Update, January 4, 2018: Since writing this post I have learned that the breed most people outside the cat fancy think of as a Siamese has undergone some evolution in the cat fancy. There are a few names for it now. See my upcoming book for the latest facts about this beautiful fancy-cat and the southeast Asian natural breed it was developed from.
Look past all the dazzling colors and different appearances of domestic cats, and you’ll see that there are just two basic body types:
- Stocky and roundish, i.e., western Eurasian
- Lithe and muscular, i.e., African/eastern Eurasian
Cat fanciers usually call the second type “foreign,” presumably because the cat fancy originated in Europe.
Siamese cats are the embodiment of the “foreign” look. They originated in Asia but made it to the very first cat show, held at London’s Crystal Palace in 1871.
Today they are still the most famous Asian cat and one of the world’s oldest known natural breeds.
The Siamese is instantly recognizable by its dark mask, ears, legs, and tail.
Technically, this is a genetic pattern, not just a feline thing. Some other animals have it, but the gene mutation was first associated with Siamese cats.
The Siamese gene, as it’s called (Robinson and Pedersen), deposits more fur pigment on cooler parts of the body. It also makes body hair darker on animals who live in cooler parts of the world.
This mutation is responsible for those beautiful blue Siamese eyes, too. Unfortunately, it affects the cat’s vision, which is why some cats squint.
Another Siamese trademark is that wedge-shaped head, a muscular but slender body, and elegantly long legs and tail. Many North American cat fanciers accentuate these angular features, taking them to extremes.
Finally, Siamese cats are very vocal and interactive with people. They will miss you when you’re gone, and if you work at home:
The Cool Factor:
Well, call it the demonic-or-cool factor. People react very strongly to this cat.
At the first cat show, held in London during the 19th century, one journalist thought a seal-point Siamese – the traditional dark-pointed cat – was “an unnatural, nightmare kind of cat.” (Wastlhuber)
But the fact that this feline was even in the show indicates that Siamese cats already had a strong British fan club.
Siamese cat colors
As one of the oldest fancy-cat breeds, Siamese cats have had their colors manipulated by breeders for a long time. It can get complicated.
Basically, there are just four point colors:
- Seal (This is black, really, but modified by the Siamese gene to dark brown.)
- Blue (diluted black)
- Lilac (diluted chocolate)
Starting in 1964, the UK’s Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF) recognized additional colors and patterns that breeders have been working on for most of the twentieth century.
The breeders could get creative because there is enough pigmentation in the points for other genes to have an noticeable effect.
Today, per the GCCF, there are 32 registered Siamese colors and patterns.
Yes, these do include tabbies!
North America’s Cat Fancier’s Association (CFA) only recognizes the four traditional colors. It does register the additional colors and patterns but as a separate show breed: the Colorpoint Shorthair.
History of Siamese cats
Like domestic cats all over the world, Siamese cats are descended from an African/Near East wildcat that began developing a relationship with the first farmers around 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent.
After spreading across the Near East and completing the domestication process in Egypt 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, domestic cats began to travel places with traders, Roman legions, and other people.
Some of them arrived in Asia some 2,000 years ago via the “Internet” of the first century AD –trade routes between Rome, Greece, and the Far East. (Driscoll and others)
Little is known about their early history there, but genetic testing shows that Asia’s domestic cats became isolated from western Eurasian cats more than 700 years ago. (Driscoll and others; Lipinski and others)
As they evolved to meet local conditions and human standards, these eastern Eurasian felines developed a very distinctive look.
In Ayudha, the old capital of Siam (as Thailand used to be called), people began to record cats and other animals at some point between 1350 (the founding of the city) and 1767 (when it was destroyed in a war).
Among those cats was a seal-pointed feline that resembled modern Siamese cats.
The next known recorded sighting of the Siamese pattern happened on a 1793 expedition to Russia, when German naturalist Peter Simon Pallas found three dark-pointed kittens on a nobleman’s estate near the village of Mokshan. (Pallas, pages 48-49; Wright and Walters)
Since the father wasn’t known, it’s unclear if these pointed kittens were a separate Siamese mutation or if they were somehow related to Siam’s cats. It doesn’t appear that a breed was developed from them.
No one seems to know how Siamese cats reached the British Isles in time for an 1871 London cat show, because the first record of them reaching the West is from 1884. (Wastlhuber)
East or West, Siamese cats – with their beauty, intelligence, and ability to interact with us – have found their way into millions of human hearts.
Featured: Lilac-point Siamese cat by Karin Langner-Bahmann, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Young seal-point Siamese cat on floor by Lottie at Flickr Creative Commons. Public domain.
Lynx-point Siamese by Lottie at Flickr. Public domain.
Engraving of Russian pointed kitten, 1793. Plate 1, in Pallas (see below).
Cat Fanciers Association: About the Siamese. http://cfa.org/Breeders/CatColorsGenetics/PointedColorChart.aspx Last accessed September 22, 2017.
Cat Fanciers Association: Colorpoint Shorthair. http://cfa.org/Breeds/BreedsCJ/ColorpointShorthair.aspx Last accessed September 22, 2017.
Driscoll, C. A.; Clutton-Brock, J.; Kitchener, A. C.; and O’Brien, S. J. 2009. The taming of the cat. Scientific American. 300(6):68-75.
Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF): Siamese breed profile. https://www.gccfcats.org/Cat-Breeds/Siamese Last accessed September 22, 2017.
GCCF Oriental Joint Breed Advisory Committee: Foreign White: http://www.ojbac.co.uk/fwhite.html Last accessed September 22, 2017.
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Ottoni, C.; Van Neer, W.; De Cupere, B.; Daligault, J.; and others. 2017. The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world. Nature Ecology & Evolution. 1:0139.
Pallas, P. S. 1812. Travels through the souther provinces of the Russian Empire, in the years 1793 and 1794, Volume 1. London: J. Stockdale. https://archive.org/details/b22008056_0001
Robinson, R., and Pedersen, N. C. 1991. Normal genetics, genetic disorders, developmental anomalies and breeding programs, in Feline Husbandry, ed. Pedersen, N. C., 61-128. Goleta, California: American Veterinary Publications.
Vigne, J-D; Evin, A.; Cucchi, T.; Dai, L.; and others. 2016. Earliest “domestic” cats in China identified as leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). PLoS ONE. 11:(1):e0147295.
Wastlhuber, J. 1991. History of domestic cats and cat breeds, in Feline Husbandry, ed. Pedersen, N. C., 1-59. Goleta, California: American Veterinary Publications.
White, B. 2000. The Siamese. Cat Fanciers Almanac. http://www.cfa.org/Breeds/BreedsSthruT/Siamese/SiameseArticle.aspx Last accessed September 22, 2017.
Wright, M., and Walters, S. 1980. The Book of the Cat New York: Summit Books.