With gem-colored eyes and a plush coat, the Tonkinese is an exotic blend of two Southeast Asian breeds: the Siamese and the Burmese. Mischievous and affectionate, active but also willing to snuggle in a lap, this intriguing breed has a history that is both old and new.
Perhaps the Tonk, as he’s nicknamed, is channeling an ancestral memory of being carried on elephants when he jumps on a shoulder to go for a ride. Or mimicking monkeys as he fiddles with a lampshade, his head stuck up inside it. These social and curious cats are playful, enjoy fetching toys or socks yet content to settle into a lap when they are done exploring and investigating.
The medium-size, solidly built Tonkinese weighs 6 to 12 pounds. He has a softer voice than the Siamese but is equally willing to carry on a conversation. Get a Tonkinese if you won’t be bothered by a cat who wants to share in whatever you’re doing.
An affectionate, adventurous spirit makes the Tonkinese a good choice for a family with children who will treat him kindly and respectfully. He can also be a gentle and companionable friend to seniors or anyone else who would like a laid-back cat. Tonks love to play and enjoy being the center of attention, so it’s not difficult to teach them tricks or to walk on a leash. Tonks are easygoing and get along well with other cats and dogs.
Tonkinese want to be your best friend. Expect one to, er, dog your footsteps as you go about your day. A Tonk will supervise as you prepare meals, load the dishwasher or post his latest pix and videos on Instagram and YouTube. A Tonk’s gentle but friendly nature makes him a good candidate for participating in therapy visits to hospitals, schools and other facilities.
All Tonkinese kittens are born with blue eyes. The eye color begins to change when kittens are approximately 6 weeks old and can continue to change for up to two years. Usually, but not always, pointed Tonks have blue eyes, minks have aqua eyes, and solids have green or yellow-green eyes.
Tonkinese are born with a base coat color that ranges from pale to dark. They come in three different coat patterns (solid, pointed and mink) and four different color points (platinum, champagne, blue and natural) for a total of 12 different looks, which develop as they mature.
Tonkinese have a short, plush and easy-to-care-for coat. Weekly brushing with a rubber curry brush and nail trimming are all the grooming this cat needs. Generally hardy and healthy, Tonks are prone to gingivitis, so regular toothbrushing and professional dental cleanings by a veterinarian are important. The cats may also be sensitive to anesthesia. A healthy Tonkinese can live 15 to 18 years.
Environmental temperature plays a role in controlling the enzymes that determine whether a Tonk will be light- or dark-colored. Cooler temperatures bring out darker colors.
The Tonk takes his named from the Tonkin region of northern Vietnam, although he doesn’t actually have any association with the area. A Tonkinese who is spayed or neutered later in life may lighten in color afterward.
A small brown cat named Wong Mau, who was brought to the United States as a gift from Burma to cat lover Dr. Joseph Thompson in 1930, is the ancestor of both the Burmese and the Tonkinese.
The Tonkinese we know today originated as a cross between Siamese and Burmese cats, starting in the 1960s and 1970s. The cats are now considered a distinct breed, and since 1984 only Tonkinese-to-Tonkinese breedings have been permitted by the Cat Fanciers’ Association. The International Cat Association accepted the Tonkinese for Champion status in 1979. In 2016, the Tonkinese was the 17th most popular breed registered by the Cat Fanciers’ Association, out of 42.
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Kim Campbell Thornton has been writing about cats and dogs for 31 years. She is the award-winning author of more than two dozen books and hundreds of articles on pet care, health and behavior. Her muses are two Cavaliers and a Pomihuahua.