Everyone recognises the distinctive colour pattern of Siamese cats, which have a light coloured body and darker faces, ears, feet and tails. This coat pattern, with the cat having extremities which are darker than the rest of the cat, is now known as a 'colourpoint' pattern. Today it is found in a number of other breeds, and is greatly admired by many people. This is very different from the early days, when the first Siamese seen in the West was described as 'an unnatural nightmare of a cat'. So let us take a look at where this pattern came from, and what cat breeds now have it.
Exactly how the pointing mutation arose is a mystery, but it is believed to have happened in Asia more than 500 years ago. The pointing is a form of partial, heat-sensitive albinism, controlled by several mutations of the same gene. The colourpointing is a recessive version of the gene, so a cat needs two copies of the gene from both parents in order to carry this pattern. For a long time only the Siamese had this type of coat, but it has now been exported to a number of other breeds. These days many breeds are accepted in pointed patterns.
The first Siamese cats came to the UK in 1884, when the British Vice Consul in Bangkok sent back a breeding pair as a present for his sister. These two cats and their three kittens were shown at the Crystal Palace Show in 1885, but were not an immediate success., as many people disliked their strange looks and loud voices. But enough people were attracted to them for their popularity to grow. Today they are almost always in the top ten most popular breeds in the UK. The coloured points come in a variety of colours – seal point, blue point, lilac point, and so on.
The Burmese carries a different version of the colourpoint gene, which means its markings are far more subtle than those of the Siamese. It arrived in the West from Burma in the 1930s. These are now two slightly different types – the American Burmese and the European Burmese – but this is due to differences which have been developed in shape rather than the colour. The Burmese looks somewhat like the Siamese, but its points are less distinct, and it tends to have a slightly quieter voice.
The Balinese is essentially a long haired Siamese. It arrived on the scene fairly late, and was first found in the UNS in the 1950s. It is not known when the long hair gene first entered the Siamese gene pool – it may have been due to an accidental or deliberate mating, or it could even have been present when the cats first came over from Thailand. One breeder started to develop these long haired variants, showing them as 'long haired Siamese'. But Siamese breeders objected to this name, and it was changed to 'Balinese'. These cats have silky, fairly long coats, but in temperament and most other ways they are very like the Siamese.
The Tonkinese is a hybrid of the Siamese and Burmese. Two mutations of the same gene are responsible for the different pointing patterns seen in these breeds, but neither form is dominant over the other. For this reason 'Tonks' have a pattern which is intermediate between the Siamese and Burmese, and they do not breed true. This hybrid breed was deliberately created in the 1950s, and today is accepted by most major registries. It is quite a popular cat, although it has never reached the list of the top ten breeds in either Britain or America.
The Birman was the first pointed longhair breed. Legends about as to its origin, but it seems to have first arrived in Europe – in France – in the 1920s. It can be identified by its snow white paws and blue eyes. This gentle cat is now regularly in the top ten breeds in both Britain and the USA>
In the 1930s, American geneticists crossed Siamese cats with Persians. The resulting pointed longhairs were called Himalayans, though they did not become an accepted breed in the USA until 1961. In the UK they are accepted as part of the Persian breed, and are known as Colourpoint Persians.
The Ragdoll began when a Persian breeder in California began selecting kittens from a rather beautiful non-pedigree long haired cat. These kittens had been sired by a number of unknown cats, but some were of Birman and Burmese origin. Thus from the start many Ragdolls – though not all – have come in pointed coat patterns. The breed is now in the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic.
The British Shorthair is one of a number of breeds which comes in a variety of colours, including colourpoint. This shows that at some time Siamese were used to produce this colour pattern. Some registries do not recognise the pointed cats of this breed, but they can be shown under FIFe and the GCCF in the UK.
There have always been some Siamese cats with white paws. Early breeders tried to eradicate this feature, but in the 1950’s some American breeders decided to develop hit look. This led to the Showshoe – a Siamese with white paws that is in some ways similar to a short haired Birman. These cats tend to be quieter voiced than the Siamese, so suitable for people who find Siamese a bit overpowering!
Over the years the Siamese changed, becoming longer and leaner. Many people did not like this exaggerated look, and wanted a return to the original Siamese shape. These cats were developed, and eventually accepted as a different breed, being given the name 'Thai'. They are also known as 'Traditional Siamese' or 'Applehead' Siamese.
This list is by no means comprehensive. In addition to these, there are a number of other cat breeds in which the colourpoint pattern sometimes appears, and it has even turned up in non-pedigrees from time to time. Some of these breeds are accepted in these patterns for showing, but others are not, and some breeds actually specify that colourpointed patterns are not allowed, eg Maine Coons. But it is clear that these beautiful cats are here to stay, in a number of different breeds, depending what type of cat you would like to have.