The history of the Oriental Shorthair
Is that a Siamese?
The absolute most common question I get at cat shows (particularly because we frequently show pointed cats) is ‘Is that a Siamese?’. For the Oriental Shorthair breed, the answer to that is rarely as simple as yes or no.
History of the Siamese
Public Domain picture from Wikipedia
In the late 1800s, the British and Americans brought back peculiarly coloured cats from Siam. These cats had a very strange colour pattern: their ears, muzzles, feet, and tails were black, but the rest of their bodies were brown. To quote wikipedia: The original Siamese imports were medium-sized, rather long-bodied, muscular, graceful cats with moderately wedge-shaped heads and ears that were comparatively large but in proportion to the size of the head.
The original Siamese cats that were imported were only seal points (genetically black), but as they continued to work with the breed, chocolate point (genetically brown), blue point (dilute of black) and lilac point (dilute of chocolate) cats became accepted. These are the four official Siamese colours.
As there appears to have been no formal breeding program in Siam for these cats and likely also with cross breeding with other cats, a number of them gave birth to solid coloured cats, who were then called (in Britain) things like Foreign White, Havana Brown, etc.
Some of those imported cats carried the long haired gene (which is recessive) and in the 1920s, those ‘long haired Siamese’ were registered and shown and eventually, in the 1950s, became the Balinese cat.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the first schism in the breed happened, where a number of breeders began selective breeding for the modern body type that you regularly see in shows today. A number of breeders continued to breed the old style body type. In today’s registries, the old style cats are often known as Thai cats, although most pet owners call them apple head Siamese.
During that same period, a subset of Siamese breeders began a project to add more colours to the Siamese breed while keeping the same body type. Siamese cats were bred with a number of different cats of different breeds (Abyssinans, Russian blues, domestic shorthairs, and likely others). Because of those outcrosses, a new breed called Oriental was born, which includes over 300 colours and patterns. Another subset of Siamese breeders outcrossed for pointed cats in different point colours, and those are frequently called colourpoint shorthairs (shorthair) or Javanese (longhair). Orientals also come in both longhair and shorthair categories.
All of the cats who share the same general body type and standard are usually called the Siamese breed group.
The Pointed Colour
The Siamese colour (in all cats, not just purebreds, and in fact, in most animals that have it) is a form of albinism that causes colour to be deposited on the colder parts of the body (extremeties and face due to the sinuses) but that same colour to be broken down on the warm parts of the body. It is also responsible for the blue eyes.
Because of this mutation, all pointed cats are born white (the uterus is consistently warm), and develop their colours over time. Kittens are usually significantly less shaded than the same cat will be as an adult. Weight and age also make a difference in their body shading.
The Siamese colour (here after called pointed) is a simple recessive, meaning that in order for a cat to be pointed coloured, both of its parents needed to carry the pointed gene. It is completely possible for two solid cats to be bred together and make pointed kittens — in the Siamese breed group, it happens all the time. However, two pointed cats cannot have solid coloured offspring.
Another quirk of genetics is that the gloriously beautiful green eyes that we breed for in Orientals requires frequent mating with pointed cats to continue to get that shade. It’s almost certainly impossible to make show quality Orientals without pointed cats.
Here’s where the question that I lead off with gets tricky. What makes a cat a Siamese?
Each and every cat registry handles the registration of Siamese-type cats differently. They fall into two rough categories: pedigree-based, and phenotype-based.
The phenotype-based registries are easier and thus I’ll explain them first. Phenotype means simply ‘what the animal looks like’. For those registries, all cats born from pedigreed cats in the Siamese breed group are split into their breed based on what they look like. A pointed cat is Siamese, a non-pointed cat is Oriental. There are no Siamese cats who are unrelated to Oriental cats and no Oriental cats who are unrelated to Siamese cats. They are, in essence, the same breed. Most of the European registries and TICA based out of the US are phenotype-based registries.
The pedigree-based registries (sometimes, inaccurately, called genotype-based) split cats based on who their parents are. These registries frequently (although not always) have colour restrictions on what can be shown and sometimes also on what can be bred. The pedigree-based registries do have Siamese cats who are unrelated to Oriental cats.
The two big pedigree-based registries that people in North America may come in contact with are the CFA (Cat Fancier’s Association) and the CCA (Canadian Cat Association). Each registry handles things differently.
The CFA allows Oriental and Colourpoint cats who are official Siamese colours (seal, chocolate, lilac, blue) to be bred, but not shown. Oriental cats who are pointed with white or pointed in a non-Siamese colour or pointed with tabby patterns are allowed to be shown.
