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“What have they done to the Siamese Cat?”

by Sheelagh Le Cocq 

First published in 'Cats' magazine [UK], 27 September 1995


That is the question hundreds of people have asked me in the past couple of years, many of whom had visited a cat show for the first time and could not recognize the modern Siamese as the same animal they knew and loved 20 or 30 years ago. 

For 80 to 90 years the appearance of the Siamese had changed very little. Breeders strove to improve their health. When Siamese first appeared in England they were well known as being delicate and many failed to thrive. Even into the 1920’s and 30’s the Siamese were not noted as being robust. It took a great deal of hard work by dedicated breeders to improve their health to the point where they were as hardy as other breeds and no longer needed to be treated like hothouse flowers. It was decided that those distinctive Siamese characteristics, the squint and the kink in the tail, should be eliminated but, apart from that, the general shape of the cat remained virtually unchanged. Despite arguments from modern breeders that Siamese “never looked like that” and that any that did were “pet quality”, or had been outcrossed to other breeds, many photographs of the period prior to the 1980’s show Champions that were sturdily built and whose faces were certainly not pointed. 

In 1892 when Harrison Weir drew up the first Standard of Points for Siamese, it was stated that they should have a “woolly” coat. Cats being bred as late as the 1970’s still had thick woolly waterproof coats, totally unlike the thin sparse coats of modern Siamese, especially in America. 

In 1980 the Siamese Joint Advisory Committee decided to revise the Standard of Points. This spelled the end of the Siamese as we knew it. The new Standard called for thinner, more “Oriental-shaped” cats, with wedge-shaped heads. There was nothing outrageous in this; the head was always defined as wedge-shaped, even in Harrison Weir’s day. The problem was certain breeders’ interpretation of this. Wedge-shaped is quite a common definition - the Standard of Points for the Devon Rex calls for a wedge-shaped head but no-one could accuse them of being long and pointed like the modern Siamese. Some breeders, especially in America, seemed to believe that “Oriental-shape” meant thin, the thinner the better. Cats became smaller and thinner with long, stick-like legs. Their faces became more and more exaggerated into long pointed triangles with huge ears stuck on top, a caricature of the animal they were meant to be. 

It was not so much that the Standard was at fault but individual breeders' interpretation of it. The body shape, “long and svelte” became exaggerated into a long thin tube. “Dainty legs” became elongated into fragile, long, thin limbs which looked barely able to support the bodyweight, and tails became longer and thinner, resembling a length of string. This was achieved by selective breeding, much the same as different shapes and sizes have been made by selective breeding in the Dog Fancy. 

Health deteriorated. Many extreme modern Siamese abort their litters or give birth to sickly or deformed kittens. Heart problems have become quite common with one breeder alone reporting a number of cats bought from different sources dying from heart failure before the age of six. Veterinary surgeons have reported eye problems caused by the exaggerated elongation of the nose and undershot jaws are frequently reported. Temperaments too suffered. Gone were the robust companions that many people compared to dogs. Nervous cats were common, highly-strung and temperamental, they seemed to have lost their intelligence of old. Voices too suffered. Although many people would no doubt be pleased that Siamese were becoming less vocal, true aficionados of the breed regret the loss of the lengthy conversations they used to have with their pets. It was said that a Siamese could “talk” and this was certainly true. Coming in from a walk the Traditional would excitedly tell you what he had seen and who he had met. And, should you dare to go out and leave them, you were left in no doubt as to their disapproval on your return. The outpouring of recriminations left little to your imagination! 

Many modern Siamese are virtually mute. Some utter minute squeaks, totally unlike a Siamese. I have owned a Siamese who could be heard when out exploring, continually grumbling to himself as he walked. You could hear him patrolling the hedgerows and always knew where he was. His brother, who closely rivalled him for the loudest voice I have ever heard, once crept up on a drunk who had chosen to sit on our garden wall on his way home to eat his fish and chips. Smelling the aroma of the fish, the cat let out an almighty roar which nearly caused the poor man to have a heart attack. Throwing his supper in the air he ran for his life and it wasn't long before we heard rumours that a banshee had been heard in our garden. I cannot imagine a modern Siamese earning such a reputation. 

Once again, I feel that they are becoming less robust. The thin, fine coats mean that they are far less hardy than their predecessors. This does not appear to matter to many modern breeders who keep their cats indoors and are horrified that anyone should want to give them their freedom. What would they think, I wonder, of the famous breeder, now in her 90’s, whose stud cat used to roll over in the snow on the Yorkshire Moors like a dog? My own thick-coated Siamese, too, were never bothered by snow, rain or cold and would just shrug off the worst of the elements, while their modern counterparts sit so close to the fire or heater that they always seem in danger of burning themselves. 

It wasn't until the 1990’s that a lot of people realised what was happening, that the last of the old cats were passing on at ripe old ages of 26, 17, 18 or more. These sort of ages were not uncommon among the Traditional-type Siamese. When people tried to purchase a kitten of the same type they were appalled. I know; it happened to me and, after writing to CATS, I was inundated with hundreds of letters from people who were in a similar position. In response to this demand the Traditional Siamese cat Association was formed in 1995 to try to preserve breeding the few “old-type” Siamese still in breeding and to bring back the Traditionals to a viable situation. 

We have met a lot of opposition along the way but we have, also, had a lot of help and encouragement too, mainly from past judges and breeders, many of whom say they cannot bear to go to a show and see the Siamese today. 

The change will not be brought about overnight. It took many years of slow, subtle, barely noticed changes to get the Siamese to the type it is now. 

In the UK they have not gone as far down the road as some American breeders. We want to halt this “progress” and gently try to reverse it. It will take time. There are too few real Traditionals left in the UK, though there still appear to be some remaining on the Continent and in Russia. In their native Thailand, too, they remain unchanged and it looks as though we will have to import new blood to increase the gene pool. 

How far do we want to go? The Traditional Cat Association in the USA have gone back to “Appleheads” which are similar to the picture of Tiam O'Shian. Our members are split, with some preferring the real “Traditionals” or “Appleheads” while others simply wish to go back to the beautiful type personified by cats like Gr. Ch. Amberseal Electo. 

We cater for both points of view. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and many have suggested that the Traditionals could eventually be shown alongside the moderns, instead of only being put on exhibition as is the current situation. 



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