Medium in size, the Contemporary Burmese is powerful with a compact appearance, an ample, rounded chest, and a level back from shoulder to tail. The breed has substantial bone structure, good muscular development, and a surprising weight for its size. The legs are relatively short but in proportion to the body, and end with rounded paws. The tail is straight and medium in length. Adult males weigh 8 to 12 pounds; adult females weigh 6 to 10 pounds.
The head is pleasingly rounded without flat planes, whether viewed from the front or side. The face is full with considerable breadth between the eyes, and blends gently into a broad, short, well-developed muzzle that maintains the rounded contours of the head. In profile, a visible nose break can be seen. The chin is firm and rounded, reflecting a proper bite, and the neck is well-developed. The medium-size ears are rounded at the tips, broad at the base, and set well apart. They tilt slightly forward, contributing to an alert appearance. The eyes are large and set far apart, with a rounded aperture.
The coat is short and very close-lying with a fine, glossy, satin-like texture. The Contemporary Burmese is universally accepted in four solid colors: sable, champagne, blue, and platinum, although TICA accepts additional the colors chocolate, lilac, red and cream, and the additional pattern of tortoiseshell. In CFA, the Tonkinese is an allowable outcross through December 31, 2021. In addition, imported Southeast Asian Cats and sable Bombay are allowable outcrosses through December 31, 2021. This will bring the Burmese new bloodlines, since the Burmese has one of the lowest genetic diversities of the pedigreed breeds, caused by years of inbreeding. In TICA, however, the Bombay can be outcrossed with the Burmese because they are both part of the same breed group.
The Burmese we know today developed from a single female cat named Wong Mau who was brought to the United States in 1930 from Rangoon, Burma (now called Yangon, Myanmar). A sailor gave the exotic feline to Siamese breeder Dr. Joseph Thompson of San Francisco. Purportedly, Wong-Mau was a small, fine-boned cat, walnut-brown with darker brown points, but more compact than the Siamese of the day with a rounded, short-muzzled head and round eyes that were set far apart.
Thompson served as a U.S. Navy doctor for years and had developed a strong interest in Asia. He spent time in a monastery in Tibet and became familiar with the shorthaired, solid brown cats in the area. These felines, known as "copper cats" for their rich brown color, have existed in Southeast Asia for centuries. They were described and depicted in the ancient text The Cat-Book Poems, written in the city of Ayutthaya, Siam (now Thailand), sometime between 1350 when the city was founded and 1767 when the city was burned down by invaders.
Thompson was so taken with Wong Mau’s beauty and personality that, with the help of like-minded breeders and geneticists, the doctor began a carefully planned breeding program designed to isolate Wong Mau’s distinguishing characteristics so he could reproduce her type and color. Since no Adam had accompanied Thompson’s Eve on the trip from Burma, Thompson bred Wong Mau to one of his breeding Siamese males, a seal point named Tai Mau. The resulting litter revealed that Wong Mau carried a pointed pattern gene, since some of the kittens in her litter were pointed. The gene for the pointed pattern is recessive (both parents need to contribute the gene for the trait to be expressed in the physical appearance of offspring). Thompson and his team realized that Wong Mau was a Siamese hybrid—half Siamese and half Burmese—because she didn’t breed true. (Today, Wong Mau would be considered a Tonkinese, but this hybrid breed would not be developed until decades later.)
The resulting kittens from matings between Wong Mau and Tai Mau were bred to each other or crossed back to Wong Mau. After two generations, Thompson identified three distinct color and pattern variations: one variety looked like Wong Mau (medium brown with darker points), the second like Tai Mau (seal point Siamese), and the third was solid dark-chocolate brown. Thompson and his team decided the dark-chocolate brown cats (called sable ) were the most beautiful and striking, and they set out to isolate the gene governing this color. The sable cats were crossed with each other or back to Wong Mau, resulting in three generations of Burmese (as Thompson named them) that bred true and possessed what Thompson called the "dark color phase." The points were darker in color, most noticeable in kittens and less apparent in adults.
Since the Burmese in America began with just one cat, the gene pool was extremely small. Three brown cats were imported from Rangoon in 1941 to increase the gene pool, but most Burmese are descendants of Wong Mau, since she was healthy and produced many litters. To increase the limited breeding stock and to keep the gene pool healthy, outcrossing to Siamese continued in the 1930s and ’40s.
When Burmese cats were introduced into America’s show halls in the late 1930s and early 1940s, they were an immediate hit. Despite the hisses and yowls from Siamese breeders, who were afraid Burmese would dilute their pure Siamese stock, most fanciers took to these beautiful brown cats in a big way. In 1936, CFA accepted the Burmese for registration, and with that legitimacy the popularity of the Burmese rose.
Demand was much greater than supply, and to increase the gene pool, breeders continued to breed back to the Siamese, creating lots of hybrids, which some breeders sold as pure Burmese. This caused confusion over what constituted a pedigreed Burmese, and because of this, CFA suspended registration of the Burmese in 1947. CFA insisted that three generations of Burmese-to-Burmese breeding was necessary for cats to be registered as members of the breed. Since only three North American cat associations existed at the time, to be excluded from the largest was a major setback. Nevertheless, the dedicated Burmese breeders got to work on the three generations needed to regain their lost status. In 1953, CFA reinstated the Burmese for registration, and in 1957, CFA granted championship status.
In 1958, the newly formed United Burmese Cat Fanciers decided that to avoid problems in the future, they’d develop a single breed standard—one that all breeders and cat associations would use. Keep in mind that a breed standard is not a description of a breed, but a goal for which to strive. Adopted in 1959, the new standard added the words "somewhat compact" to the description—an important change, since today’s Contemporary Burmese are so compact they are called "bricks wrapped in silk." Later, the word "somewhat" was dropped from the standard. These changes indicated the move away from any hint of the Siamese look, particularly since the Siamese was becoming an increasingly svelte breed.
The actual look of the breed changed over the years, achieving the diversity and current appearance through years of selective breeding. About 30 years ago, a difference of opinion developed among breeders and fanciers as to the favored conformation of the breed. One group favored the European Burmese―less extreme head type with a short, blunt muzzle and a moderate body conformation. The other favored the Contemporary Burmese, with its short muzzle and cobby type. Both conformation types can be seen in today’s show halls. The European Burmese is covered in a separate profile.