The CCA (my registry) handles things in a seemingly simpler but much harder to explain way. In a nutshell, what breed a cat is is based solely on parentage and allowed out crosses. I’ll use an example.
Picture taken from Showcats Online
GC, RW Gimsin Howard K Stern is a chocolate point Siamese male who is a Grand Champion (GC) and Regional Winner (RW) in the CFA. He is mated to a tortoiseshell point colourpoint shorthair cat. Because of the allowed outcrosses in the CFA, these kittens will be colourpoint shorthairs. Colourpoints can be outcrossed to Siamese, but the offspring will always be Colourpoint shorthairs, not Siamese.
Picture from Jessica MacKinnon, used with permission
One of those kittens is a chocolate point Colourpoint shorthair male named MRGCH Pharoahsgems King Tut CRW, a Master Grand Champion and Canadian Regional Winner. He was, as I’m sure you figured out, imported to Canada. Because the CCA recognizes colourpoint shorthairs, he was registered as a colourpoint shorthair. Because the CCA does not limit show cats based on colour, he could be shown in the CCA even as a Siamese-colour.
Tut eventually had babies with another complicated cat. Ch. Souriscat Starbuck was registered in TICA as a cinnamon point Siamese. When she was registered in the CCA, she was put as an Oriental as she had Oriental ancestors in her pedigree. So, Tut (colourpoint) had babies with Starbuck (oriental). Because of the outcrosses allowed, all of those babies are Orientals. Oriental shorthairs can be outcrossed with any Siamese breed group breed. Colourpoint shorthairs cannot be outcrossed with Orientals, so the offspring had to be Orientals.
And one of those kittens is GP SiamJewels Jellylorum, a chocolate point Grand Premier Oriental shorthair.
Three cats, all the same colour, all related to each other… all different breeds in a pedigree-based registry. In a phenotype-based registry, they’d all be Siamese.
To expand that even more, many cats are registered in more than one organization or are transferred between organizations. As an example, Bestcats Yesterday’s Youngsmile is a chocolate lynx point cat born in Germany. She was originally registered as a Siamese (phenotype), but moved to Canada and is now an Oriental (pedigree), however, if I registered her in TICA (phenotype), she’d be a Siamese still. It is possible for pointed cats to be a member of more than one breed in different registries.
What does this mean for the pet cat owner? Absolutely, positively nothing. All the cats in the Siamese breed group have the same personality range and roughly the same body type. If you are looking for a pet cat that your neighbours and vet and friends and children will call a Siamese, you can get one from any breeder who breeds Siamese breed group cats. I sincerely recommend that you talk with multiple breeders and go with the one that you feel most comfortable with, whose cats you like the best, with the healthiest and most well socialized kittens, and who you feel will offer you the best life long support.
If you’re looking to dip your toes in the show ring, you’ll need to verify what registries produce most of the shows around you and make sure that whatever cat you’re getting meets not only the standard but the current trends in that registry. A good breeder should be able to help you with this.
And if, despite all this insanity, you want to join the ranks of the crazy breeders, you’ll have to make your own opinions on what you are okay with, what you’re not okay with, and where you stand on pedigree and phenotype based registries.
I’ve tried very hard to keep my own opinions out of this, but I’m sure someone’s curious, so in a nutshell: I understand the desire for breeders to focus on purity and the naturalness of the Siamese. I also think that because the cat fancy has split into phenotype and pedigree-based registries, pedigree-based Siamese breeders have a substantially more limited gene pool, which can have an impact on health and even more so on the long term existence of the breed. I also like to have cats who aren’t all pointed (and even more so, the other half of Practicalcats really prefers solid colours). I personally would prefer to register and show in a phenotype-based registry, as that allows me as a breeder the broadest competition in cat shows so that I can refine my own tastes and my own breeding choices. However, most of the cat shows in my area are pedigree-based. As long as I can show any show-quality kitten regardless of colour, I am happy. I may show in the CFA, but I will not register kittens in the CFA by default because I find the idea that I could produce a show-quality, gorgeous kitten that could not be shown simply due to his colour to be personally offensive. Some of this is undoubtedly due to my utter love for the Siamese colour classes. The first cat we ever showed to a Grand was a chocolate point after all.
And, to answer the question that I’m so often asked: “Yes, this cat is a member of the Siamese breed group. Different registries register them differently. In this registry, she is an Oriental shorthair.”