Sunday 10 June 2012

The First Siamese Cats of the Cat Fancy

Cat history is often annoyingly vague unless the cat breed was created through selective breeding on the back of hybridization. The Siamese cat, though is a naturally occurring type of cat with dark fur at the extremities of its body and which was found in Siam (Thailand) for centuries. Of course it may have occurred elsewhere in the Orient. But we know that someone from the West saw the cat and wanted to import it to Europe, specifically England. We are talking about the 1880s.

1889 Siamese cat - Illustration by Harrison Weir.

The first person or one of the first people to import the Siamese cat to the West was Mrs Vyvyan. She lived in Dover, Kent, on the south coast of England. We can say this with some certainty because she is quoted directly by the founder of the world cat fancy, Harrison Weir, in his book Our Cats and all about them (that is how the title looks by the way. I have shortened it a bit). You won't get a better authority than that because the book's author was the number one authority about cat breeds at the time and the date the book was published was 1889. He wrote about something that had just happened. It was fresh news and the section on the Siamese cat in his book features the Siamese and its history to a greater extent than the other breeds he refers to. The Siamese was a novelty at the time and was considered rather exotic.

Mrs Vyvyan says that she believes that the Siamese cats that she acquired came from the King's Palace (the King of Siam - hence the "Royal Siamese cat"). The fact that the King kept Siamese cats indicates that these cats were looked upon as special in Siam. They may have been quite a rare mutation to the ordinary domestic cat in that country.

There are a number of Siamese cat history stories one of which I mention on my Siamese cat history page about the British Consular General who was departing to England and who was given Siamese cats by the King. I don't know how this squares up with Mrs Vyvyan's account of the matter as referred to in Harrison Weir's book. Perhaps someone can leave a comment and clarify the matter.

Let's say that Mrs Vyvyan was one of the first importers if not the first. Her words therefore about the breed carry weight and provide an insight into the health, character and appearance of the original Siamese cats in Siam.

In summary - you can read more on this page - she says that they were loyal and dog-like of character. This reflects the modern assessment of this breeds character. As to health she confirms what Lady Neville says (is Mrs Vyvyan, lady Neville?) that the early Siamese cats had a bad attack of intestinal parasites  - worms. This was a particular and concerning problem. A number of cats died of worms and at the time there was no cure but John Jennings in his book, Domestic Cats and Fancy Cats mentions that there were several treatments one of which was something called "santonine". "One to three grains should be given in milk after fasting for six hours". Mrs Vyvyan feed her cas chicken heads with feathers as a panacea.

So health was a concern for the Siamese cat owner (caretaker) of that era. In fact Mrs Vyvyan says they were delicate in respect of health. As to the all important appearance, Mr Weir, who was a very accomplished artist, illustrates his book with a drawing of the head of a Siamese cat, probably one of Mrs Vyvyan's Siamese cats. It heads this page -  a classic applehead Siamese cat. The pointing is rather odd however as it appears to have a clear demarcation over the eyes in an arch. This may just be a quirky way of drawing the face.

Whatever; as I have mentioned before, the original Siamese was the what is today called the traditional or applehead Siamese. The pointing was almost black in colour (seal point in modern parlance). Ironically, the modern, over-bred Siamese cat with the oriental body shape is one of the least healthy cats, if not the most unhealthy cat of the cat fancy. I wonder if this is an inheritance from the founding cats or due to inbreeding to create to the modern idea of what the Siamese cat should look like, which is incorrect!

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