The Savannah is a domestic hybrid cat breed. It is a cross between a serval and a domestic cat. (The first was bred with a Siamese)
Savannah cat is the name given to the offspring of a domestic cat and a serval: a medium-sized, large-eared wild African cat. The unusual cross became popular among breeders at the end of the 20th century, and in 2001 the International Cat Association accepted it as a new registered breed. Savannahs are much more social than typical domestic cats, and they are often compared to dogs in their loyalty. They can be trained to walk on a leash and even taught to play fetch.
Bengal breeder Judee Frank crossbred a male serval, belonging to Suzi Woods, with a Siamese (domestic cat) to produce the first Savannah cat (named Savannah) on April 7, 1986. Frank’s Savannah attracted the interest of Patrick Kelley, who purchased one of Savannah’s kittens in 1989. Kelley was one of the first enthusiasts who worked towards establishing a new domestic breed based on a serval/domestic cat cross. He approached many serval breeders to help in the development of this new breed, and finally garnered the help of breeder Joyce Sroufe to work with him in taking the steps needed to have the new breed recognized.
In 1996, Patrick Kelley and Joyce Sroufe wrote the original version of the Savannah breed standard, and presented it to the board of The International Cat Association. In 2001, the board accepted the breed for registration.
Savannah cats are one of the larger breeds of domesticated cats. The Savannahs’ tall and slim build gives them the appearance of greater size than their actual weight. Size is very dependent on generation and sex, with F1 hybrid male cats usually being the largest. F1 and F2 hybrids are usually the largest, due to the stronger genetic influence of the African serval ancestor. Male Savannahs tend to be larger than females. Early-generation Savannahs can weigh 20 lbs or more, with the higher weight usually attributed to the F2 or F3 neutered males, though this is not the norm. Later-generation Savannahs are usually between seven and 30 lbs. Because of the random factors in Savannah hybrid genetics, size can vary significantly, even in one litter.
The coat of a Savannah depends on the breed of cat used for the domestic cross. Early generations have some form of dark spotting on a lighter coat, and many early breeders employed “wild-looking” spotted breeds, such as the Bengal and Egyptian Mau, for the cross to help preserve these markings in later generations. The International Cat Association (TICA) breed standard calls for brown-spotted tabby (cool to warm brown, tan or gold with black or dark brown spots), silver-spotted tabby (silver coat with black or dark grey spots), black (black with black spots), and black smoke (black-tipped silver with black spots) only. In addition, the Savannah can come in nonstandard variations such as the classic or marble patterns, snow coloration (point), and blue or other diluted colors derived from domestic sources of cat coat genetics. Most breeders are trying to cull these nonstandard colours out of the gene pool by selling nonstandard coloured cats as pets, but some Savannah breeders are interested in working with these colours to introduce them as new traits.
The overall look of an individual Savannah depends greatly on generation, with higher-percentage Savannah cats often having a more “wild” look. The domestic breed used will influence appearance, as well. The domestic outcrosses for the Savannah breed that are permissible in TICA are the Egyptian Mau, the Ocicat, the Oriental Shorthair, and the Domestic Shorthair. In addition, some Savannah breeders use “impermissible” breeds or mixes, such as Bengal (for size and vivid spotting) and Maine Coon cats (for size) for the domestic parentage, but these outcrosses can bring many unwanted genes, as well. Outcrosses are rarely used these days, as many fertile males are available, and as a result, most breeders are exclusively breeding Savannahs to Savannahs. The main exception would be when using a serval to produce F1 cats, and even then breeders prefer to use a Savannah with the serval, rather than a non-Savannah female.
A Savannah’s wild look is often due to the presence of many distinguishing serval characteristics. Most prominent of these include the various color markings; tall, deeply cupped, wide, rounded, erect ears; very long legs; fat, puffy noses, and hooded eyes. The bodies of Savannahs are long and leggy; when a Savannah is standing, its hind-end is often higher than its prominent shoulders. The small head is taller than wide, and it has a long, slender neck. The backs of the ears have ocelli, a central light band bordered by black, dark grey or brown, giving an eye-like effect. The short tail has black rings, with a solid black tip. The eyes are blue as a kitten (as in other cats), and may be green, brown, gold or a blended shade as an adult. The eyes have a “boomerang” shape, with a hooded brow to protect them from harsh sunlight. Ideally, black or dark “tear-streak” or “cheetah tear” markings run from the corner of the eyes down the sides of the nose to the whiskers, much like that of a cheetah.
