The Bengal is a truly unique cat breed. Initially they were a cross between Asian Leopard cats and domestic cats. However, fertility issues of male cats in the first to third generation led to first generation females being mated with domestic cats again.
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Big cat hybrids could be found in the zoos of Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. This ultimately didn't prove practical for zoos, but transferred well to the world of small cats. Wild cat hybrids proved to be extremely popular as pets. The most well-known example is the Bengal. They are the result of crossing a tame black domestic cat with a wild Asian leopard cat. This breed reached great popularity due to its elongated body and extraordinary fur colouring. However, its proximity to its wild relatives sometimes requires an experienced hand.
A fascinating new breed
The Bengal cat is a truly modern breed. This wild cat hybrid breed originates in the USA. In 1963 the geneticist Jean Mill carried out the first crossing experiments with a domestic cat and the leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis bengalensis native to South Asia. Her aim was to create a tame domestic cat that would stand out thanks to the wild primordial looks of its wild cat ancestors.
The influence of Jean Mill
However, the idea wasn't entirely new. In 1889, the British artist and journalist Harrison William Weir had already mentioned an Asian leopard and domestic cat cross-breed. In 1934 and 1941, similar crossings were spoken of in Belgian and Japanese publications. Nevertheless, the main influence on the Bengal and the official breed founder is Jean Mill. In 1946 she was already working on a research paper for her genetics class at UC Davis on the subject of cross-breeding. At the start of the 60s, she put her ideas and knowledge into practice, crossing Asian leopards with domestic cats. Direct crosses with wild and domestic cats are called 'F1' cats, whilst a further crossing of an F1 cat with a domestic cat is known as an 'F2' cat and so on.
Challenges regarding the Bengal cat's wild side
F1 and F2 cats often show the unruly behaviour associated with wild cats. Jean Mill crossed female F1 cats with the father cat once again, resulting in F2 cats. Another two to three generations later, the offspring showed behavioural similarity with the domestic cat. After a break, Mill started breeding again in the 70s when she was able to accept female hybrid cats from the scientist William Centerwall. He had paired Asian leopard cats with domestic cats to investigate their immunity to feline leukaemia. This was the starting point for the modern Bengal cat breed, which was officially acknowledged by the TICA (The International Cat Association) in 1983. Initially other breeds such as Abyssians, Egyptian Maus and American Shorthair cats were crossed to perfect the desired appearance of the Bengal. Now Bengal cats are purely bred, but only cats from the fourth generation (T4) can be shown at exhibitions. The cats are only classed as 'tame' from this generation onwards, and their character is similar to that of a domestic cat.
Not accepted as a breed everywhere
The Bengal cat has found many fans by now, with over 60,000 pure-breed animals registered with TICA. Despite this, not all breeding associations are fans of hybrid breeds. The Cat Fanciers' Association (CFA), for instance, does not accept any cat breeds descending from wild cat types.
That's enough on the history of the Bengal, so very different to the origin of many other pedigree cats. Now, just what does a hybrid cat look like?
As a hybrid breed, Bengal cats are often larger than domestic cats. These supple but athletic cats weigh up to 7kg and can reach up to 70cm in height. Their strong bodies are supported by long, muscular legs, whilst the head proves relatively small and is dominated by high cheekbones and large almond-shaped eyes, which are usually green or blue. The ears are small with rounded tips but have a wide base.
Bengal cat's markings prove most striking of all. With large spots, rosettes, a lighter stomach and striped front legs, they look very similar to their wild ancestors. The Bengal's looks have won it many fans! Bengals exist in the basic colours orange, gold, dark yellow and sand, often with 'glitter' too. The markings marbled and spotted are acknowledged.
Marbled: Marbled recalls the 'tabby' markings of other cat breeds. However, the Bengal's markings should bring to mind a domestic cat as little as possible.
Spotted: The spotted fur markings are highly sought-after, since the large spots and flecks of spotted Bengals are similar to those of wild leopard cats. Bicolour flecks (rosetted) are differentiated from monocolour flecks.
'Sparbled': Markings that are neither marbled nor rosetted are described as 'sparbled'. However, these fur markings are not officially recognised.
The chin, chest, stomach and legs can be in basic colours from cream to white, acting as a contrast to the colouring of the back and sides. The eyes, lips and nose are ideally surrounded by narrow black lines.
Bengal cats are considered 'tame' from the third generation, but are still active, temperamental animals due to their wild heritage. As a result, Bengal cats should only be kept as pets from the fourth generation onwards! Even breeding cats can only be shown at exhibitions from this generation. According to the breed standard, Bengals are “trustful, attentive, curious and friendly cats”.
