Learn more about the Tonkinese
What fetches like a dog but doesn’t need to be walked? What cat feels surprisingly heavy? What feels like a mink coat? Why, a Tonkinese cat, of course!
It is believed that some of the chocolate Siamese of the 1800’s were what we currently call Tonkinese. The foundation cat of the Burmese breed, Wong Mau, had a natural mink coat pattern. Cristy Bird, a Siamese breeder, photographed feral cats on the streets of Bangkok this year, with the mink coat pattern and aqua eyes associated with Tonkinese.
Over time, the Burmese breeders have selected for the dark, almost solid coat pattern and moved the Burmese conformation away from the Siamese. As the Siamese and Burmese conformations diverged, some breeders experimented with a Siamese-to-Burmese cross. Although the cats we call Tonkinese existed for many years, the mid-1960’s saw the beginning of the movement for acceptance and registration. In the first Tonkinese breed article (CFA Almanac, May 1994), Sharon Roy wrote extensively about early breeders and their cats. Although this article touches on their early history in CFA, it focuses on the status of the breed today and answers some recurring questions.
In the mid-1960’s, Jane Barletta, a US Siamese breeder, decided she wanted to develop a more moderate, balanced breed of cat. She crossed Siamese with Burmese and called them “Tonkinese.” At about the same time in Canada, Margaret Conroy started crossing Siamese and Burmese to solve a more pragmatic problem. She had a shy English Burmese and no male Burmese to breed her to. Rather than ship the timid cat, a judge suggested that she breed her to a Siamese. The resultant kittens had tan coats with aqua eyes and she became very interested in the color. She called them “Tonkanese.” Other names where also used but eventually the name and spelling of “Tonkinese” was agreed upon.
Jane and Margaret started to communicate and then worked together to develop this moderate cat breed. What they attempted to do was difficult. Most man-made breeds merge an existing conformation of one breed with a color or coat length from another breed. Then, work is done to eliminate the conformation of the breed that was used to add the new color or coat length. Jane and Margaret wanted to develop a conformation that looked like neither parent, but rather something in between. The concept of “moderate” was the easy part. The hard parts were in the execution, deciding the detail and then getting consistency. A condition for acceptance into championship was to close the breed to out-crosses. For almost 20 years in CFA, Tonkinese have only been bred to other Tonkinese. In 2001, they were moved from hybrid classification to an established breed. Over time, the standard has been refined and selective breeding has led to consistency. Today, the standard is quite stable and most changes refine the color description.
Of the early breeders, perhaps Jane Barletta was the person most responsible for promoting the breed. She advertised in Cat Fancy to attract new breeders and mentioned the breed on the TV show Jeopardy. She began working with Mary Swanson on the west coast. The first association to accept the Tonkinese was the Canadian Cat Association (CCA) in 1971, followed by other associations. Catherine Rokaw added detailed knowledge of genetics to the group of Tonkinese breeders. Joan Bernstein, another early breeder, was a driving force in gaining CFA acceptance of the Tonkinese. She started the Tonkinese Breed Association (TBA) in 1979. TBA members were, and still are, a tenacious group, active in more than 35 different clubs. While the breed was still in the Miscellaneous class, TBA began sponsoring its own shows. CFA accepted the Tonkinese for registration in October 1978, Provisional status came in May 1982 and full Championship status followed in May 1984. The first show season for championship competition was 1984-1985. By the time they reached full status, Tonkinese had appeared in more than 200 shows, TBA had sponsored four shows of their own and breeders had registered more than 800 cats. Joan Bernstein was the breed committee chair during Miscellaneous class followed by Norma Roy, Catherine Rokaw, Sharon Roy, Bonnie Smith and Scott Cowling as breed council secretaries.
