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Breed Spotlight: The Siamese Cat

Updated: Mar 4

The Siamese Cat is a majestic breed of old with not only a mysterious past but a somewhat confusing present, as you'll soon see. As one of the first distinctly recognizable breeds of Asian cat, it originated in Thailand (Formerly Siam, hence the name) and mentions of these pointed cats date all the way back to the 14th century. Characterized by blue almond-shaped eyes; a triangular head shape; large ears; an elongated, slender, and muscular body; and various forms of "point" coloration.


The original Siamese imports were medium-sized, rather long-bodied, graceful cats with moderately wedge-shaped heads and ears that were comparatively large but in proportion to the size of the head with "whip" tails. But some of this would change once they began to be exported out of Thailand.


It was only a matter of time before the breed became so well known that they were inserted into entertainment media. Say, "we are Siamese if you please," to just about anyone and they'll know exactly what you are referring to. One of the unfortunate things about their depiction in Lady and the Tramp, aside from the infusion of insensitive Asian racial stereotypes and caricatures (commonplace for the time), is the fact that the two Siamese in question are depicted as menacing and even obdurate - showing a blatant lack of consideration for whether "if you please" or "if you don't please," and plotting maniacally. This doesn't align with the general attitude of a Siamese. They can of course find occasional trouble through their inquisitive and playful nature, but they aren't your typical troublesome kitty.


Traditional vs Modern

During the last decade or so, the term “traditional Siamese” has been increasingly used to identify what had previously been called “apple head Siamese”. These cats exhibit a rounded head shape, a more rounded eye, a thicker coat, and are generally heavier appearing than the pedigreed Siamese shown in CFA (Cat Fancier's Association). Many claims have been made for these cats - from better health to longer lives - and most particularly that the apple headed Siamese have the original conformation, and that today’s show Siamese is a distortion (or "hyper-type") of the original look. However, history does not bear this out.


The "Modern" Siamese, aka CFA Original

Examinations of the original writings of people who observed the earliest importations of Siamese into England show that the cat first brought to Europe from Asia was described much the same as the CFA Siamese standard describes it today. The first words used to describe these early imports were ‘svelte’, ‘thin’, ‘smaller than other cats of the day’, ‘with tiny oval feet, and small pointed heads.' In 1889 (less than 10 years after they began being exported from Thailand), an early standard described the Siamese head as “small, broad across and between the eyes, forehead flat and receding, nose long, and somewhat broad cheeks narrowing towards the mouth."


"Modern" Siamese (CFA Original) vs "Traditional" Siamese (CFA unrecognized)

In another early standard from 1902, the head is described as “rather long and pointed” and the shape as “body rather long, legs proportionately slight." These early descriptions of the head were formalized in the CFA standard of 1956, where the description of the head has become more explicit, yet still incorporated the language of the earliest descriptions of Siamese: “The head should be long and taper in straight lines from the ears to a narrow muzzle, with no break in the whiskers.” Today’s current standard has not changed much from this time, describing the head as a “long tapering wedge” and the body as “graceful, long and svelte.” The tail of the early imports is described as whip like, slender and tapering, especially when compared to the typical cat of the times. The tail of today’s Siamese is “long, thin, tapering to a fine point”.


The original wedge head of the Siamese

So how did the cats called “apple heads” come to descend from the same bloodlines as the CFA true traditional (now usually referred to as the Modern) Siamese? Most likely they are the result of crosses with common domestic cats, both in England and in the United States. DNA testing has been underway to demonstrate this, but that takes quite a bit of time, so we'll just have to wait patiently for the definitive answer.



The early imported Siamese - resembling today's "Modern" Siamese - were considered delicate in constitution by many of the original English breeders, no doubt due to the stressful nature of the trip the cats endured to reach England as their sensitive natures. Some people felt that they needed to increase the strength of the Siamese, so they crossed their imports with white domestic cats. This resulted in a look that differed remarkably from the imports; larger, heavier boned, with a rounded look and difference in colors. It was quite a controversy at the time, with some people advocating the outcrosses, others believing that Siamese should only be bred to imported specimens like themselves to help preserve the "type" from their originating Asian nation. Two different recognizable types of Siamese, defined by color, are described in the writings of early enthusiasts. They are the seal point, described in ways that resemble the Siamese of today, and the chocolate Siamese, a dark, heavy, thick coated cat, possibly the origination of what became the “apple head." Breeding for robust dimensions was nothing new to cat fanciers in Brittain, and it is what gave rise to some of the most beloved breeds from the region such as the British Shorthair - markedly different from the American Shorthair in a few particular ways that may demonstrate their particular desire to "fatten" breeds such as the Siamese.


The British Shorthair vs the America Shorthair

Additionally, in the 1940s and 1950s the Siamese became very popular in America. Many people would breed together two cats with coloring similar to the "Siamese point" and falsely claim that the resulting kittens were Siamese in order to sell pet kittens at a premium. Some feline registries would even allow a registration based on a color pattern, and thus some cats that carried only partial Siamese genetics received registration papers declaring them to be full-blooded Siamese. All of this likely heavily contributed to the aforementioned "traditional" versus "modern" confusion.


