This is a story about cats. Two cats in particular.
Arwen and Aragorn. No, I did not pick the names, and this is not a life-long love story. Both are neutered. There is also a small amount of information about the breed hidden away in fond anecdotes about this pair.
They are both pedigree Burmese cats, but are not brother and sister, so they sometimes hiss at each other. Both were bred by a champion breeder, so they have many of the most desirable characteristics of their breed: they are friendly, sleek and vocal. Neither, however, will win any cat-fancier competitions.
Arwen, as you may have guessed, is the female. Despite having the softest fur in the most beautiful lilac colouring, she is cross-eyed. Cross-eyed cats don't win cat fancier competitions.
At home, she is the subordinate of the two. On holiday, as she is now, however, she has become dominant.
Originally, Burmese cats were supposed to be a dark brown colour, called sable, with golden eyes. This is relatively dull in comparison with the more glamorous blue-eyed, seal-point Siamese. So much so that the few Burmese cats present in Britain eventually died out by the 1920s.
However, in 1930 an American cat breeder imported the first dark brown Burmese called ‘Wong Mau’ into the United States and bred it with a female seal point Siamese, which has led to a whole range of colours in the Burmese breed. Some of these found their way to the UK and professional breeders started building a population of these beautiful cats from the early 1950s.
Despite this short history, the British Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF) — the feline equivalent of the Kennel club — places Burmese as the fifth most popular breed in the UK, below the British short-hair, Siamese, Bengal and Persian.
Today about 10 colours are recognised by the GCCF, from the original brown to a champagne colour and even to tangerine.
Arwen is a lilac Burmese. Her coat is the softest you can imagine on a cat, it seems to be made just for stroking and for petting. However, she is the most irritable of the two. In Arwen's case, irritable means only that when she gets really cross, she'll walk or scamper away, giving the source of her irritation a haughty look. She loves to stretch and then her claws come out, but she doesn't use those claws to hurt or attack.
Aragorn, by contrast, is an athletic, muscular dark brown male. The classic Burmese. This is the key difference between Burmese and Siamese. The Burmese is heavy for its size, with a more powerful head and smaller ears. His fur is softer than any other cat I know, but in comparison with Arwen's it is coarse.
Aragorn — Gorny — thinks he is a dog. Before his injury, he would play fetch like a puppy. Throw a crumpled up ball of paper and he would scamper across to it, pick it up in his mouth and bring it back, dropping it faithfully at his master's feet. Then look up and mew, asking for another throw.
This is typical Burmese behaviour. Each cat has a different character, but generally, they are full of fun and want to play, kitten-like throughout their lives.
But Gorny injured himself. He tried to climb a bookcase and it fell over. Gorny smashed his left foreleg. After huge vetinary bills (thankfully paid by a generous insurance policy) and a great deal of surgery, Gorny now limps around on three good legs and a broken one, which he uses as a crutch.
Despite the bad leg, he still wants to run around and climb and play chase, but it is not so easy. So now he prefers to roll on his back or side and be petted. When the petting stops, he waves his injured leg and looks at you with puppy-dog eyes and mews gently, asking for more. It's so obvious what he wants that I'd say he definitely is asking for more.
At his house, Gorny is still the dominant one. When the two were just kittens and before his accident, he stamped his authority on the small house they live in with their owners. Arwen is rarely seen in that house. She hides away in corners and runs away when Aragorn comes out to play. And Aragorn loves to play. He'll play chase and fetch and climb as high as the furniture will allow and all kinds of other games his playful mind can dream up.
This is another typical Burmese characteristic. According to the Burmese cat club, "Burmese are intensely social animals and assume that they are fully accepted in all aspects of human family life." Even after a couple of days, there's no question that these two want to join in with pretty much everything we do.
We volunteered to cat-sit for a week while the owners are on holiday. I think we'll probably be volunteering again. To be honest, we'll probably volunteer to cat-sit even if the owners are still at home, so long as they keep paying the insurance bills and buying the food. They really are a delight to have around the house: curious, intelligent and quite simply beautiful.
In the first 24 hours, Arwen never emerged from the room we had set up their baskets, food and litter tray. Aragorn, meanwhile was exploring the house, cuddling up to anyone who offered cuddles and generally being the man about town. He quickly found a corner at the top of the stairs where he could watch all the activity upstairs and most of the movement downstairs.
Arwen found a corner in her room, under a table, where nobody could see her, but she could watch everyone entering.
Overnight, however, she must have done some exploring and worked out that things were OK. Next day she emerged and was ready to be petted. She had staked out the downstairs and hissed and charged at Gorny every time he came near. I think she must have eaten a lot of his food as well. The result is that now she is the dominant one and Gorny scuttles around her, checking to make sure she is not in the room before he enters.
Both of them will stop what they are doing to rear up to rub their heads on an outstretched palm. Both will call to us when they want affection.
Another characteristic is intelligence. Aragorn has learned that AspieGirl loves him very much and will always make a space in her bed for him. On the third night, he head-butted her door open and jumped into bed with her. She did not get much sleep, though I'm not sure that was entirely his fault.
A Burmese should look a bit exotic, but not too exotic. In cat fancier shows, points are taken away if the cat looks too much like a Siamese — large ears, or a whip-tail, or blue eyes.
The official guide says, "The Burmese is an elegant cat of a foreign type, which is positive and quite individual to the breed. In character they are alert, active, intelligent, extremely friendly and affectionate." Which pretty much sums them up.
The drawbacks of owning a Burmese is that there is constant risk of theft. They are so friendly that it is easy for a stranger to pick it up and take it away. So these cats are house cats, never going outside, to run the gauntlet of foxes, other cats, dogs and cat-thieves.
Sources, further information