Of course, dates and names do not tell the whole story. They do indicate it took a long time for Tonks to be advanced to Championship status. One reason was that the rules changed during the process. Many opposed recognition of the Tonkinese because they saw the breed as pet-quality Siamese or Burmese. Tonkinese exhibited the very traits that were bred out of Siamese and Burmese. Many saw what the breed was not, rather than what it was. Many of those opposed did not change their views simply because Tonkinese were finally accepted. Today, some still do not like the breed because they do not consider it to be pure. When Persians, Maine Coons and Turkish Angoras were all classified as “longhairs,” they could be inter-bred. The separate conformations of today are a result of selective breeding, much like that of the conformation of Tonkinese compared to its parent breeds. When viewed in that light, “pure” is a relative concept.
The same tenacity and love of the breed that prevailed in gaining acceptance has helped the breed to grow over time. Some breeds have swings in terms of popularity. Tonkinese have had sustained steady growth over time with no big dips or peaks. In the beginning, Tonkinese ranked 17th in registration; the breed is now the 7th largest in CFA in terms of litter registrations and 12th in terms of individual registrations. CFA total individual registrations are 42% lower than in 1990, yet Tonkinese registrations have increased 30% over the same period. The Tonkinese Breed Council is CFA’s 11th largest. While some catteries have contributed significantly by producing many award winners, there is a wide group of breeders and exhibitors involved in working with Tonkinese cats. In the last ten years, 238 individuals have granded a Tonkinese and in addition, there are others who have not yet achieved this award. Overall, there is a broad, vital group of Tonkinese participants.
Quantity does not imply quality. As consistency improved over time, it resulted in many Regional Winners (RW), Grands and DMs. It all started when Dick Koepp finaled the first Tonkinese in CFA: Shanfoo’s Sybil of B’ssa on May 5, 1984. During that first championship show season (1984-85), however, neither CFA’s Best nor 2nd Best Tonkinese in Championship granded. The only Tonkinese Grand in the first year was GP Solano’s Marina Del Sol of Risu. After the first season though, Tonks began achieving awards and since 1987-1988, all the National Best, 2nd Best and 3rd Best of Breed winners in championship have been Regional Winners. In the last ten years, Tonkinese have won many Regional Awards: 51 in championship, 43 in premiership and 14 in kitten class. Distinguished Merit (DM), which is the most prestigious award in CFA, is a real indicator of quality. There have been 38 Tonkinese DMs which rank Tonkinese 12th by breed. GC Sonham’s Emily Jo of Torador, DM was a one litter DM. Pendragon’s Pandora, DM has 13 qualifying Grands, which place her high on the allbreed list of female DMs based on qualifying offspring. Unfortunately, Regional Winners and DMs have not resulted in a proportional number of National Winners (NW). Tonkinese frequently hit a glass ceiling there. The first Tonkinese National Winner was GC, GP, NW, RW Honeypointe Uptown Girl in 1990-1991, who was named 9th Best Cat in Premiership. The second Tonkinese National Winner and first in championship was GC, NW, RW Torador’s Antigone of Seaflower in 1996-1997, who was named 14th Best Cat in Championship. Four Tonkinese have just missed top 25 honors, placing 26th highest scoring in championship, including the last three consecutive years.
Tonkinese come in twelve colors. The extremities are painted in four base colors (the same as the parent Siamese and Burmese breeds), with the body tinted to three levels of body contrast or pattern. Although they are called “points,” “minks” and “solids,” they are all pointed cats and none are truly solid. A better way to describe them is high, medium and low contrast between the points and body color. The word mink was not originally the name of the medium contrast coat pattern, but part of the darkest color name, natural mink. It also referred to the texture of the coat as well as color. Later, mink was added to the other three color names and came to be associated with the medium contrast coat pattern. When other CFA breeds added the same coat pattern with aqua eyes, they also referred to them as mink. The amount of contrast varies within each base color series of coat patterns. The champagnes have the most contrast and the blues the least, with the naturals and platinums in between.