The claims made by the people who breed the so-called "traditional" Siamese about health or longer life or greater intelligence cannot be supported as these cats also descend directly from the original imports and are subject to the same genetic strengths and weaknesses as their direct relative, the CFA purebred Siamese. Just as the apple heads have the same dog-like dependent personalities, and the same intelligence as the original Siamese. They all need the same support and loving care and are all subject to the same genetic weaknesses. Ending up with a great Siamese is very dependent on the care the kitten receives and the quality of the environment it is raised in, but also extremely dependent on genetics. CFA Siamese are just as healthy, person oriented, and long-lived as any Siamese bred and raised in the proper way, and they also provide a grace and beauty that is as charming to look at as their personalities make them a joy to live with. With ethical and intentional breeding, however, cat fanciers develop an intimate knowledge of their pedigrees and can select cats in an effort to breed out specific issues or amplify positive traits. For this reason, only purchasing from an ethical CFA breeder is ideal, if you decide not to adopt (adoption is a wonderful thing but isn't for everyone).


Siamese are known for cuddling in blankets

That Winning Personality

Siamese are usually very affectionate and intelligent cats, renowned for their social nature. Many enjoy being with people and are sometimes described as "extroverts." Often, they bond strongly with a single person. Many fanciers say they are almost doglike in their expression of attachment and neediness, and they tend to be extremely. affectionate. They don't only want your attention and affection, they NEED it. This level of affection and clingy behavior may be off-putting to some cat lovers who prefer the independence displayed by many cat breeds, but it's for this reason that Siamese are often quick to win over a dog person. An ignored Siamese is often a depressed one, and they may either sulk in their loneliness or become destructive. Otherwise, Siamese are not known for being as destructive as most other common breeds, such as the American Shorthair or the Bengal. They are often described as being more diurnal, more likely to stay very close to their owner, and less likely to hunt than other cats (which data shows are surprisingly not great at hunting pests anyway, preferring non-pest animals such as wild finches and other beneficial native wildlife).



The Health Concerns, Which Are Quite Concerning

Buckle up, this is going to be a long and bumpy ride...


Based on Swedish insurance data, which tracked cats up to 12.5 years, Siamese and Siamese-derived breeds have a higher mortality rate than other breeds. 68% lived to 10 years or more and 42% to 12.5 years or more. The majority of deaths were caused by neoplasms, mainly mammary tumors. The Siamese also has a higher rate of morbidity. They are at higher risk of neoplastic and gastrointestinal problems but have a lower risk of feline lower urinary tract disease. Vet clinic data from England shows a higher median lifespan of 14.2 years.


Nystagmus is a condition where the eyes either become crossed or flicker from side to side, and it’s common in Siamese cats. In some cat breeds, this condition is considered a birth defect. However, the Siamese is exempt from being classified as having a birth defect with this condition due to both the prevalence in the breed and the relatively nonexistent problems it causes them. In younger individuals this often causes them to ignore much of what is in their line of sight while their brain learns how to construct useful images of what is in front of them, leading to many owners and even veterinary professionals to think they are blind. However, their brains eventually become much more efficient at sorting out the extra information, enabling the cat to see one unified image and with notable clarity. The condition is not serious and causes no serious problems. No treatment is necessary for this condition. Generally speaking, even in more severe cases that result in not only the eyes darting back and forth but the head moving side to side (quite uncommon in Modern Siamese from good breeders these days as selective breeding has drastically decreased this issue, but it is more common in poorly breed individuals), it is little more than an odd quirk.


Hereditary Amyloidosis is an inherited predisposition in Siamese cats. Amyloids are a type of inert protein, and the term “amyloidosis” refers to a condition in which these proteins are deposited into various organs throughout the body that may disrupt the normal function of those organs, including the kidneys, liver, and intestines. This condition could lead to organ failure and is hard to diagnose. Often, the first sign of Amyloidosis is lethargy or lack of appetite. In the case of Siamese, they may become even more clingy than usual, seeking the comfort of their owner's company. Other symptoms may be increased drinking and frequent urination, weight loss, vomiting or attempting to vomit, and occasionally diarrhea. In some cases, the cat may have fluid buildup in the chest or abdomen. It is vital to seek medical attention as early as possible, so an owner's vigilance in watching for signs of Amyloidosis is very important. If your Siamese ignores its food and wants to just sit near you, consult with your veterinarian immediately out of an abundance of caution. Keep in mind, diagnosis is difficult. There is no test for this illness, and it is typically diagnosed as "possible" or "probable" Hereditary Amyloidosis based on the presence of certain symptoms.