Intelligent and playful that requires plenty of activity
Bengal cats are certainly lots of fun! They are clever and docile, therefore need lots of attention to point their urge for activity in the right direction. Lovers of Bengal cats often claim that mere cuddles and play aren't enough to keep a hybrid cat entertained. Target-training and work with the clicker also form part of a cat-appropriate environment with no risk of boredom. Bengal cats really love water and climbing. Safe outdoor access ensures that they don't get bored and can act upon their urge for activity. A large garden is of course ideal, but a secure balcony with lots of climbing opportunities is also suitable for calmer cats.
Socialisation with other cats
The Bengal is a confident, dominant and at times slightly aggressive cat. As a result, socialisation with other territorial cats can lead to problems. Nevertheless, Bengals should never be kept alone. Tranquil cat breeds like Persians or British Short hairs are suitable companions. In case of doubt, a good shared living environment between two animals does also depend on the character of each cat.
When it comes to hybrid breeds, the upbringing of individual animals is particularly important. All domestic felines have a wild side, however the wild heritage comes to the fore most prominently in cats whose wild blood is not too far back in the family tree. For instance, first-generation Bengal cats are less trusting than other cat breeds. In this instance, a lot of patience is required for them to get used to new people and a new environment. What is important for all pedigree cats is particularly relevant for the Bengal: only purchase your cat from a professional breeder!
As wild cats, Bengal cats from generation F1 to F4 are subject to endangered species laws in some countries. Specific housing conditions apply for endangered species in many countries. An outdoor enclosure of at least 15 square metres is required for wild cats and their direct offspring in Germany. Any responsible person should provide such an active cat plenty of living and play space anywhere. In many US-states and Australia they are even banned entirely. In the United Kingdom owners were required to get a licence for owning a Bengal cat. This is not the case anymore.
From later generations, the character of the Bengal cat is similar to that of other more active cat breeds without wild cat blood. Even the housing of hybrid cats from this point onwards is only slightly different from the species-appropriate housing of other energetic cats.
A secured outdoor area or balcony with lots of scope to play, climb, scratch and hide away is ideal to ensure that Bengal cats can meet their activity requirements. Keep the Bengal's environment varied and always offer new sources of stimulation. A water bowl on the balcony? A little table in a secured outdoor area? Let your imagination run wild! After a few weeks with a Bengal, clicker and target-training will have become familiar concepts... Intelligence toys and mental games are a real hit with the Bengal, you can even take a look at the products on offer for dogs. Since Bengal cats love water, a large flat water bowl is ideal for fun and games.
Housing a Bengal can prove highly demanding for cat lovers used to more tranquil breeds. But the Bengal is an intelligent and docile breed, so it's actually really fun to take on the challenge.
The Bengal is exceptionally healthy as a young, primordial cat breed. Nevertheless, a genetic disease was identified in 2011 that can lead to blindness during the first year of life through degeneration of the retina.
The best healthcare provision for Bengal cats is a species-appropriate food and annual check-up at the vet's. Many hybrid breed owners give raw food. Numerous Savannahs and Bengals appear to be sensitive to industrial cat food and bacteria in the diet. In principle, high-quality prepared food in cans or trays provides your Bengal cat with everything it needs for a long, healthy life! If you opt for raw food, thorough familiarisation is key. With the right supplements and natural additions, you can ensure that your cat is fed very healthily.
How to find the right Bengal cat breeder
With a very young, modern hybrid breed like the Bengal, it often isn't easy to find a professional breeder. A responsible breeder ensures that taking a Bengal cat truly is right for you and your family. They make sure to establish contact between the kittens and their future family as soon as possible. Furthermore, they guide the owner and cat through living together. As a member of a breeding association, the breeder will consider it important for their cats to both match the desired breed type and will assume responsibility for their health. This involves healthcare provision for the parent cats before pairing, tests for potential genetic diseases and veterinary supervision during the mother's pregnancy. The kittens will be taken to the vet after they are born for examinations, injections, deworming and species-appropriate nutrition. Naturally this all costs money and is reflected in the price of a Bengal cat – often between 1000 - 1500 Euros. Cats intended for breeding are a bit more expensive.
Make sure the cat has the necessary documentation
You should avoid breeders favouring quantity that offer 'pedigree cats without documentation'. In such cases, costs are generally cut in terms of healthcare provision and selecting the parent cats. Kittens are only rarely offered the socialisation and time needed by hybrid breeds to grow into mentally and physically healthy cats.
Naturally this feeling of trust applies for both parties, so don't be shocked if the Bengal breeder has put in place special conditions for selling their cats! This could be castration or housing that guarantees outdoor access. As you have read, a primordial cat breed like the Bengal has special requirements – offer it as decent a life as possible!