When Tonkinese were accepted by CFA in 1984, only the mink colors were accepted; the pointed and solid colors became Any Other Variety (AOV). The standard is identical in conformation for all patterns, with the amount of coat-to-body contrast and eye color being the only differences. Coat pattern and color are genetically independent from conformation. Any variance seen in the show ring based on color or coat pattern is the result of breeder selection or bloodlines, or optical illusion (light objects appear heavier than dark objects). People have claimed that breeding points-to-points or solids-to-solids would revert them to the conformation of the parent breeds, but this is not correct. Tonkinese conformation is the result of years of selective breeding for characteristics created by many polygenes, and not the result of “simple genes” that can revert back to some recessive value. If coat pattern and conformation where linked, Himalayans would be slinky cats.
If only minks can be shown, why not just breed minks? Genetics dictate that mating two minks can produce all three coat patterns. Only mating a point to solid results in 100% minks, which is why many Tonkinese DMs are points or solids. Although points and solids are ineligible to be shown, they can produce a larger number of cats eligible for showing. Since points and solids are used for breeding but not for showing, fewer are individually registered. This causes the disparity of ranking 7th in litter registration versus 12th in individual registration. Tonk breeders originally recognized one other color – honey mink. Early on there was some concern that a health issue was related to this color, and others were concerned because it is not a color recognized in Siamese or Burmese within CFA. Tonkinese breeders decided to move it to AOV status along with the fawn color. Currently, a few breeders get occasional honeys or fawns, all of which are healthy. However, they are still registered as AOVs.
Platinum minks have come to dominate the breed winners, but it did not start that way. In the first year of championship showing, a natural mink was Best and a blue mink Second Best of Breed. The second year, both were platinums, but the third year the winners were champagne and natural. In fact, in the first decade, the second highest scoring Tonk in championship was a champagne mink: GC, GP, RW Sonham Chat-O Nerf Brut, DM. The registration statistics for 1985, the second year of acceptance, were: naturals 52%, blues 25%, champagnes 20% and platinums 13%. Platinums gradually increased their position, but the ratios changed substantially in 1992: champagnes 35%, platinums 30%, naturals 21% and blues 14%. This was the year after the first Tonkinese National Winner, who was a platinum mink spay. The decline in the number of blues and naturals continued over the next three years when they stabilized at about the current level: platinums 41%, champagnes 38%, naturals 13% and blues 8%. Points and solids cannot be eliminated, but all colors except platinums or platinums and champagnes could be eliminated. Why not? While platinums have been more successful in the show ring, many breeders and the public prefer the other colors. In fact, many breeders find platinums boring. Breeders who continue to show naturals and blues clearly do so for love of the color, not for rosettes. Much of the public prefers champagnes and naturals, although platinums and blues also have their champions.
To some people, the defining characteristic of a Tonk is the aqua eye color that occurs in the mink coat pattern, but not all Tonks have aqua eyes. Neither points nor solids should have aqua eyes. Why? Tonkinese eye color is a complex feature because it is the result of two mechanisms. The first mechanism is the genes that create eye pigment, ranging from gold to green. The second mechanism is the heat sensitive albino gene that creates the Siamese coat pattern, which prevents color from being expressed in the eyes just as it does on the body. The blue seen in Siamese eyes is not blue pigment, but rather the absence of color, allowing for light reflection of small particles as seen in a blue sky. The minks have a delicate balance between pigment (gold to green) and light reflection (blue), resulting in a range of aqua eye color. Tonkinese breeders have chosen the range of green to yellow-green, not gold, for the solids, and blue but not navy blue for the points. These color ranges seem to create the best aqua in the minks. Points and solids sometimes have aqua eyes but these do not meet the standard. The mix of pigment and reflected light in the aqua eye is strongly affected by the color of the surrounding light. Hence, you may see judges walking to a nearby window to obtain natural light to best view the eye color. Even in natural light, the eye color varies a great deal depending on time of day and sunny versus overcast conditions, just as the color of the sky does.