My personal "Traditional" Siamese being treated for possible Hereditary Amyloidosis

Treatment for Hereditary Amyloidosis is very limited, and success often relies on how quickly treatment is begun. There is no cure, and in cats that are treated and experience some form of recovery, the symptoms are nearly always chronically episodic - repeating periodically and requiring further hospitalization. Subcutaneous fluids may help stabilize the condition and its impact of the kidneys and liver. If the pet recovers enough to return home, preventative measures such as veterinary diets formulated for kidney care as well as medications that focus on kidney support may be of some help. Some cats with Amyloidosis also develop high blood pressure that should also be treated. Any underlying condition like cancer, infections, or inflammation should be treated as well, if possible, as these can contribute to relapses of the condition. Veterinary Centers of America delivers the grim reality; "ongoing monitoring of organ system function, fluid balance, and blood pressure is important in cats with Amyloidosis. Any emerging symptoms can then be treated as soon as they are identified. Amyloidosis is a devastating disease, and if the kidneys are affected, most cats survive less than one year. Cats who are mildly affected may not develop kidney failure for some time and therefore may have a nearly normal life expectancy."



Other breeds that are at increased risk of Hereditary Amyloidosis are the Abyssinian, Somali (longhaired Abyssinian), Burmese, Tonkinese, Devon Rex, and Oriental Shorthairs. But any breed and mixed breed of cat can develop the issue. Again, selecting from a knowledgeable and ethical breeder may greatly minimize the chances of this being an issue in your cat.


A beautiful example of the breed

Megaesophagus is an enlargement of the esophagus. The esophagus is responsible for transferring food and water from the mouth to the stomach, and when the esophagus is enlarged it can cause unpleasant symptoms for your Siamese, including vomiting, weight loss, bad breath, nasal discharge, coughing, hunger, a lack of appetite or any combination of these symptoms. The condition is usually congenital for Siamese cats rather than acquired later in life. It is also usually idiopathic, which means the underlying cause is unknown. X-rays are normally used to diagnose megaesophagus, along with other tests, such as blood work and an esophagoscopy. Treatment usually involves treating the underlying cause, but with a congenital cause the prognosis is poor due to frequent bouts of pneumonia. Most Siamese do not experience a long-term recovery from this ailment.


Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) is a group of degenerative cells that affect the eyes’ photoreceptor cells in the retina. It is inherited in Siamese cats and causes various levels of vision loss. Ultimately, the condition causes total blindness, and there is no cure. Fortunately, if this is the extent of your Siamese cat's medical problems, he is unlikely to be greatly impacted due to a cat's remarkable ability to adapt to seeing very little or even not at all. They'll even often remember the layout of your home, so don't randomly move all of the furniture! PRA is caused by a recessive gene, and even if a cat has normal parents, the kitten can still develop PRA because the parents could be carriers. The disease can start at 1½–2 years of age, but it can also occur in cats as young as 2–3 weeks old. PRA can be tested for with specialized genetic blood tests that are frequently used by breeders, but the best tool for preventing PRA is a good breeder's intimate knowledge of their pedigree. If no cats in a pedigree ever exhibit PRA, the chances of your cat developing it are astronomically low. And a good breeder will never breed a confirmed carrier or any cat that exhibits PRA.


Further notes on PRA: The same albino allele that produces colored points means that Siamese cats' blue eyes lack a tapetum lucidum, a structure which amplifies dim light in the eyes of other cats. The mutation in the tyrosinase also results in abnormal neurological connections between the eye and the brain. The inner workings of the eye also have abnormal uncrossed wiring; thus, many early Siamese were cross-eyed to compensate. The crossed eyes have been seen as a fault, and due to selective breeding, the trait is far less common today. Still, this lack of a tapetum lucidum even in uncross-eyed cats causes reduced vision for the Siamese at night. This trait makes them vulnerable to urban dangers such as night-time vehicular traffic. But unlike many other blue-eyed cats, Siamese do not have reduced hearing ability.


Given the possibility of health issues, especially if you rescue a Siamese and do not know the pedigree, pet insurance should be a consideration.



Special Considerations

  • They don't appreciate the cold. Drafts and cold wind are sure to send it running for shelter. This likely contributes to their love of being under blankets. They will always seek warmth, more so than other cat breeds that can often tolerate being in colder draftier environments.

  • The outdoors is dangerous for any cat, but it is especially unforgiving to the Siamese. This was even known by the ancient people of Thailand, as they were temple cats and were not put out to fend for themselves due to their inadequate vision in the dark. Keep your Siamese indoors.

  • They tend to have a lower pain threshold than most other cats. If a Siamese gets injured, even if it's minor, it's likely to tell you.

  • Some cats require grooming, but the Siamese can take care of that themselves. No special attention needs to be paid to the coat, unless of course you would like to brush it with a soft-bristle brush to preemptively remove dead hairs before they fall to the floor or your furniture.

  • If you want a Siamese but find that you are out of the home for long periods of time or otherwise worry you may not be able to always meet the cat's social requirements, consider getting two. They are extremely gregarious and NEED company.

  • They enjoy climbing, so sturdy cat trees are a must!





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