The Bengal cat
If you’ve ever fantasized about keeping a wild cat as a pet, you are not alone. It’s a captivating idea, and it’s one of the reasons for the existence of the Bengal cat.
Believe me, you don’t really want to own a wild cat, and they don’t want to be owned by you either. But a Bengal cat, which counts the wild Asian Leopard Cat as a long-lost relative, is considered a domesticated cat, with all the conveniences and pleasures that implies. It means the Bengal cat is happy to use the litter box to do his business, and won’t hunt your children.
But that doesn’t mean the Bengal cat has been transformed into a lap cat. This is not a cat for the first-time cat guardian. This is not a cat for people who want a pretty kitty to absentmindedly stroke while watching TV.
This is a cat who expects and requires attention (lots of it), toys (lots of those, too), and ACTION. A bored Bengal will find his own fun, and it won’t necessarily be your brand of fun.
Here’s a little of what you might be in for, if you welcome a Bengal cat into your life:
What is a Bengal cat?
A Bengal cat is a domestic cat. But the breed began as a cross between a wild Asian Leopard Cat (Felis bengalensis) and an ordinary domestic cat. I’ll explain how that happened in a minute.
What is an Asian Leopard Cat?
The Asian Leopard Cat is a wild cat native to Asia. It’s about the size of a housecat, but more slender, with longer legs and webbed toes. They’re solitary animals, who are very agile climbers, and who hunt at night.
Unfortunately, they’re killed for their fur in China.
What is the history of the Bengal cat?
Harrison Weir, the father of cat fancy, mentioned a cross between an Asian Leopard Cat and a domestic cat in his book, “Our Cats and All About Them” in 1889. But whoever that cat was, she had nothing to do with today’s Bengal.
Jean Mill is credited with founding the Bengal breed. As an experienced cat breeder with a background in genetics, she was probably the perfect person to undertake this project. Mill had earlier founded the Himalayan cat, by crossbreeding a Siamese with a Persian.
The Bengal was founded to protect wild cats and their cubs
Mill wasn’t just looking to start a new cat breed, however. She was looking to solve a problem. Actually, she was looking to solve two problems.
In the 1960s, Asian Leopard Cats were being poached for their stunning pelts. (Thankfully, they’ve been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1976, although the cat is still being hunted for export to Japan.) But at the time, poachers were killing wild cats for their fur and then selling their orphaned cubs to American pet stores as novelty pets.
Mills believed that if people could actually purchase a cat that looked like a leopard, there might not be a market for wild-cat fur or cubs. She was hoping to change the economics of poaching.
The problem is that wild cats make awful pets. Her intention was to create a cat that looked like a wild cat, but with a friendlier personality.
The first Bengal cat
Mill purchased an Asian Leopard Cat from a pet store, and named her Malaysia. She put a solid-black tomcat in a crate with Malaysia, and they produced a single surviving kitten, a female named KinKin.
It’s important that this first kitten was a female, because males who are the product of interspecies breeding are usually infertile.
It actually took Mill nearly 20 years to produce a healthy line of Bengal cats. Many early-generation cats were either infertile or sickly.
She eventually introduced an Indian Mau cat into her breeding program, and that line of cats, known as the Millwood Tory of Dehli line, exists today. Another Bengal breeder successfully developed a line of Bengal cats using Egyptian Mau cats, and most Bengals today can trace their heritage to either one of these lines.
It took until the 1980s to more fully develop the Bengal breed. In 1992, The International Cat Association (TICA), one of the world’s foremost cat registries, claimed 125 registered breeders. By 2019, thanks to the growing popularity of the breed, there were nearly 2000 registered Bengal breeders.
How wild is my Bengal?
The closer a Bengal cat is to its wild relatives, the more like a wildcat the cat will behave. This is not good thing.
One of the things we love about our domestic cats is how…domestic they are. Domestic cats reliably use a litter box. If they were properly introduced to humans as kittens, domestic cats are friendly and easy to live with.
Hybrid cats are given a label by the number of generations they are removed from their wild ancestor. KinKin, for example, was first-generation Bengal. A first-generation cat is also called a F1 cat. An F1 cat is 50% wild.
