Breeding for the Standard
Recognizing Quality in American Burmese Kittens
I have been asked to write an article on how to tell the quality of kittens. To me, this means from birth to selling age of about three months or 12 weeks. And often even older as kittens do indeed change as they grow and mature. I’ve been told by other breeders I have the “eye”. What exactly does it mean to have the eye? Some old timers will already know what I’m going to say, but there will be newbies (new breeders) amongst us who haven’t developed the eye yet. Also, even those of us who have been breeding a long time don’t always know what to look for in a good quality kitten, and even those of us with experience continue to learn about excellence. Having a good eye means one can see quality, recognize it and pick the right kitten or kittens for your breeding program. And if one does not have it, your breeding program will usually suffer as a result.
At three months of age, and even earlier, it is time to make the first decision in terms of quality, as we have to decide whether we are going to keep a likely show or breeding prospect or sell it as a pet. This seems obvious, but it can be a difficult decision even for those of us who are experienced. To develop an eye, a breeder needs to do several things to start. To begin with, you must know the standard of the association in which you are showing, you must know the judges and what they like within that association as well, and you must attend shows to see the quality of kittens and cats winning in the show halls.
It does really help to know the lines you are working with, the ways in which kittens from those lines develop, and the rates and ages that they develop. For example, a certain line may produce a darker champagne color, and even though you have a light colored kitten at four months, you know that the very same kitten at a year will more than likely have darkened and you will need to show it and get its title before then. In addition, nothing replaces attending shows and seeing what other breeders are producing, what quality looks like on the judging table, and that it often looks very different than in your home, especially when you have to compete against other cats. You will also get to see how the competition stacks up to your cat or kitten and from that you can learn a lot.
Obviously some of this knowledge comes from personal experience, but another way to develop this eye is to have a mentor with which one works who can share the cats Laki’s Gabriel of Gray Mark in your lines and tell you some about their development. Having an older experienced breeder with which to work can be invaluable. Barbara Kish helped me and was my mentor for several years. She shared with me about the cats in our pedigrees, how they developed, and then when I had developed my own eye she said you are ready to be on your own, and she was right, I had developed my own eye and ability to judge the quality of our kittens on my own. She taught me a lot, but I can tell you if you don’t have the ability to see excellence AND have the cats that are good enough, one may never develop the eye. I have seen some long time breeders never develop it. This article is meant to help breeders recognize quality at a very young age. I have seen it at birth. Yes, amazingly, at birth. So let’s start at birth.
I’m a very strong believer that one must be present at the birth of your kittens; you can save lives this way and another reason to be there is you can sometimes see quality as the little new born kittens come out of their birth sacs. While the kittens are still wet, we pick them up, handle them, count all their toes so to speak, and look at their heads. Over the years, we’ve noticed that mothers, who have experience with birth and have stretched birth canal muscles, often have kittens who are born with less sloppy heads. The birth canal muscles tend to deform the heads as the kittens pass through the canals and so frequently you will have to wait until two to three days after birth to look at kitten heads, but with experienced queens you often don’t have to do so. Bettie Boop, one of our experienced queens, had kittens whose heads were beautiful right at birth. What to look for, either at birth or at two to three days of age, is a little round head; it looks just like a golf ball. It is as wide across as it is from front to back when you look at it from the top or from the side in profile. If it is longer in profile than across, it means you have to wait and see how it develops, but if it is a golf ball right at birth, at least from our lines, it means we have a winner!
Another thing that can show up at birth is the nose break. I have seen 90 degree nose breaks at birth and very short muzzles that took our breath away. These are kittens we thought might be show winners and happily almost every one of them was such a winner. Unfortunately, I have heard from other breeders that often very short muzzles at birth can lengthen and the kitten can grow a too long of a muzzle, so this is something that obviously different lines show or develop in other ways. This is where knowing your lines can really help.
One can’t really know a great deal about bodies at birth, except if you see a kitten with a really long body it is likely not going to have a cobby, short body. And a really short, cobby body at birth has a chance of keeping the shorter body so obviously the shorter body is better. I can also usually tell about tails at birth; a really short tail is good needs to be.
Color is difficult at birth for either the champagne or platinum as often one can’t tell whether one has platinum or champagne. This is a good thing actually as it means the colors are possibly going to be lighter. Sables and blues are also interesting. Sometimes sables need time to darken and, yet, I’ve seen kittens born at birth that had dark sable color to the roots. Often sables born to a dilute needs time to darken. Blues are almost always the color they will be as adults at birth, although I’ve noticed there are some blues from other breeders’ lines that are not really a blue color, they are what some breeders call plues; they develop into a color somewhere in between platinum and blue. I, personally, have never really liked this in between color and we don’t usually see this much in our lines. I like to see a rich blue color with warm fawn undertones.
After birth, the phase that comes next is the stage up until toddler age, one might call it, the stage when kittens begin to walk around and you can begin to see their bodies, their legs, etc., at four weeks of age.
At four weeks, kittens are hopefully developing well. What I like to see in good quality kittens are those that have short compact bodies and very round, short muzzled heads with little ears on the side of the head. In excellent quality kittens, nothing should be exaggerated at this age. For example, no longer muzzles or longer bodies, although kittens can grow into all of these exaggerated features as they mature so it is not time to throw in the towel yet. Four weeks is a good age for kittens, it is a good time to evaluate them, as often what they have at four weeks they will lose by eight weeks because of grow spurts, but you will want to see them regain these qualities they had at four weeks by three to four months of age.
