The first “therapy cats”
When Dr. J.C. Thompson, a Naval Psychiatrist, returned from duty in Burma in the early 20th century, he brought with him a female and male brown cat, soon to be dubbed “Burmese“. He endeavored to develop the breed, with the help of Harvard genetics department and some ladies who had sought his professional help. Dr. Thompson believed that the human-animal bond had the power to assist people to heal a variety of mental health issues. He felt developing the breed and raising the kittens would give these ladies a healthy interest outside of their lives. Apparently he was right, and one could tout the Burmese as the first breed to be professionally used as therapy cats! The breed perked along establishing itself for showing.
The American Burmese has had a difficult path despite the breed’s wonderful personality. Losing registration in the 1940s for out-crossing to Siamese too frequently, the breed struggled along until the 1950s, when it was reinstated. In the 1970s, a conformation type swept the ring. A rounder-headed, huskier cat was now supreme. Not until as many as three generations later, breeders were finding to their horror that this look was linked with a fatal newborn kitten deformity. The gene had spread to almost half the Burmese in the US. Those were dark and difficult years for breeders.
The two sides were polarized, and in those emotional decades, flame wars were inevitable in the show halls or online forums. What this meant was a breed that started from one little brown female, so a very small gene pool was now divided in half as profoundly as the the North was from the South during the Confederate war. In 2007, the cat genome project announced its diversity study. The Burmese was found to have one of the most critically limited gene pools of all pedigree cats. The breed desperately needed diversity for continued health. In 2012, it was announced the gene responsible for the head defect had been found. Testing can now go forward to establish those Burmese who do not carry the defect.
This comes as a wonderful gift at a time when breeders have begun to do quiet out-crossing to other sources of genetic diversity, but the genetic testing and selection will take years to have an impact. So will the importation of Thai Burmese and careful selection for the gene pool in large enough numbers, using Burmese from other countries, and out-crossing to other breeds. We must persevere if we are to preserve the American Burmese for the 22nd century. The best Thai breeders have banded together to create standards of ethical breeding, in order to help educate sympathetic American breeders, and assure the preservation of the breed for the future.
First American Burmese – Wong Mau and kittens