Sharing our homes with mini-leopards with lithe, feral bodies and vivid, spotted coats reminds us that our domestic felines were wildcats only about 5,000 years ago. We caress the spotted coat and marvel at the mysteries of feline nature. Our fascination with the look of the wild is why we currently have five accepted breeds with spotted coats: the Egyptian Mau, Ocicat, California Spangled Cat, Pixie Bob and Bengal. Several other hybrids are being developed. However, the Bengal is the only widely accepted wildcat/domestic cat hybrid.
The Bengal is a robust, athletic, medium to large breed. The body is long and substantial, but not oriental or foreign in type. It is muscular and solid with sturdy boning. The substantial musculature, especially in males, is one of the most distinguishing features of the breed. The legs are muscular, medium in length, with the rear legs slightly longer than the front. The long, muscular neck is thick and in proportion to the head. The head is a broad modified wedge with rounded contours, longer than it is wide, and slightly small in proportion to the body but not to be taken to the extreme. The muzzle is full and broad, with large, prominent whisker pads and high, pronounced cheekbones. The nose is large and wide with slightly puffed nose leather. The bridge of the nose extends above the eyes; the nose has a very slight concave curve. The overall look of the head should be as distinct from the domestic cat as possible. Adult males weigh an average of 10 to 18 pounds; adult females weigh 7 to 12 pounds.
The eyes are oval, almost round, and are large but not bugged. They are set wide apart, back into the face and on a slight bias toward the base of the ear. Eye color ranges from gold to green to aqua, except for lynx points, which have blue eyes. The more richness and depth of color the better. The ears are medium to small, relatively short, wide at the base and rounded at the tips, set as much on the side as on the top of the head. Light horizontal ear furnishings are acceptable, but lynx tipping is undesirable.
This breed’s luxurious short to medium coat is close-lying, thick and surprisingly soft and silky. Vivid markings with a sharp contrast of colors are the mark of a well-coated Bengal. Some Bengals have a recessive “glitter gene” that gives their fur an iridescent glow. The tips of the hair shafts glisten as if covered with warm frost.
The Bengal comes in two coat patterns: spotted and marbled. The spotted pattern has random or horizontally aligned spots; rosettes are preferable to single spotting, but are not required. The marbled pattern, while derived from the classic tabby gene, has as little of the bulls-eye pattern common to the classic tabby as possible. Instead, the pattern is random, giving the impression of marble, preferably with a horizontal flow when the cat is stretched out. The influence of the vertical striped mackerel tabby pattern is undesirable. Cats with three or more shades are preferred. Both spotted and marbled Bengals should have unique patterning. Contrast with the ground color should be extreme, giving a distinct pattern and sharp edges. The belly must be spotted.
The accepted colors are brown tabby, seal sepia tabby, seal mink tabby, seal lynx point, black silver tabby, seal silver sepia tabby, seal silver mink tabby and seal silver lynx point in spotted and marbled patterns. No solid colors are accepted. Show cats must be bred Bengal-to-Bengal for at least four generations with no outcrosses; earlier generations can be outcrossed following association rules, but can’t be shown until they reach the fourth generation of Bengal-to-Bengal breeding.
Because of its beautiful spotted coat and lively, affectionate temperament, the Bengal has quickly become the most numerous and popular of the spotted breeds. The breed’s background fascinates cat lovers as well. Unlike the other widely accepted spotted breeds, the Bengal not only has the look of the wild, it has ancestors that walked on the wild side only a handful of generations ago.
The original Bengal was a case of unplanned parenthood. In 1963, Himalayan breeder Jean Sugden purchased a female leopard cat from a pet store. (The Asian leopard cat, a wildcat that weighs an average of 7 to 15 pounds, could be purchased in the United States at that time, although it’s illegal to buy or sell them today.) She thought her little 8-pound leopard cat looked lonely, so she put a 15-pound random-bred male domestic cat in her cage, expecting a platonic friendship. To Sugden’s surprise, they became so friendly that they produced a litter. Only one kitten survived, a female named Kin-Kin. Kin-Kin grew up, also became good friends with her father, and produced two kittens. However, Sugden’s early Bengal breeding efforts ended in 1965 with her first husband’s death. She gave away her leopard cat and moved away to get her life back in order.
