The Birman is one of the earliest semi-longhaired varieties to be recognised in the modern cat fancy, and is still known in many countries as the sacred cat of Burma - there is no connection at all with the Burmese cat, which is a totally different breed altogether. Birmanie is the French word for Burma, and as France was the first country to register this breed, Birman is simply the anglicised version of the word. The Birman is a very popular breed in Britain, always amongst the top ten breeds in terms of the number of kittens registered by the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy each year.
Unlike most modern breeds, there is no definitive documented history of the origins of this ancient breed, but it is generally believed that they originated from the white longhaired cats of Burma where it is said that they lived as companions of the priests in the sacred temples. A popular legend tells how they saved one such temple from a vicious attack and were subsequently recognised as sacred cats from then on, when they then transformed into the seal pointed Birman cats we know today. Others are more sceptical of this story, (even though cats very similar to modern-day Birmans have been seen in that part of Burma for many years) and claim they were first bred in France at the beginning of the twentieth century as a 'designer' crossbreed. Either way, the first documented history of this breed does show that a pregnant female cat looking very like today's Birmans was exported to France from Burma in 1919, although there are several variations on the exact reasons for this. Amongst her kittens was a female named Poupee, who was said to be the perfect Birman, and between 1919-1939, their progeny were interbred and also crossbred using cats most resembling Poupee in order to develop the breed. The Birman was first recognised in France in 1925, but then became almost extinct during the Second World War, when only a handful remained in France. After the war, dedicated breeders launched another breeding programme, and although it was quite secretive at first, it is thought that it included outcrosses with Persian Colourpoints and Siamese, and even the occasional domestic cats. It was during this time that Blue Birmans first appeared where there had previously only been Seal Points. Birmans eventually came to Britain in 1965, after a British breeder had first seen them at the Paris Cat Show that year and subsequently imported one Seal Point and two Blue Points. The breed was recognised here in 1966, initially as a Foreign Longhair before becoming part of a new Semi-Longhair section within the British cat fancy in 1992.
The Birman is a large variety of cat with a less dense coat than the Persian and a longer head and body, and with a feature unique to any variety of colour pointed cats, that of white feet. The front feet have white 'gloves' that cover the toes, whilst the hind legs have white 'gauntlets' that cover the paws, tapering up the back of the leg to the hock. Until the mid-1960s when Blue Birmans first appeared, the breed had only existed in its original Seal point colour, but then breeders became interested in experimenting with the same range of colours found in other breeds and from 1974 these began to be recognised. The Birman now appears in the following colours: seal, blue, chocolate, lilac, tabby, red, tortie and cream - twenty different colours in all, including the permutations of tabby and tortie points. As with other colour pointed varieties including Siamese and Colourpoint Persians, Birman kittens are born white, and although they start to show signs of their points colour within the first fourteen days, this does not fully develop for about two years. Eyes are deep blue and almost round, and the ears are medium-sized and well spaced. Birmans have a ruff below their chins, although this is not as prominent as in the Persian, and is less evident in summer and in younger cats.
Birmans are quiet, affectionate, people-orientated cats, making them ideal companions for modern cat owners in the same way that legend has it they were for the ancient priests of Burma. They are a softly spoken variety, but conversational nonetheless, and take a great interest in whatever their human families are doing. This is an easy-going variety of cat usually happy to share their home with other pets, and although they are not as openly demanding as some other varieties, they still want to play and will enjoy retrieving toys that are thrown for them.
Although Birmans do not have serious breed-related health problems, there is a very slight chance with such a small original gene pool and subsequent inbreeding that any hereditary weaknesses may be exacerbated. However, only very rare skin and nerve disorders are known to be generic to this breed, and acquiring pets from reputable breeders should help to minimise this risk. In common with all breeds of cat, they need annual vaccination boosters against the common feline ailments of flu and enteritis, as well as against Feline Leukaemia if they go outdoors, although they will live indoors quite happily. The Birman can be a long-lived breed, and the UK Birman Cat Club has recorded a number of cats of this breed regularly living to 16 years and beyond, one even making it to 23!
Even semi-longhaired cats need to be groomed regularly, and the Birman is no exception. Although the coat does not matt as readily as that of the Persian, knots and tangles will still form which will be almost impossible to remove without trimming the fur, unless the cat is brushed and combed every day. Eyes and ears should be checked and kept clean if necessary by use of a clean damp cloth. They are not fussy eaters (unless they're allowed to be) and will eat most good quality brands of cat food, but will also enjoy treats of cooked chicken, ham and grated cheese. However, cows' milk will probably give them a stomach upset, and a bowl of water should always be available.