The Bengal is a hybrid breed of cat, formed by the cross of a domestic feline and an Asian leopard cat (ALC), Prionailurus bengalensis bengalensis.
The Bengal cat has a desirable “wild” appearance with large spots, rosettes, and a light/white belly, and a body structure reminiscent of the ALC. The Bengal possesses a gentle domestic cat temperament, provided it is separated by at least three generations from the original crossing between a domestic feline and an ALC.
The name “Bengal cat” was derived from the taxonomic name of the Asian leopard cat (P. b. bengalensis), and not from the more distantly related Bengal tiger.
The earliest mention of an ALC/domestic cross was in 1889, when Harrison Weir wrote in Our Cats and All About Them:
There is a rich-coloured brown tabby hybrid to be seen at the Zoological Society Gardens in Regent’s Park, between the wild cat of Bengal and a tabby she-cat. It is handsome, but very wild. These hybrids, I am told, will breed again with tame variety, or with others.
However in 1927, Mr Boden-Kloss wrote to the magazine Cat Gossip regarding hybrids between wild and domestic cats in Malaya:
I have never heard of hybrids between bengalensis (the Leopard Cat) and domestic cats. One of the wild tribes of the Malay Peninsula has domesticated cats, and I have seen the woman suckling bengalensis kittens, but I do not know whether the latter survive and breed with the others!
The earliest mention of a confirmed ALC/domestic cross was in 1934 in a Belgian scientific journal, and in 1941, a Japanese cat publication printed an article about one that was kept as a pet. Jean Mill, the person who was later a great influence of the development of the modern Bengal breed, submitted a term paper for her genetics class at UC Davis on the subject of crossbreeding cats in 1946. A Bengal cat displaying spotting and rosetting pattern typical of the breed: Rosetted spots occur only on the back and sides, with stripes elsewhere.
In the 1960s, many well-known breeders, including Jean Sugden, produced ALC/domestic crosses, but records indicate none of them took it past the F2 stage. Several zoos in Europe also produced a number of F1 ALC crosses. During this period, an epidemic of feline leukemia virus occurred, and many wild cats apparently had a natural immunity to the disease. As a result, Loyola University began a research program in the 1970s to investigate if this natural immunity could be bred in or replicated.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, there was a great deal of activity with hybrids, but there was no significant effort to create an actual breed from them. A number of cat clubs oriented on hybrids were formed, and a few were oriented specifically on what William Engler, a member of the Long Island Ocelot Club and a breeder, called a Bengal.
Club newsletters were published, detailing the production of Bengals and Safaris (a domestic cat/Geoffroy’s Cat cross), and members of these clubs bred some second- and third-generation Bengals. These were registered with the American Cat Fanciers Association (ACFA) in 1977 as experimental and were shown at several ACFA cat shows throughout the 1970s.
Around this time, Jean Mill began to renew her breeding efforts.
..I deliberately crossed leopard cats with domestic cats for several important reasons. At that time, wild cats were being exploited for the fur market. Nursing female leopard cats defending their nests were shot for their pelts, and the cubs were shipped off to pet stores worldwide. Unsuspecting cat lovers bought them, unaware of the danger, their unpleasant elimination habits and the unsuitability of keeping wild cats as pets. Most of the wild kittens from this era ended up in zoos or escaped onto city streets. I hoped that by putting a leopard coat on a domestic cat, the pet trade could be safely satisfied. If fashionable women could be dissuaded from wearing furs that look like friends’ pets, the diminished demand would result in less poaching of wild species.
She contacted Dr. Willard Centerwall in Riverside who had produced a number of F1s using domestic tabbies at Loma Linda University for his Centerwall project into feline leukemia. Once the F1s had donated blood samples for his research, he needed homes for them. He gave Jean four hybrids. She later received another five hybrids from another source, but from the same Centerwall project.
Mill did not use local domestics to create her first Bengals. She felt the ALC was a genetically superior animal and wished to avoid weakening this element. Around 1982, Mill and her husband made a trip to India, where a zoo curator showed them a feral Indian Mau. This is how the famous rosetted domestic called “Millwood Tory of Delhi” came to be found in virtually all Bengal pedigrees.
Greg and Elizabeth Kent were also early breeders, who developed their own line of Bengals using ALCs and Egyptian Maus. This was a very successful line and many modern Bengals will find it in their pedigree.
Jean Mill and the Kents worked hard to popularize the breed, and when the public saw the result of their work, word spread quickly. As the number of breeders and owners grew, it led to the formation of TICAs Bengal Breed Section. TICA adopted the first written breed standard in 1986 and the first Bengal Bulletin was published in 1988.
Shortly after the International Bengal Cat Society, the Bengal Breeders Alliance, and the Authentic Bengal Cat League were formed. These organizations exist to promote good breeding practices, discourage unscrupulous breeders, and attempt to educate people about the Bengal breed.
Although it has become a popular breed, with over 60,000 cats registered with TICA, not all cat registries accept them; in particular, the Cat Fanciers’ Association, one of the largest cat registries in the world, does not accept any hybrids.
The British government agency, DEFRA, has proposed revising regulations under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 to remove licensing requirements for keeping of Bengal cats in the United Kingdom.
Currently, several varieties of domestic cat are being developed from the Bengal:
The Serengeti cat is developed from crosses with Oriental Shorthair or Siamese, with the aim to produce a domestic cat mimicking the appearance of an African serval, without actually incorporating serval genes by hybridization.
The Savannah does include serval genes.
The Toyger is developed from crosses with domestic cats with the aim to produce a striped “toy tiger”.
The Cheetoh is an attempt to blend two existing domestic breeds of spotted cats with defined characteristics (Bengal and Ocicat), into a third breed.
Bengal cats have “wild-looking” markings, such as large spots, rosettes, and a light/white belly, and a body structure reminiscent of the leopard cat. A Bengal’s rosetted spots occur only on the back and sides, with stripes elsewhere. The breed typically also features “mascara” (horizontal striping alongside the eyes), and foreleg striping.
The Bengal cat is usually either classed as brown-spotted or snow-spotted (although there are more colours, brown and snow are the only colours of Bengal that the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy recognise). Within brown Bengals, there are either marble or spotted markings. Snow Bengals are also either marble or spotted, but are also divided into blue-eyed or Any Other Colour eyes.
The International Cat Association recognizes several Bengal colours (brown, seal lynx point, mink, sepia, silver) and patterns (spotted and marbled) for competition. In the New Traits class, other colours may be shown, as well as longhairs.
After three generations from the original crossing, the breed usually acquires a gentle domestic cat temperament; however, for the typical pet owner, a Bengal cat kept as a pet should be at least four generations removed from the leopard cat. The so-called “foundation cats” from the first three filial generations of breeding are usually reserved for breeding purposes or the specialty pet home environment.