Tuesday, December 20, 2011

We are Siamese: Part One

Jubilee joined my cat family a few years ago, the first Siamese cat I'd ever had. I have owned cats all my life, and I had to be convinced that Siamese cats really are different. It didn't take long.

Actually, Jubilee is a Siamese-Persian mix. She has the dark points (face, ears, tail, and legs) of a Siamese, and the stockier body, round eyes, and less pointed face, resembling her Persian father. But her personality is all Siamese, if you please! Unlike the ambiguous myths surrounding many cat breeds, it is true that Siamese cats actually do come from Siam, today called Thailand.

Siamese are the most vocal of all cats, which some people love and some hate. Siamese have a sing-songy voice, varying their tone and pitch in every breath, so that it almost mimics the human voice. Thai is a tonal language, and it must sound even more human to Thai speakers than it does to English speakers. Jubilee talks a lot, and loudly, but she fails to achieve the human-like tonality of the classic Siamese voice. I had never heard the real Siamese voice until I cat-sat for Jubilee's uncle (litter mate of Jubilee's mother). He seemed happy until evening, as we all started to get ready for bed. Then he started to cry. The more agitated he became, the more human his voice sounded. I could hear breaks in each breath that sounded like syllables and varying sounds, like different vowels. Siamese cats talk; they do not simply cry.

The intelligence of the Siamese is no myth, either. For hundred of years, the Siamese elite bred these cats for their superior ability to interact with humans. From my personal experience with Siamese cats and Siamese mixes, I can testify to it. After I began reading about Siamese cats, I realized that I had owned several other cats that had Siamese in them, even though they were not pointed cats. All had one common characteristic: they were very intelligent cats. Some learned to open doors. All were excellent hunters, and the females were very good mothers--which I believe is responsible for the high numbers of Siamese-mix cats in America. Nearly all of my cats learned a half-dozen words, in addition to their own names and the names of every other pet in the house. This social intelligence tempts one to think they are "dog like," but Siamese cats are still cats. They may want to be with humans, but like others of their species, they have no innate desire to please people like a dog!

The earliest mention of the pointed cat, with dark face, feet, ears, and tail, is in the Tamra Maew, the Thai Cat Book Poems (dated somewhere between 1350 and 1767) found in the illustrated manuscripts of Siam's (Thailand's) ancient capitol. The Diamond cat, as the Thai called it, had white fur on the rest of its body. Its eyes are described as reddish-gold, possibly referring to the red-eye reflection of the eyes.

In this photo of Jubilee and Piccolo, you can see the glowing eyes that the Tamra Maew was probably talking about.

The Siamese definitely is the oldest breed of cat, but the myth starts when people claim that the animal developed naturally, without human intervention. The Siamese cat is born white because it has temperature-sensitive albinism. Nature does not usually select for white animals, except by accident. A white cat has no protective camouflage, which hinders its success of survival in the wild. Both the true albino and the temperature-sensitive albino have a common problem with their eyes--lack of melatonin causes them to have abnormal uncrossed wiring of the optic chiasm, and thus they fail to develop stereoscopic vision--a real disadvantage to a hunter.

Siamese cats are white in the warmth of their mother's womb, but turn darker after birth, when exposed to cold. They lack the normal levels of tyrosinase, the enzyme responsible for producing melatonin, which give color to the cat's fur. The normal expression of tyrosine gives a cat full color, and total absence of the enzyme results in an albino--an animal completely lacking color in its fur, and with pink eyes. In between these two extremes is temperature-sensitive albinos, which creates the pointed cat. The extremities are the coolest part of their bodies--the face, ears, legs, and tail--and thus they darken fastest. The mutated tyrosinase of the temperature-sensitive albino lessens the pigment of the eyes, so that all cats with true point-coloration have blue eyes.

By the time they are adults, Siamese cats have tawny backs and completely black faces and legs. They grow even darker as they get older. Even their eyes darken, developing a greenish or gold cast. They are usually too dark to be shown competitively after the age of two.

I began to wonder: why would people want to breed a cat that changed its beautiful color after only a few years? But the Siamese cat was first bred in a tropical country. What would a Siamese cat look like in old Siam?

I was able to find out when my son Chris and his wife LaChanda went to Laos to teach English. Laos is the land-locked country adjacent to Thailand. Chris and LaChanda told me about seeing Siamese cats on the streets. Their friend Rachel Gilchrist sent me a photo of one of these cats.

Here is my picture proof of what I had suspected. This full-grown cat is lighter in color than American Siamese cats are as kittens.

 Next: Siamese Cats, Part Two:
  • Why do Siamese cats have kinked tails?
  • It turns out that all Southeast Asian cats are special!