The Birman is sometimes called the “Sacred Cat of Burma” and they are theorized to have been the companions of temple priests in northern Burma. At some point the cats were brought to France, though there are various tales of how this was accomplished. Whether the cats were a gift for defending a sacred temple or they were smuggled out of Burma by a Vanderbilt is not clear. Other stories suggest that Birmans were stolen and brought to France by later breeders. At any rate, the cats were definitely being bred in France in the early 1900s and enjoyed a great deal of popularity. Sadly, the breed almost disappeared in Europe following World War II, as did many pedigree breeds. All Birmans today descend from a pair of Birmans remaining after the war named Orloff and Xenia de Kaabaa. Their offspring were heavily outcrossed with Persians and Siamese cats to recreate the breed. It was not until the 1950s that Birmans were once again being produced from litters that were purebred. The first Birmans arrived in the United States in 1959. The first Birman cats were sealpoints but blue points and other colors were later added. The Birman has been instrumental in creating other breeds, especially the Ragdoll. The Birman is recognized by the CFA, TICA and other cat registries. Birmans are consistently one of the most popular of all breeds. They are very popular in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France, as well as the U.S.
How To Recognize a Birman
Birmans are color point cats. They are born white and develop their color as they mature. They have long, silky hair and four white paws or “gloves.” Their “points” include their mask, ears, legs, and tail which will be one of the accepted colors. The point colors can be seal, blue, lilac, chocolate, red, cream, and tortie (with new colors being developed). There is a traditional solid pattern and a dramatic lynx pattern. The body is a golden mist color (creamy white).
The Birman is strongly built, elongated and stocky, neither svelte nor cobby, according to the breed standard. They are medium-large to large cats. Males may be 12 pounds or larger, with females slightly smaller.
Along with their distinctive white paws, Birmans have beautiful blue eyes. Their medium-long coat is a single coat meaning there is virtually no undercoat. They shed very little and their coat does not mat or tangle. They have a ruff around the throat that stands out from the rest of their coat. The breed is also known for having a distinctive roman nose.
Birmans are gentle, soft-voiced cats. They are known for having a sweet personality and being easy to handle. They enjoy human companionship and like to spend time with you. They are good “helpers,” helping you when you read, work at the computer, wash dishes, or perform any other household chores. They have been compared to little dogs, following wherever you go. They are typically patient, even-tempered cats and make a good choice for people with children or other pets. Birmans are playful cats and enjoy attention. They are also considered to be very intelligent cats. Although they have a soft voice, some Birmans like to “talk,” and will let you know what they think about things.
Living with a Birman
Humans and Birmans
Birmans are particularly sociable cats and love to be with people. They are good with children and friendly with visitors. Birmans can form a particularly strong bond with one special person in the family.
According to sources familiar with the breed, Birmans have a temperament that is a mix of Siamese and Persian traits.
They inherit a very sociable and dependent personality from the Siamese/Balinese side, but a more relaxed, cool and independent element from the Persian side. Therefore, they are not as exclusive and tyrannical as the Siamese and not as indifferent and distant as the Persian. They could be defined as middle of the road cats. Some individuals like to sit on your laps, others don’t, but they are always beside you and with you wherever you go in the house.
Birmans have a single coat without an undercoat and are known as a breed that does not mat or tangle. They need very little grooming except to remove loose, dead hair. Some web sites have suggested that Birmans are hypoallergenic or that they don’t shed but this is not the case. They have medium-long hair and they do shed, though perhaps not as much as some other long-haired breeds. As with many cats, they tend to shed more when they are stressed, when the seasons change, or when you are expecting company. As for being hypoallergenic, it’s not pet hair that causes an allergic reaction but dander (skin flakes) and the cat’s saliva. Birmans produce as much dander as other cats. If you are looking for a reasonably hypoallergenic cat, check this page.