The thing I really watch for is the nose break at this age. If there isn’t one or it is very sloppy, like at a 45 degree angle, a kitten is not likely to regain it especially if it never had a good one prior to four weeks of age. A kitten without a nose break is now a candidate, in my mind, for a pet kitten as it will not do well in the show hall. However, one might still consider a female to be a breeding candidate if she has other good qualities. Nonetheless, I have found a quality like the nose break to be so important I’m likely to make a decision based just on this characteristic alone.
Here is a really important point I think all breeders should understand and I’m sure many of you do. The male needs to be the best quality in your breeding program as he will, after all, produce many more kittens over his lifetime than will a female. So the males need to have the very best type you can breed or buy. Females need it too but a female can be matched to a male with better type and still produce good quality kittens.
At four weeks, kittens are now venturing out of the nest and beginning the exploring process of their small world and all of a sudden they have legs! Legs at four weeks should be like little tree trunks, fat and chunky. You do not want long legs as remember most Burmese standards call for a compact cat, and if a kitten has long legs then the chance of maintaining a compact appearance is difficult. Chins can be evaluated at four weeks as well. A really weak chin begins to show itself at four weeks. And a kitten with a weak chin will show a weak profile. A kitten with a too strong of a chin often has the opposite problem, and if the chin juts out then the head loses its nice pleasing roundness. Although I’ve seen very few traditional Burmese with really strong chins, we often have to deal with weak chins and kittens with weak chins are difficult to show.
We have often been able to pick out our show winners by three to four weeks of age. Yes, they change, but they often come back to the qualities they had as these young kittens. We have seen this in all our lines we have worked with as breeders of show winning cats. If your lines develop and show progress differently then you must know the different ages when they show these qualities of excellence.
Now they are growing into more mature kittens and at eight weeks kittens are almost completely weaned, although they shouldn’t leave their moms yet and they have much development to do for you to evaluate whether to keep a kitten for breeding or showing. The next month is often crucial in this process of evaluation, as many breeders will make decisions about kittens at eight weeks.
Kittens change dramatically in this four week period between four and eight weeks; they have now developed into little maniacs, they love to play, run and jump, follow their moms around the house, and get into mischief. With these social changes come many physical changes that often make it much more difficult to evaluate kittens as show or breeding quality. Between four to eight weeks kittens grow rapidly, their muzzles can lengthen, and their heads will change as well, and that perfect round head at four weeks is now longer and you wonder what happened to it. And then the body goes, it gets longer and the legs get longer too and you realize the perfect kitten you had at three or four weeks is now undergoing growth spurts. This is a time some breeders decide to get rid of these offenders, but one should wait to see if they develop those qualities again that they had when they were potential champion or grand champion quality. This means keeping some kittens on speculation and that helps you understand your lines and how they continue to develop and grow throughout the next few months.
Most breeders let their kittens go into pet homes at 12 weeks of age so this is the definitive age for most of us. We have to decide. If we are on the fence about a kitten we will often have to decide if the kitten is worth keeping. Several things may have happened. If you are lucky as we have been on several occasions we knew at 12 weeks that we just had to keep this particular kitten. Often the decision was based on the coming together of type. What I mean by this is what a judge said to me several years ago: the best kittens are those that look like adults when they are kittens. They are mature in coat color, have good nose breaks, and have the right head type, nice round heads just like a soft ball. Their bodies are cobby, short in length, boning is substantial, coat is close lying, color is solid, or in the case of dilutes, light in color. I think you know the drill, I could go on and on about excellent type. We are indeed fortunate when we have these put together kittens at 12 weeks and we have had some of them.
What is more likely is you will have a kitten that has some of these wonderful attributes, but not all of them, and you will wonder what to do, whether you should keep a kitten or not. This is where knowing your lines and what is behind them really helps you make a difficult decision. For example, some lines may not have good nose breaks at 12 weeks but they are known to come back at six months, you will then have to hold onto the kitten to see if this happens. I’m going to use an example from our own breeding program to help explain what I mean. Because traditional Burmese breeders and their lines have had to compete against the more extreme head type of the contemporary cats in the show hall, I have been extremely reluctant to keep kittens that do not have or produce good nose breaks and short muzzles because judges will not use them in their rings in competition. This selection process has helped us produce foundation cats with strong nose breaks and short muzzles cats over the years. After these attributes are established, then one can select for other things like lighter color in dilutes. We had a saying in our breeding program, which I’m sure many of you are familiar with, and that is “build the house first then paint it.” So in the beginning the establishment of lighter color took a back seat to type in head and body in our program. Breeders must make these kinds of choices all the time.
Kittens at 12 weeks may or may not have the attributes you want. If they have not regained the qualities you saw at four weeks, if bodies have become long, head type is too long, there is no nose break, at this point it may be time to throw in the towel and sell your kitten. On the other hand, if a kitten is only missing one characteristic you are looking for, such as a strong nose break (I keep coming back to this, don’t I), it may be worth while to hold onto a kitten until it is six months. If I had a nickel for every time a breeder has said to me, I should have keep that kitten because as an adult it grew into a show winner, I would be a wealthy woman today. Sometimes we are impatient, other times we don’t know our lines, and sometimes we are just unlucky. Hopefully, this article has given you some ideas on how to make the right decisions so that you are not making the wrong decisions for your breeding program. Have we made mistakes? You bet, but fewer than I’m sure we would have made because over time I developed the eye to recognize quality in our kittens. You, too, can do the same with practice and understanding if you have not done so already.
UBCF April 2008
Margaret & Ray Stevens