Wild-Looking But Domesticated
Many people are drawn to the Bengal cat due to its wild-like markings yet gentle, domesticated temperament.
While most may think the cat’s name is due to its resemblance to a Bengal tiger, it isn’t: the Bengal cat is actually a relatively new hybrid breed of an Asian leopard cat (ALC) crossed with a domestic cat.
Rumors of a wild hybrid “Bengal” cat made news as early as 1889, when a version of a ALC-hybrid mix was spotted at London’s Zoological Society Gardens in Regent's Park.
At the time, a fascination with domesticating wild cats was gaining popularity. By the early 1960s, hunters who trapped the exotic-looking Asian leopard cats for their pelts began selling their orphaned cubs to American pet stores as novelty pets. Asian leopard cats resemble domestic cats, but have larger eyes, longer legs and distinct leopard markings. They are not, however, very friendly nor domesticated.
Jean Mill of Covina, Calif., would ultimately become the greatest influence of the development of the Bengal cat breed. Mill, who studied genetics during the 1940s with a focus on cross-breeding cats, had been concerned about the plight of the Asian leopard cat and believed that creating a hybrid breed would deflect the growing interest and reduce the amount of poaching that occurred with the wild species.
In the early 60s, Mill took “Malaysia,” an Asian leopard female cat, home with hopes of cross-breeding her.
“My neighbors had a black tabby cat that they didn’t want anymore,” Mill tells the Pet HealthZone, “so I brought him home to keep company with Malaysia.” What happened next was a well-thought out experiment—not an accident as some media outlets have reported over the years.
“Those I met with at Cornell University said it was impossible to cross-breed the cat,” Mill explains. “But I was well-prepared for what I was trying to do.” Mill’s genetic studies at the University of California, Davis, had convinced her that cross breeding the cats could be successful—if done right, and with a lot of patience.
According to Mill, Malaysia fell in love with the black tabby cat and produced a litter, although only one female kitten would survive: KinKin. It took another 20 years before Mill could successfully produce a strong line of Bengal cats who weren’t succumbing to sterility or illnesses such as pneumonitis. After obtaining an Indian Mau domestic cat from the curator of the New Delhi zoo in 1982, Mill finally hit her stride and gave “birth” to the well-known “Millwood Tory of Delhi” lineage that still exists today.
Around this time, an American couple, Greg and Elizabeth Kent, successfully developed a line of Bengal cats using Asian leopard cats and Egyptian Mau cats.
Today, the roots of most Bengal cats can be traced to either Mill’s or the Kent’s line of hybrids. While the breed hasn’t yet been acknowledged by all cat fanciers due to their wild lineage, the Bengal cat has none the less become quite popular and remains in demand.
Bengals "are sharper than other cat breeds and can learn tricks like a dog. You can teach your Bengal the word “no” as well as all kinds of other tricks.”
Cross-breeding cats requires some scientific finesse. This is definitely true when it comes to Bengal cats. The International Cat Association (TICA) requires that show cats be bred Bengal to Bengal for at least four generations (F4) to ensure a docile temperament.
For those interested in acquiring a lovable Bengal to keep company with on the couch, it is highly recommended that research is done to make sure second (F2) and third generation (F3) Bengal kittens are free of temperament problems.
“I would highly recommend to anyone looking for a Bengal that you do thorough research,” advises Nicole Collins, a veterinary technician and Bengal cat owner living in Placentia, Calif. “Check the temperament of the queen and the stud before adopting a kitten. Is the father docile? Does he hiss or swat? Is the mother affectionate when you approach her? Oftentimes, the litter will show a similar temperament, so it’ll give you a good idea what type of cat you may bring home.”
Collins’ two-year-old cat, Baby Boy, is a third-generation Bengal with a distinctive meow and a tendency to join her in the shower at any given opportunity. “He is really sweet, but can be timid when new people come around,” says Collins. “He tends to follow me around wherever I go—he needs constant stimulation.”
Mill says Bengal cats are special in many ways. “They are sharper than other cat breeds and can learn tricks like a dog. You can teach your Bengal the word “no” as well as all kinds of other tricks.”
Such as swimming. Bengal cats are known to enjoy playing in water, sometimes taking a dip in a pool or bathtub, as long as it’s on their own terms.
Otherwise, Mill says, Bengals are no different than other cats. “They love attention and like to be noticed.”
Bushi, whose name means “warrior” in Japanese, has lived up to his namesake. “He yowls if he doesn’t get enough attention,” says Langanke. “He can become aggressive if he doesn’t get enough attention or stimulation, so I try to find him playmates.”
The two-year-old cat prefers to play with Lucy, a friend’s dog—an unusual bi-species friendship that isn’t uncommon with Bengal cats.
One other noticeable Bengal cat trait? “Bushi walks differently from other cats,” notes Langanke.
Collins agrees. “Baby Boy struts—like he’s stalking prey or thinks he’s a big cat.”
Perhaps the most notable difference in a Bengal cat’s appearance: the extraordinary, wild-looking fur coat, the long body and short ears.
Bengals can have either spotted or marbled coat patterns. Spots run along the sides and top of the body and those which consist of two colors are commonly referred to as “rosetted,” like those on a jaguar. Symmetrical stripes run along the remainder of the body—including the legs and tail.
Also unique to the Bengal’s appearance: the glitter-like sheen that graces its fur coat, which has a smooth silky feel.
Contrary to popular belief, Bengal cats are not typically large in size, often ranging from seven to 12 pounds. The average life expectancy of a Bengal cat is 12 to 16 years in age.
Consult with a veterinarian if you have any questions about Bengal cat health or are interested in learning if this cat is the right breed to bring home to you and your family.
As with any pet, it is always wise to be aware of any potential health conditions for which your pet may be routinely screened during bi-annual veterinary examinations.
The Bengal cat has a few known hereditary conditions that you should be aware of:
- Cataracts: An opacity of the lens of the eye can result from injury or inherited factors. Untreated cataracts may cause blindness and/or glaucoma in cats. Cataracts can be successfully treated surgically in animals as well as humans.
- Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA): This disease causes the rod and cone light receptors of the retina to deteriorate and slowly cease functioning, ultimately resulting in blindness. PRA has been diagnosed in kittens as young as three months. Currently, the disease is considered recessive—both parents would have to be carriers or one parent would have to be affected with the disease. Carriers of PRA may be totally asymptomatic, possessing normal vision throughout their lives. Currently, there isn’t a test for the carrier gene, so it is impossible to screen potential breeding cats to determine that they are or are not carriers of the gene.
- Cardiomyopathy: A disease of the heart muscle that often results in congestive heart failure, it is also life threatening and can result in blood clots that cause pain and acute paralysis of a cat’s rear legs. The cause of cardiomyopathy is unknown but hereditary factors are thought to play a role in development of the disorder in cats. You can have your Bengal cat tested for the heart condition by a veterinary cardiologist.
Kristen Langanke’s Bengal cat, Bushi (pronounced “Boo-shee”) was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy when he was one year old.
“I noticed he was panting like a dog,” she explains. After taking him to a veterinary specialist in Long Beach, Calif., he was treated for a heart murmur. “I keep a close eye on him; I try not to let him get too excited so that his heart maintains regularity.”