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What is a Bengal Cat?
The Bengal cat is a long, muscular, medium- to large-sized cat, with a broad head and muzzle, high cheekbones, and pronounced whisker pads. The eyes are round and wide, with dark markings around the eyes (mascara) and the ears small and rounded at the tips. The grace of a jungle cat is held as one of the positive characteristics, along with the ability to move quietly and with stealth. The back legs are slightly longer than the front legs, making the hind end a bit higher than the shoulders, and emphasizing the Bengal’s wild-cat appearance. The Bengal’s muscular, athletic build is one of its most defining features; it is never delicate.
The Bengal stands out among cats for its lush, dense, and remarkably soft coat. The distinctive leopard-like spots on the Bengal house cat can be random, aligned horizontally with rosettes that form a half circle, or in a marbled pattern. The preferred colors are black or brown spotted, and black or brown marbled, but breeders have also engineered Bengals that are snow spotted (white), and snow marbled. The spots should be in sharp contrast to the background color.
Bengals often possess a trait called glittering, which makes the coat appear to have been dusted with gold or pearl. While this naturally occurring trait enhances the natural beauty of the Bengal, and is preferred by some people, it it not given special preference in the show ring.
Bengal Cat Personality and Temperament
Because of its feral lineage, the Bengal is often assumed to be difficult to handle, but the reverse is true. Breeders insist that the Bengal can be tamed easily and has an affectionate personality, though it is not a lap cat. However, it does enjoy human company, and will often stay close to its family members. The Bengal cat breed particularly enjoys the company of children, since its energetic nature makes it very fond of playing games.
One of the traits the Bengal house cat retains from its wild ancestry is the hunting instinct — not only for small land animals, but also for water dwelling creatures. The Asian leopard has honed the ability to fish in the wild, and your domestic Bengal may very well carry this trait in the more playful form, swimming along side of you, taking a shower or bath, or just playing in the sink.
A high energy cat, you will want to be sure to give your Bengal plenty of play time, and keep in mind that most high energy cats like to jump to high locations. You will want to keep breakable objects out of harms way and off of open shelves; even, and perhaps especially, the highest shelves.
History and Background
The Bengal cat breed is singular in the cat fancy as the only successful pairing of a wild cat with a domestic cat. There is some anecdotal evidence that pairings of the Asian leopard cat with domestic cats had been attempted prior to the 1960s, but the real genesis of the Bengal breed began in earnest in the 1970s, when amateur breeder Jean Sudgen, of California, became the recipient of a group of cats that had been bred for use in genetic testing. Dr. Willard Centerwall of Loyola University had been testing Asian Leopards for their partial immunity to feline leukemia, and began cross breeding them with domestic cats for possible genetic viability in immunization development.
Rather than destroy the cats after the program was completed, Dr. Centerwall searched for appropriate homes for his cats. Because Ms. Sudgen had an actual interest in breeding Asian leopard hybrids, she chose not to take all of the cats, instead focusing on those cats that were showing a predilection for domestic temperament along with the desired spotting patterns.
For her part, Ms. Sudgen had begun her first experiments in cat hybridization while studying genetics at UC Davis in the 1940s. When presented with the opportunity to work with Dr. Centerwall’s Asian leopards and their hybrids, she took to it with enthusiasm, and although Dr. Centerwall was fully supportive of Ms. Sudgen’s endeavors, the same could not be said for the cat fancy community. Most breeders were staunchly against breeding a wild cat with a domestic, and to this day, the Cat Fanciers Association continues to refuse registration to the Bengal because of its wild bloodline, though many other associations have included the Bengal breed since the 1980s, including The International Cat Association.
Ms. Sudgen, who had by now remarried and taken the name Mill, had been cautioned that the offspring of her crossings would be sterile, and this did prove true for the males that resulted from the matings, but she had better luck with the female hybrids. Before she could fully immerse herself in her new breeding program, however, Ms. Mill needed an appropriate male cat to cross with her female Asian leopard hybrids. Feeling that neither the Mau, Burmese, or Abyssinian pure breeds were genetically strong enough, she opened her net wider, and in 1982, her patience paid off when a curator for the New Delhi Zoo, in India, pointed her to a leopard-like street cat that was living on its own in the rhinoceros’ exhibit at the zoo. Although the cat was feral, it proved to be an excellent mate for her hybrid females, and within years Ms. Mill had her successful, though still fledgling, breeding program well underway.
The first three generations, from the original pairing of an Asian leopard hybrid to a domestic, until the birthing of the fourth generation, are considered to be the “foundation” cats (generations are technically referred to as F1, F2, F3, F4…and so on). While these F1-F3 cats are considered by their breeders to be safe and suitable as pets, they are not allowed into competition. They are simply the foundation upon which the “healthy” purebred Bengal is built. By the fourth generation, only Bengal to Bengal pairings are allowed, and the cat is then considered to be a pure breed. The Asian leopard is characteristically a reclusive, solitary, omnivorous hunter, and these wilder traits need to be bred out so that the final outcome is a house and people friendly feline companion.
Early generation Bengal cats are petted out to cat fanciers who are up to the challenge of raising a cat that is not entirely socialized, but with conscientious breeding, once the Bengal has reached the fourth generation stage, the breed exceeds expectations in friendliness, affection, and gentility, and has been the recipient of numerous show awards. Still, reticence toward the breed persists in some circles. As breed originator Jean Mill has said regarding her beloved cats, “Any other cat can bite a judge and excuses are made … but if a Bengal bites they claim it’s the wild blood. Our Bengals must be the sweetest cats at the cat show.”