By PetMD Editorial on Oct. 30, 2009

Gentle, active, and playful, but quiet and unobtrusive when it sees you are busy, the Birman is an excellent companion.

Physical Characteristics

This is a long and robust cat, built on rather heavy lines. The Birman, with its striking, round, blue eyes with a gentle expression, is easily recognized by all cat fanciers. It is colorpointed, preferably with a golden cast, and wears white socks on its paws. (Curiously, the cat is pure white at birth but develops color later in life.) The white covering on the front paw ends between the second and third joints of the paw, whereas in the back paws it covers all the toes and extends upward.

Personality and Temperament

Gentle and affectionate by nature, the Birman has all the makings of a loyal, faithful companion. It is one of the easiest cats to handle and gives the least cause for trouble.

Intelligent and curious, it is extremely responsive to training. It likes to bask in adoration and expects a lot of love and attention. When introduced to strangers, the Birman is curious rather than reserved and fearful. It also adjusts easily to children and other pets in the house.

History and Background

The history of this sacred Burmese cat is immersed in legend. The story goes that pure white cats lived in temples dedicated to Lord Buddha in Burma (present day Myanmar). They were considered the sacred carriers of the souls of priests who had departed the earth for their heavenly abode. This process was called transmutation.

The deity Tsun-Kyan-Kse presided over this process, and was symbolized by a golden statue with luminous sapphire eyes. Mun-Ha, who served as a priest, worshiped this goddess in the temple of LaoTsun. He was often joined by Sinh, one of the revered white cats, for his evening prayers in front of the golden statue. One day, miscreants from Siam pillaged the temple and killed Mun-Ha.

As he lay drawing his last breath, Sinh, his faithful companion, rested one of his paws on Mun-Ha’s head and faced the golden statue. A miracle occurred: Sinh was transformed into a golden-colored cat, with legs of an earthly hue and eyes of sapphire blue. His paws, however, retained their original color as a symbol of purity. All the cats belonging to the temple also underwent this magical change. Sinh died after a week grieving for his companion and refusing to eat. According to legend, he carried Mun-Ha’s spirit into paradise.

There is, however, a more scientific story of the breed’s origin, which can be traced back to 1919. Around that time a couple of adventurous Birman cats were being transported to France from Burma. There are two accounts of the story behind their arrival.

According to one story, the temple of Tsun-Kyan-Kse was again attacked. Two westerners, Major Russell Gordon and Auguste Pavie, aided a few priests and their sacred cats to escape to Tibet. On their return to France, they were gifted two Birman cats for services rendered. According to a more prosaic account, these cats were bought by a Mr. Vanderbilt who, in turn, bought them from a dissatisfied servant belonging to the temple of LaoTsun. One of the cats, Madalpour, passed away on the voyage but the female cat, Sita, made it to France. After becoming pregnant during the voyage, Sita is often considered the matriarch of the Birman breed in Europe.

The breed would continue to spread and in 1925, it was official recognized in France. World War II great diminished the number of Birmans in Europe, nearly causing their extinction. However, a few survivors ensured the continuity of the breed. With careful crossings, the Birman once again staged a comeback and was even exported to England in 1955, but did not gain official recognition until 1966.

Birmans were introduced to America in 1959 and were formally recognized by the Cat Fanciers' Association in 1966. The breed has since established itself in the hearts of people and is one of the most popular. It has Championship status in all associations. 

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