Dogs and Birmans
Birmans usually get along well with friendly dogs. It’s always important to oversee these relationships, especially in the early days. Many times it’s easier to introduce a small puppy to an older cat since the cat will have the upper paw (so to speak). We do recommend that you keep your cat’s food out of reach of your dog. Most dogs will eat your cat’s food if they have the opportunity. You should also place your Birman’s litter box in an area that your dog can’t reach. Many dogs have an unsavory habit of eating things out of the litter box when they can. It’s also good to have perches and other high places handy for your cat to escape in case your dog gets pushy.
Other Cats and Birmans
Birmans tend to be alpha cats and often dominate when there are other cats in the home. They like to be the center of attention and garner most of the affection in the home. That said, many Birmans enjoy the company of other cats. They are not aggressive or prone to fighting. They simply enjoy being the leader among friends.
If you are introducing a new cat into your home, regardless of age, it may take some time for the cats to get to know each other and become friends. You can’t rush these relationships. Cats have to work out who has higher social status, which cat gets the best sleeping spots, and other important details. They will likely become friends eventually so just be patient. You may want to add an extra perch or cat tree when you introduce a new cat to the house so there is less competition for the same spots. According to some experts, Birmans can be jealous at times, especially if they think you are not showing them enough attention. So, if you are bringing a new cat into your home, make sure that you continue to pay attention to your Birman or you could cause more problems between your Birman and your new cat.
Common Health Problems
Most sources say that Birmans are a healthy, long-lived breed. However, probably due to the genetic bottleneck for the breed after World War II, a 2008 study, The Ascent of Cat Breeds: Genetic Evaluations of Breeds and Worldwide Random-bred Populations by Lipinski et al., conducted at the University of California-Davis, led by feline geneticist Dr. Leslie Lyons, found that the Birman has one of the lowest levels of genetic diversity among all of the cat breeds studied. This suggests that even if there are few health problems in the breed at the moment, Birman breeders need to be aware of the breed’s situation with regard to genetic diversity and make careful breeding decisions, especially regarding breed health.
The most serious health problem currently seen in the breed is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This is the most common heart disease found in cats so it’s not surprising that it would also be seen in Birmans. Early symptoms include panting and lethargy. The cat’s heart muscle becomes thicker and has to work harder. This can lead to blood clots. The disease can eventually result in congestive heart failure, paralysis of the back legs, and death. You can find more information about heart problems in Birmans on this site.
Birmans can also be subject to the following health problems:
- Congenital hypotrichosis (born without hair), and thymic aplasia (an immune deficiency). Both are extremely rare.
- Corneal dermoid – skin and hair on the surface of the cornea. Extremely rare. It seems to only be found in veterinary textbooks and research papers.
- Spongiform degeneration, a progressive degenerative disease of the central nervous system. Symptoms include weakness in the hind legs and uncoordinated movement. Also rare.
- Birman Cat distal polyneuropathy – An inherited disorder with symptoms starting between 8-10 weeks. Kittens frequently fall and may walk on their hocks. The prognosis is poor. This condition affected several litters of kittens from the same parents. Otherwise it does not appear to have been seen.
- FARS – Some Birmans appear to be prone to a condition known as FARS – Feline Audiogenic Reflex Seizures. These seizures were sound-induced and affected older cats.
- Unusually high concentrations of urea and/or creatinine in the blood, which may or may not indicate kidney dysfunction.*
*Birmans do appear to have some special kidney issues. This is the Summary from research done at Bristol and Edinburgh Universities by Dr Danielle Gunn-Moore:
This study suggests that many Birman cats may have some degree of renal dysfunction, which may or may not result in signs of ill-health, and which may or may not progress with time. It has not yet been possible to determine an underlying cause of disease in clinically affected cats, nor to draw any firm conclusions as to the nature of the defect within the breed as a whole. While the clinical significance of these findings therefore remains unclear, it seems appropriate to suggest that evidence of elevated kidney enzymes in an otherwise healthy Birman cat should not be over interpreted as evidence of severe or progressive disease. It would however, seem sensible to monitor affected cats, and to consider the possibility of renal dysfunction when undertaking anaesthesia, surgery or treatment in cats of this breed.