Most F1 generation Savannahs will possess many or all of these traits, while their presence often diminishes in later generations. Being a newly developing, hybridized breed of cats, appearance can vary far more than cat owners may expect.
As Savannahs are produced by crossbreeding servals and domestic cats, each generation of Savannahs is marked with a filial number. For example, the cats produced directly from a serval/domestic cat cross are the F1 generation, and they are 50% serval.
F1 generation Savannahs are very difficult to produce, due to the significant difference in gestation periods between the serval and a domestic cat (75 days for a serval and 65 days for a domestic cat), and sex chromosomes. Pregnancies are often absorbed or aborted, or kittens are born prematurely. Also, servals can be very picky in choosing mates, and often will not mate with a domestic cat.
F1 Savannahs can be as high as 75% serval. All 75% F1s (technically a backcross BC1) are the offspring of a 50% F1 (true F1) female bred back to a serval. Cases of 87.5% F1 (technically BC2) Savannah cats are known, but fertility is questionable at those percentage Serval levels. More common than a 75% F1 is a 62.5% F1, which is the product of an “F2A” (25% serval, female) bred back to a serval. The F2 generation, which has a serval grandparent and is the offspring of the F1 generation female, ranges from 25% to 37.5% serval. The F3 generation has a serval great grandparent, and is 12.5% Serval.
A Savannah/Savannah cross may also be referred to by breeders as “SV xSV” (SV is the TICA code for the Savannah breed), in addition to the filial number. Savannah generation filial numbers also have a letter designator that refers to the generation of SV-to-SV breeding. The designation A means one parent is a Savannah and the other is an outcross. B is used for both parents are Savannahs with one of them being an A. The C designation is when both parents are Savannahs and one of them is a B. Therefore, A x (any SV) = B; B x (B,C,SBT) = C; C x (C, SBT) = SBT, SBT x SBT = SBT. F1 generation Savannahs are always A, since the father is a nondomestic outcross (the serval father). The F2 generation can be A or B. The F3 generation can be A, B or C. The F4 generation is the first generation that can be a “stud book tradition” (SBT) cat, and is considered “purebred”.
Being hybrids, Savannahs typically exhibit some characteristics of hybrid inviability. Because the male Savannah is the heterozygous sex, they are most commonly affected, in accordance with Haldane’s rule. Male Savannahs are typically larger in size and sterile until the F5 generation or so, although the females are fertile from the F1 generation. Currently (2011), breeders are noticing a resurgence in sterility in males at the F5 and F6 generations. Presumably, this is due to the higher serval percentage in C and SBT cats. The problem may also be compounded by the secondary nondomestic genes coming from the Asian leopard cat in the Bengal outcrosses that were used heavily in the foundation of the breed.
Females of the F1-F3 generations are usually held back for breeding, with only the males being offered as pets. The reverse occurs in the F5-F7 generations, but to a lesser degree, with the males being held as breeding cats, and females primarily offered as pets.
Savannahs are commonly compared to dogs in their loyalty, and they will follow their owners around the house like a canine. They can also be trained to walk on a leash, and even fetch.
Some Savannahs are reported to be very social and friendly with new people and other cats and dogs, while others may run and hide or revert to hissing and growling when seeing a stranger. Exposure to other people and pets is most likely the key factor in sociability as Savannah kittens grow up.
An often-noted trait of the Savannah is its jumping ability. They are known to jump on top of doors, refrigerators and high cabinets. Some Savannahs can leap about 8 feet (2.5 m) high from a standing position. Savannahs are very inquisitive, and have been known to get into all sorts of things. They often learn how to open doors and cupboards, and anyone buying a Savannah will likely need to take special precautions to prevent the cat from getting into things.
Many Savannah cats do not fear water, and will play or even immerse themselves in water. Some owners even shower with their Savannah cats. Presenting a water bowl to a Savannah may also prove a challenge, as some will promptly begin to “bat” all the water out of the bowl until it is empty, using their front paws.
Another quirk Savannahs have is to fluff out the base of their tails in a greeting gesture. This is not to be confused with the fluffing of fur along the back and full length of the tail in fear. Savannahs will also often flick or wag their tails in excitement or pleasure.
Vocally, Savannahs may either chirp like their serval fathers, meow like their domestic mothers, both chirp and meow, or sometimes produce sounds which are a mixture of the two. Chirping is observed more often in earlier generations. Savannahs may also “hiss”, a serval-like hiss quite different from a domestic cat’s hiss, sounding more like a very loud snake. It can be alarming to humans not acquainted to such a sound coming from a cat.