An Update on the "Improve the Health of the Burmese Breed Project"  


Well, I began my project to improve the health of the Burmese breed 10 years ago. I thought it was time for an update on where I am with the project. Or more specifically, what I have learned. 

I had a kitten buyer contact me. Nothing unusual in that, I get lots of those. But, I had to most enlightening conversation with this one. As it turns out, this particular Burmese fan works as an animal engineer. Literally, he breeds animals to have inherited disease for medical research. Our conversation mostly revolved around engineering a line of mice that had inherited diabetes. So, I ask him, how long does it take to make a line of diabetic mice that consistently produced children with diabetes. He informed me that it took 15 generations of brother to sister matings to lock in a desired defect. 

You may be wondering does this have to do with my project of Burmese health improvement. Here you have it. Through replacing dead cats with kittens, I get to hear what killed the person prior Burmese cat. And, its always the same story. If they die under the age of 3, they died of heart disease. Lots of heart disease. I also hear about cats with chronic digestive disease, chronic eye disease, in particular glaucoma, and poor immunity to infectious disease. My conclusion is that though the Burmese were not subject to a 15 generation brother to sister mating program, it would have to be seen as pretty close. If the breed was started with two cats in 1930, aren't all Burmese brothers and sisters? 

My conversation with the aforementioned animal engineer made me think that the diseases I heart about in Burmese, are no genetically locked in the way my callers mice have genetically locked in diabetes. It's there. So, I asked him if it was possible to reverse engineer a line of mice with genetic diabetes back to normal healthy mice. He said yes. If you breed the diabetic line back to the wild type, for 10 generations, you will be back to healthy normal mice. 

Almost on the tenth anniversary of beginning this project, I got the perfect gift. Guidance. To breed out the defects now locked into the Burmese breed, it was going to take 10 generations of outcrossing to bring the Burmese breed back to normal healthy cat. One outcross to an imported Thai cat was not going to do the job. Point taken. 

That said, with successive matings of American Burmese to Thai Burmese, each generation becomes healthier than say the previous generation. I cant speak to longevity because I don't have cats that are that old yet. But, when it comes to markers I can see, like kittens getting upper respiratory infections, or kitten diarrhea, each generation gets healthier and healthier. 

This update is probably more for breeders, but, maybe the consumer is interested. Here are some things I have learned. 

1. Breeding to another inbred breed of cat is not an outcross. I was working with my Vet Consultant and I asked him how all the funky designer cross dogs were working out, Poogles, Labra-doodles, and the like. He said, if you cross a Lab with a Poodle you end up with a dog with hip dysplasia from the lab and chronic skin disease from the poodle. The puppies get the defective traits carried by both parents. 

I say this because it is consistent with what I have found. Using American Tonkinese or Bombays or American Siamese as outcrosses has not worked for me. The kittens are just as frail and unhealthy as if it was a American burmese to American Burmese mating. Maybe worse. Because the kittens inherit the unique defects found in those other breeds. 

If there was any doubt in my mind, there is none. If you want to outcross to increase the health of the cats, you are better off using an imported Thai cat. Like with the mice, breeding back to the wild type to get back to healthy cats. 

2. Another form of Inbreeding.

I have learned there are two types of inbreeding. The first is mating a father to a daughter. That is just plain old inbreeding. It didn't work out real well for the royal families and its not working out for the cats. But, there is another type of inbreeding with Thai cats. Color inbreeding. This is a little more complicated. Simply put, in Thailand, there is one breed of cat that encompasses a lot of colors, colors we call breeds. The Thai breed includes the Siamese color, the Tonkinese, the Bombay color, the Korat lor, and so on. And different colored cats are bred with different colored cats all the time. You will not find a breeder in Thailand that has breed blued eyed Siamese to blue eyed Siamese for 50 years. What you will find is a blue eyed Siamese mates with a Korat that carries the Siamese gene and you get some Korats and some Siamese. 

I am increasingly thinking that color mating, mating Burmese to Burmese, long term, will result in color linked disease. These colors are mutations after all, and if you breed one mutation to one mutation, long enough, you are bound to develop health problems. Conversely, mixing it up, as occurs in Thailand, produces health cats. A Siamese cat that results from mating a Thai Tonk and a Korat that carries Siamese, is healthier than a Siamese that is the result of two Siamese cats being bred. 

Bottom line. We color breed. We have cats that have all kinds of unique genetic diseases. In Thailand, they do not color breed. They do not have the same funky genetic diseases found here. Draw your own conclusions here. 

3. A problem with too many mutations in one cat. 

Ok, this is really getting into the weeds. To produce a platinum burmese, you have to have two parents that carry the burmese gene, two parents that carry the blue gene, and two parents that carry the champagne gene. A platinum kitten carries two burmese gene, two blue genes, and two champagne genes. I am here to tell you, that would almost NEVER happen naturally in Thailand. The chance that all those recessive genes would come together in a mating is slim to nil. Statistically speaking, its never going to happen. Thats a whole lot of mutations in one cat. And if you bred a platinum cat to another platinum cat, you are doing something that would never happen in nature. NEVER. The statistical probably of a platinum cat happening in a natural breeding environment is almost negligible. That is why you don't see platinum cats in Thailand. And, you certainly would never see two platinum cats mating. Well, not in Thailand. 

I have found that the cats that carry the greatest number of mutations, are most likely to have a problem. With my Thai outcrosses, if I am going to loose a kitten, it will be in this order, platinum, champagne, blue, then sable. I am talking about kittens that fade in the first two days of life. If they make it to a month, they will make it. But, the more mutations a kitten inherits, the more likely it is to fade and not make it to adulthood. 

