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Tonkinese Cats

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A Tonkinese cat (or 'Tonk' as it's colloquially known) is commonly described as elegantly stylish, active and intelligent, with a lithe, expressive body. Its beautiful head is a medium wedge with large, shapely ears and limpid, almond-shaped eyes in sparkling aquamarine, topaz or sapphire. Its short fur is like shot-silk. This is a 'cat-shaped' cat with great style and presence.

The Tonkinese appear in a sublime range of colours and patterns - brown, blue, chocolate and lilac (these equate with the USA's natural, blue, champagne and platinum) plus caramel, red, cream and apricot. In addition, there are tabbies and tortoiseshells in all of these possible colour variations. Its average lifespan falls between 12 and 18 years - but even more in some exceptional cases.


The Tonkinese cat is highly sought after. In fact, expect to pay the same for a Tonkinese kitten as you would for any foreign breed cat (Burmese, Siamese or Oriental). The actual cost (between £200 and £250 sterling at time of writing) will depend on various factors - most notably, level of demand, time of year and place of purchase. Some breeders will charge more for what they consider to be show quality or suitable breeding animals. However, it may be possible to purchase what are known as variant Tonkinese1 for a relatively less amount.


Tonkinese are affectionate, intelligent, gregarious cats, with colourful, lively personalities which make them ideal companions. Rather than having homogeneous traits, each individual Tonkinese will demonstrate distinctive qualities of inquisitiveness, inventiveness and playfulness. Such endearing characteristics ensure their place as a true family member. Besides relating well to humans, they also develop strong bonds with their own kind and get along fine with other cats and dogs.

However, a single-cat household can be a lonely place for any cat - and especially so for a Tonkinese. To ensure lasting happiness and well-being, it is therefore advisable for owners to provide other feline company.

Due to the high risk of a traumatic episode arising (notably, a road accident, poisoning or abduction), and to prevent heartache and/or astronomical vet bills, most owners prefer to keep their Tonkinese cats permanently indoors. However, periodic visits to the garden under supervision will, of course, prove highly popular and stimulating. But be warned! It is quite common for owners to be constantly harassed by their Tonkinese, often with meaningful stares and forlorn cries, and what started as a treat soon develops into a full-blown 'right'.

Cat-proofing your garden is a necessary precondition to simulate a 'born-free' experience. However, this can be a rather expensive project, even proving a futile task in the face of a determined, adventurous climber.

Tonkinese kittens are natural-born acrobats, and can often be found riding around on your shoulders. Such acrobatics are best demonstrated through playful human interaction with toys and games. For instance, a plastic, flexible rod with, say, a toy snake or mouse attached to one end of a piece of cord is ideal for 'showing off' these acrobatic skills.

Finally, expect to share your bed with your Tonks. They do not like being locked out of anywhere, especially the bedroom. Unless you don't value your expensive carpet, it is best to resign yourself to their company while in slumber. Apart from the soft mattress itself (and, of course, radiators), tops of wardrobes are particularly attractive places for Tonkinese to gather and sleep.

Brief History

It was in the Far East that distinct breeds of cat were first recorded, most notably in Siam (Thailand) around 400 AD. A belief common in both Burma and Siam was that when a great personage died, such as a king or queen, his (or her) soul transferred itself to the body of a cat, where it remained until it died a natural death. Only then could the royal member's soul enter paradise. It was also customary for the royal member's favourite cat to be entombed alive with him. The tomb had a small opening for the cat, through which it escaped, carrying the soul of the recently deceased. The cat was then reverently escorted to the temple, where it lived the rest of its life in gracious ease, cared for by the local monks. The practice of giving a home to and caring for the welfare of temple cats continues to the present day.

The history and breeding of Tonkinese, Burmese and Siamese are inextricably interlinked, though the Burmese and Siamese are generally referred to as the Tonkinese's parent breeds. However, a painting by American artist William Morris Hunt (1824 - 1879) entitled Girl with a Cat suggests that the Tonkinese have been in the West for at least 100 years - and maybe even longer.

Not only does the Tonkinese have a very similar body type to the original Siamese breed, but it has played a crucial role in founding the Burmese breed both in the USA and the UK. In 1930, a Tonkinese named Wong Mau was taken to California, where the Burmese breed was developed.

While still considered a new breed, the Tonkinese is not a hybrid as some people mistakenly assume. Being of the same bloodlines as Siamese and Burmese breeds, today's Tonkinese are believed to be a reconstruction of the chocolate Siamese cat imported to England in the early 1900s.

Incidentally, you may be wondering how the name 'Tonkinese' originated. It was chosen because of the Gulf of Tonkin in the South China Sea, lying on latitude 20°, which runs between Burma and Thailand.

Gaining Recognition

The breed was first recognised in Canada in 1965. And in 1972, the now defunct Independent Cat Federation (ICF) of the USA also granted the breed recognition. It was not until 1991, however, that the UK's Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF) granted Preliminary recognition2 and allocated the breed number 74. At the time of writing, the breed has progressed to Provisional status, one level below Champion. The penultimate status, the cat needs to win three Championship Certificates (CCs) to become a Champion. The cat then qualifies to enter Grand Championship classes.

Globally, Tonkinese cats have come a long way in such a short time, and, besides Canada and the USA, the breed is now recognised in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Europe. The UK's Tonkinese Breed Club, founded in April 1991, has the distinction of being the only organisation in the world to have held shows specifically for the breed. The Tonkinese cat continues to flourish, and its popularity and success on the show bench ensure its longevity.

Further Information

There are a burgeoning number of websites on Tonkinese cats, many of which are a pleasure to visit. To become better acquainted with these enchanting cats and find many relevant links, this Tonkinese cat site is recommended as a first port of call. You'll even learn about the activities of the UK's Tonkinese Breed Club. In addition, the deeply interested are advised to find Linda Vousden's authoritative, informative and well-illustrated book called Tonkinese Cats.

1Cats from the mating of a Tonkinese to a Tonkinese, a Tonkinese variant, a Burmese or a Siamese whose coat pattern is either solid or pointed in appearance, irrespective of colour.2This equates with Assessment status, where the cat is judged against a 'standard of points' which describes the ideal type of cat in that breed.

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