In 1975, Jean Sugden remarried, becoming Jean Mill, and again thought about creating a spotted breed. Mill wanted to provide an acceptable spotted feline for cat lovers, one who would make a good pet but retain the beauty of the leopard cat. She thought this might dissuade people from wearing fur coats that resembled beloved pets. In 1980, Mill began breeding Bengals again, and most of today’s Bengals originate from these bloodlines.
It was no longer legal to buy leopard cats, however, and for good reason-adult leopard cats are shy, apprehensive escape artists with unpleasant elimination habits; most end up in zoos or on the streets. Most of the breeding stock was provided by geneticist Dr. Willard Centerwall of the University of California at Davis, who had been studying leopard cats because they seemed resistant to the feline leukemia virus. Mill provided a home-hers-for the eight female hybrids Centerwall had used in his experiments. (Only female hybrids are fertile for the first few generations, so the males could not be used to start her breeding program.) She then set out to find appropriate male companionship for her clowder of caterwauling hybrids.
After a long search, Mill selected two males: a sweet-tempered brown spotted tabby shorthair who she acquired at a local shelter, and a shorthair with dark brown rosettes and an orange ground color who came all the way from India. When visiting a zoo in Delhi, Mill saw a litter of spotted kittens living in a rhinoceros cage. Entranced by the kittens’ spotted coats, she managed to get a male exported to the United States to add his genes to her recipe. Mill began a breeding program for the “Leopardette,” as she first called her new creation. The name Bengal was adopted later, derived from the leopard cat’s scientific name, Prionailurus bengalensis.
Obstacles had to be overcome along the way. First generation hybrid kittens (called F1s in scientific terms) often grow up to be shy, nervous cats, like their wild relatives. It’s only after the cats are several generations away from the wild blood that their temperament becomes domestic and predictable. Mill notes that a wild temperament is not the same thing as an aggressive temperament. Asian leopard cats are anxious but not aggressive. And Bengals have domestic dispositions, since breeders were careful to cull from their programs any breeding Bengal who wasn’t affectionate and sweet-tempered.
Another factor that slowed the breed’s development was the difficulty inherent in crossing two different species. In the first mating of leopard cat to domestic cat, the male kittens are infertile, as is true of many hybrids. Second generation males (F2s) are usually sterile as well, and only about 50 percent of F3 males are fertile.
But Mill persisted, and by 1985, she had enough generations to show the Bengal. She began taking her Bengals to cat shows sponsored by TICA, the newest of the cat associations at that time. The breed sparked immediate controversy among breeders and fanciers. Some fanciers felt a breed with wild blood could pose a hazard in the show hall, and others believed breeding domestic cats with wildcats was unwise from a conservation standpoint, since the majority of wild felid species are threatened or endangered. However, the cat lovers visiting the shows were immediately entranced by the breed’s beauty, and Mill had no trouble recruiting Bengal breeders.
In 1991, TICA accepted the Bengal for championship status. To ensure a docile temperament, TICA requires show cats be bred Bengal to Bengal for at least four generations. All associations that accept the Bengal, which is most of them, have rules about the number of Bengal-to-Bengal generations needed before Bengals can be shown, but they vary slightly.
Today, the breed’s feral appearance, beautiful coat, and affectionate, energetic personality have won the Bengal a widespread group of enthusiasts and international acceptance. Because of the large gene pool available, outcrossing to leopard cats and their close offspring is done only rarely today, particularly since the offspring can’t be exhibited for generations.
Bengals are hardy, healthy cats with few known breed-related genetic problems. Breeders have worked hard to keep the Bengal free of the genetic problems found in some other breeds. The most serious known disease is Feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), the most common feline heart disease; the first noticeable symptom is often sudden death. While it’s possible for any cat to have this disease, ask your breeder if any affected cats are known in the pedigree or the cattery, and also ask if breeding cats are tested.