For many people, the defining characteristic of the Tonkinese is its moderate conformation. It is a medium sized cat but favors balance over size. Although the standard defines what a Tonk should look like, one of the best descriptions was by a judge, who described what it should not be. He said it should not be too long or too short, not too heavy or too slim, and he continued on in that vein. He concluded by saying there should be nothing extreme about the cat. Many judges have stated it is one of the most difficult breeds to judge because it is much easier to judge extremes. If something should be short, then shorter is better. The difficulty with Tonkinese is that there should be no extremes. When does a cat drift too far in one direction or the other? When you look at a Tonkinese, you should see neither a Siamese nor a Burmese, but a unique moderate breed with its own look.
For most Tonk owners, the real defining trait of the Tonkinese breed is not in the standard; it’s the Tonkinese personality. Their personality owes a debt to the parent breeds but has its own distinct mix. A Tonk is two types of cat in one body. One mode is active, but not hyper, with a muscular body. They play fetch, climb cat trees and fly through the house at warp speed. The second mode is cuddly and loving. They are not an aloof, independent cat; they are best for someone who wants a lap cat. They are dog-like in that they require and demand attention. They love riding on shoulders and may head-butt to get your attention. Kisses are also common, and no, they are not trained to kiss the judges – they figured this out on their own. They are very gregarious, social and tolerant and they live well with other cats, dogs and children. If there are no other pets, most people choose to have two Tonks; many Tonks prefer at least one playmate.
Although not chatty, they talk in sentences and paragraphs when they want to express themselves. It is not wise to ignore a Tonk when he or she is talking to you. An ignored Tonk will find another method to gain your attention. Their intelligence helps them find a different way to make you listen, which may be less desirable than if you had just listened in the first place.
Ironically, while the Tonkinese struggled for acceptance in the show ring, the lay public had no such problem. The personality of the Tonkinese has won the hearts of many. Tonkinese were catapulted to the public’s attention in 1991, with the airing of a National Geographic special called “Cats: Caressing the Tiger.” It featured the work of Joan Bernstein, a Pet Facilitated Therapist. She used her affectionate, out-going, tolerant Tonks in her work, ranging from autistic children to geriatric adults. The public loved what they saw. Today, the Tonkinese breed has become one of the most popular pets among people needing to add a little love to their life.
Fortunately, Tonkinese cats are a healthy breed because they started as hybrids without a lot of inbreeding. Many of the founding breeders worked hard to communicate problems and were successful in eliminating lines that appeared to have genetic problems. Out-crossing to other breeds has not been allowed in CFA for almost twenty years. Like all closed breeds, Tonk breeders are concerned about reduction of the gene pool. Reduction of the gene pool alone could lead to a less healthy breed with shorter life spans and smaller litters, even in the absence of specific genetic issues. To help document this reduction in gene pool, Bruce Nickerson did a statistical evaluation of the existing lines compared to those in existence in 1984. Some lines have been lost, but breeders are now alerted to the need to share lines and make sure there is no further loss. Tonk breeders want to take a proactive stance before any problems occur.
Many Tonk breeders are now focusing more on the points and solids. Since they have not been shown in championship, breeders have not discussed and focused on consistency of eye color and body color, the only difference between the patterns. Lately, more attention is being given to this issue.
Naturally, Tonk breeders continue to strive for consistency, quality and adherence to the standard. Although beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we will continue encouraging consistent judging that is breed and color neutral. Flashy platinums are beautiful, but should not have all the fun. Our sexy, sultry champagnes are a chocoholic delight. Look into the eyes of a mysterious natural and you will be lost in their depth. The luxurious, velvety blues make you want to bury your face in their rich fur. Tonkinese cats of all colors and coat patterns share one thing in common: give a Tonkinese a chance, and onto your lap he or she will climb. Sometimes they give you a kiss and sometimes a head-butt, but they refuse to be ignored. It is this loving, tolerant affection combined with an intelligent, entertaining and playful cat that generates such loyalty among Tonk owners.