As a breeder explains, Birmans seem to have a tendency toward small kidneys. They seem to be able to tolerate elevated urea levels better than other cats, at least to some extent. With proper treatment, Birmans should be able to live a long, healthy life despite this issue. If you are interested in a Birman, you should be aware of this issue and discuss it with your veterinarian. Your vet can monitor your Birman’s renal function from a young age to make sure s/he does not have any problems.
Since Birmans tend to be large, somewhat stocky cats, they can be prone to becoming overweight or obese. It’s important to watch your cat’s weight if you have a Birman. Being overweight or obese can worsen most potential health problems in cats. It can make surgery more difficult, worsen joint problems, and put more stress on the heart, for example.
According to the majority of sources, the lifespan of Birmans is said to be 12-15 years. The Birman Cat Club in the UK has a nice page where they ask for stories of senior Birmans 18 years and older. Have a tissue handy.
Pet Insurance for your Birman
Considering the health of your Birman and the cost of vet care today, you may want to investigate pet health insurance. This kind of health insurance allows you to have insurance in place in case your cat has an accident or has certain health problems. Instead of paying the full cost of expensive veterinary care, you would only pay a fraction. You can choose how much coverage you need and pick the plan that works for you and your cat. Veterinary health care can be expensive today so this is something to consider.
Diet and Nutrition
As the Birman Cat Club in the UK notes, Birmans are easy to feed:
Birmans are very easy to feed. Providing them with any one of the expensive complete foods is all that is necessary for healthy active cats. However there are one or two basic things that a new owner has to understand.
Number one is that all Birmans – even the youngest – can read food labels. This means that any tin or package which says SPECIAL OFFER, BUY ONE GET ONE FREE, REDUCED OR END OF RANGE, will be treated with great suspicion and probably rejected. Be warned about the free sample packets handed out by manufacturers, Birmans will devour these with relish, but go on hunger strike as soon as you purchase a large container of the same. The wise owner will keep all large packets, boxes or containers hidden from the cats.
NEVER NEVER allow your Birman to discover the existence of smoked salmon, tuna, king prawns, pate, or similar, for your food bills will escalate…
We always suspected that pets could read food labels. Humor aside (and that is a very funny page about feeding your Birman), the optimal diet for a Birman is similar to that of other cats. They need food that is high in meat protein. This Birman breeder recommends the following ingredients in good quality cat foods (if you do not make your own food):
- Are high in protein;
- Uses human grade ingredients;
- Is grain and potato free;
- With a preference for moist over hard food as the main source of nutrition
You should also make sure that the food has suitable Vitamin A and taurine. These vitamins and minerals are usually added to all cat foods today. We recommend that any food you buy for your Birman be AAFCO-approved. While some people criticize AAFCO for various reasons, it still provides some minimal level of assurance that the food and labeling are meeting requirements. We also suggest that you look for foods that have a minimum of 40 percent protein (DMB). This is higher than AAFCO recommendations which are 26 percent for adult cats and 30 percent for kittens, but it is closer to the protein level a cat would have eating a raw diet.
If you want to put down a dry food for your Birman, in conjunction with the wet food, you could use Orijen dry cat food.
Be sure to encourage your Birman to drink plenty of water, especially if you are putting down dry food. Some owners turn the kitchen or bathroom faucet on and let it trickle to encourage their Birman to drink more water. Drinking fountains are also a popular way to encourage your Birman to drink. Like many cats, they may not drink enough water if you simply put down a bowl of water.
With their lovely creamy golden-white coat, color points, and white paws, the blue-eyed Birman is one of the loveliest of all cats. These gentle, intelligent cats have an air of mystery about them. Perhaps they have never forgotten that they once hailed from a sacred temple. Sociable and playful, Birmans are always popular.