The next generation is designated as G2, then G3, and so on. Some people use the terms F1 and F2, etc. instead, even though it’s not exactly the technically correct terminology.
A G2 cat is produced by breeding an F1 female with a domestic male cat (because there are no fertile F1 males). A G2 cat is 25% wild, while a G3 cat would be 12.5% wild.
The problem with early-generation Bengal cats
You should also be aware that any Bengal cat that is a fourth-generation or earlier, will likely have some undesirable behaviors.
In addition to being extremely cautious and shy, early-generation Bengals can engage in instinctive, destructive behaviors. Some will soil all over the house. Some attack or injure their owners or other household pets. Most become overly bonded to a single family member and may not fully recover if they have to be rehomed.
The Wildcat Sanctuary, a non-profit rescue in Minnesota, provides a home for captive wild cats who have been surrendered or confiscated. They are sometimes asked to take in wild cat/domestic cat hybrids, including Bengal cats, who are unable to live as pets. It may be worth reading some first-hand accounts of those who have had to surrender their Bengals:
Are you allowed to keep a Bengal where you live?
You should be aware that because Bengal cats are considered wild hybrids, they’re not welcome in every municipality.
In New York City and Seattle, and in the entire states of Hawaii and Connecticut, Bengals are prohibited by law to be kept as pets.
Other states have limits to Bengal ownership depending upon the cat’s generation, or require permits. Delaware requires a permit, Georgia requires a license, and Iowa and Alaska require the cats to be at least four generations removed from the Asian Leopard Cat.
Bengal cats are legal to own in the U.K. In Australia, the Bengal must be at least a fifth-generation cat. Bengals are legal in all provinces in Canada, but must be registered with TICA as a G4 or later to be kept in Alberta.
This is far from an exhaustive list, and I would encourage you to check on your current local laws (which may change faster than I can update this post) before bringing home a Bengal cat.
What does a Bengal cat look like?
A Bengal cat looks like a little leopard. He’s average-sized for a housecat, or maybe a little larger, but he’s long and lean and muscular. There is both elegance and athleticism in the way this cat looks and moves.
Bengals have large oval eyes that come in an array of colors (green, yellow, gold, blue, and aqua) and prominent whisker pads. But the most remarkable thing about the Bengal cat is her coat.
The feel of the coat is amazing: it has a rabbit-like softness, but it’s thick and plush, like a dense rug. Some Bengal coats have a glittery sheen that is caused by a special gene that causes large air cells to form in a hair shaft. It gives an iridescence to the coat that looks silver on charcoal-colored cats, gold in tawny Bengals, and crystal in snow or silver Bengals.
But it’s the pattern of the coat that really captures the imagination.
Bengal coat patterns
Bengal coats are either spotted or marbled, and both effects are truly stunning.
A spotted Bengal has small- to medium-sized spots running along the sides and top of the body. The spots can be a single color, or they can be rosetted, which means that the spots are two-toned, like the spots on leopards, jaguars, and ocelots. The Bengal is the only breed of domestic cat with rosette markings.
A marble coat is the result of blotchy tabby stripes that seem to swirl around the cat’s body. It’s far more dramatic and exotic-looking than I’m making it sound.
Bengal coat colors
Bengals come in many colors, although only certain colors are allowed for showing in individual breed registries.
Bengals can be brown, which can mean golden, creamy, taupe, caramel, or red. They can be silver, which is really a metallic kind of white. Bengals can also be charcoal, which is a grayish-brownish color, blue, which is true gray, and black.
Bengals also come in three versions of “snow” coloring, including snow lynx, snow mink, and snow sepia, which are all variations of brown markings on a white, cream, or tan background.
There are all kinds of rosettes, too. Rosettes can be described as “donuts,” meaning they’re roundish, with a darker outline, “paw prints,” which have a dotted outline, and “arrowheads,” which are triangular and point to the back of the cat.