This is a working theory, but, I think it's better to breed two sables that carry color and produce color, than to mate say, a champagne to a platinum. More will be reported.

For sure, the lighter the cat, the more susceptible to the herpes virus the cat will be. There is something about the albinistic mutations that makes the cats light in color that leaves them more available for herrpes infection. 

Like I said, working theory. 

4. The bad mating syndrome.

There is a thing with the hybrids that I call a bad mating. Violette, a Blue Tonkinese, was mated to Mister, a blue Burmese. She is a small cat. Despite this, she gave birth to 10 fat sausage like kittens. Huge kittens. I dont know where she hid them all. All of the kittens were dead within 36 hours. We did examination and my veterinary consultant found their red blood cells were ruptured. It turns out, the antibodies in the mothers milk attacked the kittens red blood cells, and they died. That mated was not repeated. It was a bad mating. 

Then there is Banjee.  A black Konja. She had two litters of six kittens, never lost an ounce, and the kittens were great. I swapped out her stud and she did not get pregnant for a year. Though she and the stud lived together and were best friends. When she finally did get pregnant, she had six kittens. Four died within 36 hours. It turns out, she has some incompatibility with the stud. Another bad mating. I will add that the kittens that lived were stunning. And, I was inclined to keep them for mating. But, I decided they were the product of a bad mating, and not knowing the far reaching consequences of a bad mating, I would eliminate the problem from the gene pool. 

​Working with genetically diverse cats, there is the increased risk of a bad mating. The cats carry very different genes and sometimes they just dont mix well. The solution is find a better match. I think nature is sending some kind of message when this occurs, not sure what it means, but, I am listening. 

5. Happy families means no peeing. 

My cats live in family groups and I will add to that happy family groups. Like three sisters live with a stud, or a mother and a daughter live with a stud, and so on. The dads help take care of the kittens. The moms share nursing duties. And no one pees. The boys dont pee and the girls dont pee. No peeing. It's astonishing.

This takes some management because there can be trouble within a family. Fleur, a hybrid Burmese, did not like her daughter that I decided to keep for breeding. I knew this because the daughter was always hiding or outside in her run. And, her personality was not the best. I moved her into a new colony where she likes the other cats and they like her. Her personality bloomed. She and her mom just did not get along. Had I left, her, the conflict would have increased to peeing. 

​I am lucky in that I have tons of space so I can make a new family and stick them here or there. But, it seems that when cats are happy, they just dont pee that much. 

​6. Cats living in colonies manage their own reproduction. 

I was a little concerned about the cats living in colonies in regards non-stop kittens. It turns out, it is not an issue. They have kittens in a very metered pace and when its good for them. When they are young, they are inclined to have two litters back to back. I always freak out because they get skinny as they wean the second litter. But, after that second litter, they dont have kittens again for is months. Then, they have kittens on a schedule unique to them. One might have two litters a year, one might have one litter a year. 

​But, no one has bred themselves into ill health. 

7. Vaccines are not Harmless

One of the reasons I decided to get active improving the health of the Burmese breed was a rather unfortunate personal experience. I gave my mother a beautiful little sable girl who she name chocolate. One of those rag doll burmese that just wants to be carried around all the time. My mother was in love, kitten was happy, happy ending all the way around. Not so fast. My mother took the kitten and had it vaccinated. She was dead in 48 hours. The vet concluded she had FIP. A ridiculous diagnosis because FIP does not kill in two days. But, I concluded that Leslie Lyons was right, the Burmese breed had become so fragile, they would be killed by vaccines. And that was one real life experience that made me look into genetic diversity. 

So, now I have genetically diverse cats, no inbreeding, lots of tough cats from the streets of Thailand, all should be well. Well, that would not be true. We have had a terrible time with vaccines for some years now. Starting about three years ago, we would vaccinate kittens and two days later they would come down with an upper respiratory infection. And I mean an obstinate respiratory infection. They all got sick. But, within a litter, there were three outcomes. Some would have a cold for a week and get over it. Some would require antibiotics and it would clear up after about a month. And in a smaller number, they would develop a chronic upper respiratory that would take a year to clear up. 

Me being me, I called Vets, Universities, pharmaceutical companies, and they all acted like I was nuts. If I was breeding inbred American cats, with fragile health, it would be one thing. But my cats come from the streets of Thailand and for generations have had to survive everything from Cobras to Corona. So, for my super healthy kittens with super strong immune systems, to be made ill by a vaccine, it was the vaccine. 

Finally, just out of chance, I had kitten two buyers who had previously worked in the vaccine trade. The both said the same thing. Modified live virus vaccines, which is the industry standard, if not made properly, will give your cats the infection for which you are vaccinating them against. They will "break" with the infection or infections. They said it was a matter of fact. They also were not willing to go on record as saying as much because they feared retribution from the medical industry. 

I am here to say, even genetically healthy cats, cannot stand up to a bad vaccine. I then spoke to a breeder who confirmed she was having a problem with these vaccines and her purebred cats and cats at a local shelter where she volunteers. Meaning, the vaccines were making pure bred cats and random bred feral cats equally sick. One of my clients, a vet, took home a kitten, a year after she took home an earlier kitten. The kitten was vaccinated, got so sick he had to have intravenous fluids, and, he made the older cat sick! 

I the spoke with Phyllis Wilson, an old time Burmese breeder, and she said, stay away from the modified live vaccines. She told me where I could by the killed vaccines, which was no easy feat, but I got them. Since we switched over, not a single kitten cold. 

All that to say, even genetically healthy cats are susceptible to bad vaccines.