaps this is true.

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