There are “clouded” rosettes, which are so close together they seem to fit like puzzle pieces, and “chain” rosettes, which are rows of donut rosettes, all stuck together, and running parallel on both sides of the cat’s spine.
What is the personality of a Bengal cat?
You have to be ready to have a Bengal in your life. Don’t be taken in by a Bengal’s beauty. Don’t be seduced by the idea of having a tiny leopard in your home. Don’t be charmed by a Bengal’s adorable antics when you meet your first one.
Have other cats first, before you get a Bengal. Learn how much care cats as a species need, and how much attention. Then multiply that amount of time and devotion by some number in your head before you even consider bringing a Bengal home.
The Bengal cat is smart, energetic, and playful nearly all his life. He’s always thinking, moving, and leaping. You have to be ready to play with your Bengal cat for hours every day. You have to be open to the idea of a cat getting into and onto everything in your home.
Everything is a toy to a Bengal cat: your dripping faucet, your drawers and cabinets, and everything in them.
You should be willing to build your Bengal cat a racetrack on the walls around the kitchen and living room. You should be willing to share your shower. You should understand that your Bengal will take your things and hide them.
(Read about other cats who like to play in water in this post.)
You should not expect a lap cat, unless she happens to feel like it, because a Bengal is too busy to sit for long. A Bengal will be a “kitten” well into her senior years.
The good news is that Bengals are fast learners who can easily learn to do tricks. The bad news is that if your Bengal learns what you don’t like (cats on the counter, anyone?), he’ll do it over and over again, just for the attention.
And when she doesn’t get her way, she’ll cry, very loudly, about it. Bengals can be highly vocal cats.
Some say two Bengals are better than one: they keep each other busy. But someone once said that two Bengals make for “mayhem with a side of chaos.” 
Is the Bengal a healthy cat breed?
Bengal cats have some hereditary health concerns that you should be aware of if you are thinking of adding a member of this breed to your household.
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). HCM is the most common form of heart disease in cats and is a major concern in the Bengal breed. One study concluded that the prevalence of HCM in Bengal cats is 16.7% If you would like to learn more about HCM in cats, please read this post.
Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP). FIP is an almost invariably fatal disease that is the result of a mutation in the common feline coronavirus. Some breeds seem to be more prone to this mutation. Read about FIP in this post.
Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA-b). PRA-b is a degeneration of the retina, which causes vision loss and ultimately blindness.
Pyruvate Kinase Deficiency (PK-Def). PK-Def is an inherited metabolic disorder which affects the survival of red blood cells.
Hip dysplasia. Hip dysplasia is an abnormality in the hip joint that can make walking difficult and usually requires surgery to repair.
Patellar luxation. A luxating patella, or kneecap, moves from its prescribed groove in the knee joint, and requires surgery to repair.
Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disorder (FLUTD). This is disorder that affects the bladder and urethra of cats, that is difficult to diagnose and can be difficult to treat.
Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD) and lymphoma. IBD is a reaction to irritation of the stomach or intestines, which causes chronic vomiting or diarrhea. There seems to be some connection between IBD and lymphoma, which is a type of cancer, in Bengal cats.,
Pancreatitis. Bengal cats seem prone to inflammation of the pancreas, which is an organ vital to digestion and metabolism. Early treatment and hospitalization are usually required for successful management of an episode of pancreatitis.
Bengals are also often highly susceptible to allergies, have very sensitive digestive systems, and are known to have reactions to ketamine, a commonly used anesthetic.
What is a Cashmere Bengal?
A Cashmere Bengal is simply a longhaired, or semi-longhaired Bengal cat.
As you now know, Bengals are the result of crossbreeding the wild Asian Leopard Cat with a domestic cat. If longhaired domestic cats were used in the crossbreeding, longhaired Bengal kittens could result.
Note that longhaired-ness in cats is a recessive trait, which means that a Cashmere Bengal can only result when both parents have a longhaired gene in their DNA. A first-generation (F1) Bengal cat can thus never be longhaired.
*Thanks to Sirocco Bengals and Cashmeres for this wonderful photo of a trio of their Cashmere Bengals. Visit them on Instagram @sirocco_cashmeres .
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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