Sharing our homes with mini-leopards with lithe, feral bodies and vivid, spotted coats is a reminder that domestic felines were wildcats only about 9,500 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, Pixie Bob, Savannah, and Bengal. Several other spotted breeds such as the Australian Mist and the Serengeti are being developed. However, the Bengal and the Savannah are the only accepted wildcat/domestic cat hybrids.
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 and 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.
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, but 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 leopard cat, a small spotted wildcat found in South and East Asia that’s sometimes called the Asian leopard cat, 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 fittingly named Finally Found and 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 with the help of the zoo’s curator, Dr. Toby Nainan. Named in honor of the accommodating curator, Toby added his genes to her feline formula. Mill began a breeding program for the Leopardette, as she first called her new creation. Toby was used extensively in the early years, and was the source of the "glitter gene" that is now prized in the Bengal's coat color. 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. Leopard cats are anxious but not aggressive. In addition, 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, even though both are members of the Felinae subfamily and are similar in size. In the first mating of leopard cat to domestic cat, the males are infertile, as is true of many hybrids. Second generation males (F2s) are usually infertile as well, and only about 50 percent of F3 males are fertile.
However, 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, while others believed breeding domestic cats with wildcats was unethical from a conservation viewpoint, since the majority of wild felid species are threatened or endangered. However, cat lovers visiting the shows immediately fell in love with the breed’s exotic beauty, and Mill had no trouble recruiting Bengal breeders. In 1988, The International Bengal Cat Society (TIBCS) was formed, and soon became the largest club for Bengal enthusiasts and breeders in the world.
In 1991, TICA accepted the Bengal for championship status. ACFA also accepted the Bengal in 1991, but quickly withdrew recognition after some unfortunate incidents with F2 Bengals in the show halls. Second generation Bengals (F2s) were allowed to be shown – unwise, since F2s are not far enough away from the leopard cat to have consistent domestic temperaments. ACFA reinstated Bengals for NBC status in 1997, on the condition that the Bengals be five generations removed from the leopard cat.
Because of these early problems, breeders became even more careful about breeding for calm, domestic temperaments. All associations that accept the Bengal, which is most of them, have similar rules about the number of Bengal-to-Bengal generations needed before Bengals can be shown. To be shown in TICA, for example, a Bengal must be what’s called a SBT (Stud Book Traditional); the Bengal must show at least three generations of Bengal-to-Bengal breeding on its pedigree, with no cats of unknown registry, leopard cats, or leopard cat hybrids in that lineage. This means SBT Bengals are at least four generations away from the original leopard cat/domestic cat mating. In other associations, Bengals must be bred Bengal-to-Bengal for at least four generations to be shown for championship. Today, the breed’s feral appearance, beautiful coat, and affectionate, energetic personality have won the Bengal a widespread group of enthusiasts and international acceptance. For the last five years, the Bengal has been TICA’s most popular breed, according to registration totals. In North America, the Bengal is accepted for championship by all associations except CFA. CFA may or may not accept the Bengal in the future. In 1998, CFA’s board of directors initiated a formal policy discouraging crossbreeding wildcats with domestics, and disallowing the registration of offspring of such matings. CFA revisits the issue from time to time, but as yet shows no indication of altering that policy.
Because of the large gene pool available and because of the difficulty obtaining leopard cats, outcrossing to leopard cats and their close offspring is done only rarely, particularly since the offspring can’t be exhibited for generations.