The popularity of the Bengal has given rise to some disreputable breeders willing to deceive unsuspecting cat lovers by selling cats who aren’t really Bengals. This can happen when any breed is very much in demand. You can’t always count on price to tell a bogus from a bonafide Bengal, although if a breeder is selling Bengals for much less or much more than usual, be wary. Be sure to check out the breeder with the associations to which she belongs or registers her cats, and make sure you know the breed standard and what registration papers look like—some people print up their own. Cat shows are good places to find reputable breeders since their cats will be seen by judges and other breeders. A list of breeders can be obtained from TICA .
Be sure to check the pedigree of any Bengal you are considering to verify that the cat is at least four generations away from the Asian leopard cat. An F1 has one leopard cat parent, an F2 is a Bengal-to-Bengal offspring with a leopard cat grandparent, an F3 has a leopard cat great-grandparent, and an F4 has a leopard cat great-great-grandparent. A stud book tradition (SBT) Bengal is at least an F5—bred Bengal to Bengal for at least four full generations. Most pet Bengals are F4s or SBTs; cats closer to the leopard cat may be too much like their wildcat ancestors in temperament to make good pets.
Did you know?
Asian leopard cats are very difficult to litter box train because in the wild they eliminate in running water to prevent larger predators from tracking them. That’s only one of the reasons they make poor pets. The Bengal has been bred far enough away from its wild ancestors that the breed’s temperament and habits today are purely domestic.
Sharing your home with a Bengal (and there will be some disagreement about who is sharing with whom) is an adventure from which you’ll never want to return. Owners rave about the personality and temperament of the breed, which they say is not aggressive in the slightest. Bengals are loving, dependable cats who are very responsive to their preferred people. They form strong bonds with their owners and become loving, faithful friends for life. They communicate and interact with humans, and have a deep need to make their feelings known.
Bengals top the scratching post in playful antics. They love to have fun and they assume you are on the same page. Fanciers say Bengals skid into a room, bright-eyed and full of energy, and announce, “Here I am! Who wants to play?” Very active and athletic with a generous dose of feline curiosity, Bengals speedily respond to changes in their environment. Open a drawer and your Bengal will dive in to rearrange the contents. Extremely graceful, strong and agile, Bengals love to climb and will gravitate to the highest point in any room. No shelf is too high nor cupboard too secure for the smart and energetic Bengal. If you treasure your fragile knickknacks more than your feline friend, this might not be the breed for you. At the least, find a place where you can lock them up (the knickknacks, that is, not the Bengals).
Bengals are very intelligent—not surprising, since their ancestors needed brainpower as well as ready claws and fangs to survive in their native habitats. Bengals learn quickly and can be taught many tricks, including how to play fetch. In fact, they learn tricks you’d rather they didn’t, such as turning on and off light switches, opening doors and flushing toilets. Playful well into old age, Bengals will pounce on anything that moves. Mice don’t stand a chance, and neither do furry toys, bare toes or wiggling fingers.
Like their wild relatives, Bengals relish their freedom. As a rule, they dislike being held. That’s not to say they are unfriendly or will scratch the heck out of you if picked up—they just love you a lot more when you’re not restraining them. This isn’t unique to the Bengal; many active breeds dislike holding still long enough to be hugged.
Like leopard cats, who are excellent and enthusiastic swimmers, Bengals love water, particularly if it’s running. Some only occasionally dip a paw under the faucet while others will join you for a swim in the tub or a romp in the shower, as long as it’s their idea, of course. It’s cute to have them take a swim in the bathtub with you, but not so cute when they jump out and run around the house, spraying water all over the place. Some owners report that their cats’ fascination with water borders on obsession and the water antics can get old; such owners quickly learn to keep the bathroom door closed and the toilet lid down. Breeders report that because of the leopard cat’s elimination habits (they prefer to defecate in water), some Bengals can learn to use the toilet.