I’ve discovered something intriguing while researching wild-domestic hybrids. According to the cat fancy, the Bengal leopard cat/domestic cat hybrid is one of the most popular breeds in the world, yet shelters are overwhelmed by abandoned Bengals.
Two very reputable groups, with conflicting statements–what’s going on here?
Wild-domestic hybrid cats
There are basically two ways to develop a new breed with a wild look:
1. Combine two domestic cat breeds. For instance, breeders looking for a little black panther combined sable-colored Burmese cats with black American Shorthairs and came up with the Bombay.
The genes that affect personality are important, too. Bombays are friendly and chatty like their Burmese relatives but also very laid back, thanks to their American Shorthair background.
2. Hybridize a wild cat and a domestic cat.
You can see why someone would want to develop such a beautiful breed.
The task is easier in cats because, unlike other mammals (including us), most members of the cat family have similar DNA sequences. (Murphy) Because of this, cats have been hybridizing for millions of years.
People got involved in the process fairly recently.
We actually domesticated the leopard cat in China during the Stone Age, but unlike our domestication of African wildcats in the Near East, it only lasted a few centuries. (Hu and others; Vigne and others)
Today this adorable little Southeast Asian/Indonesian cat is quite wild.
But it can be tamed enough to be used in a domestic cat breeding program, even though the Asian leopard cat belongs to a different genus than Fluffy’s Felis.
The two groups did share a common ancestor a little over six million years ago. (O’Brien and Johnson) Apparently that’s close enough.
Informal descriptions of leopard cat/house cat crosses go back more than a century, but today’s Bengal cat is strictly a child of the 1970s.
Back in the 1960s, German zoologist Paul Leyhausen knew that wild and domestic cats could crossbreed, but he didn’t disclose the fact, saying that “it will not be a good development if people find this out.” (Hartwell)
This foreshadows some of the dark stuff coming up later in this post, though you’ll also see that Leyhausen wasn’t completely correct. The world would be a poorer place without hybrid domestic cats today.
Anyway, people had already discovered crossbreeding. A researcher in the 1970s crossed leopard cats and house cats to see if their descendants would inherit the leopard cat’s immunity to feline leukemia (unfortunately, they didn’t). When he came down with cancer, he gave over a hundred first-generation (F1) hybrids to another US cat breeder.
She eventually developed the Bengal from these cats. The International Cat Association (TICA) gave it championship status during the 1980s. But building the breed wasn’t as easy as you might think.
A hybrid line almost always starts out by mating a female domestic cat to a male wild cat. The resulting male kittens, if any are born, are always sterile. The females are then crossed back to their father and this continues until fertile hybrid males appear.
Yes, inbreeding is a major problem in the cat fancy (and not just with hybrids).
The number of backcross generations needed to produce fertile hybrid tomcats depends on how close the two species are on the evolutionary timescale.
House cats and leopard cats shared a common ancestor a little over six million years ago, while house cats and servals (the wild cat used to develop the Savannah) go back over eight million years.
It takes at least four generations to get fertile Bengal and Savannah males, but only two or three for the Chausie breed–a jungle cat (Felis chaus)/domestic cat hybrid–because that wild cat is in the same genus as the house cat.
If you clicked the relevant links, you saw that leopard cats, servals, and jungle cats all have their own IUCN Red List page. These three groups are unlikely to vanish any time soon, but in some parts of the world leopard cats and servals are vulnerable to critically endangered.
Yes, The Man is very interested in your hybrid cat.
Cat breeders know that It takes more than one generation to develop a gentle cat, as well as to get fertile tomcats.
Until that peace-loving personality shows up, a hybrid domestic cat will be unpredictable at best. Cats from generations one through three (F1-F3) after the last wild mating are reserved for breeding. The public only meets the hybrid from the F4 generation on.
And that’s only if the law allows it.
Bengals–the ground-breaking wild-domestic hybrid–may have become show cats in the US during the 1980s, but their owners in the UK, where Bengals achieved blue-ribbon status in 2005, still needed to be licensed under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act until 2007.
Elsewhere, it’s even more complicated.
Today some jurisdictions still outlaw hybrid cats–good luck trying to take your pet Savannah to Australia, for example.
Other places are a bit more relaxed, perhaps because of good experience with Bengals down through the years.
Many US states, for example, allow hybrids under the US Department of Agriculture definition that a cross between wild animals and domestic animals like dogs and cats is a domestic animal. State laws may go on to allow only F4 or later generations. Some even require that the breed be recognized by a major cat registry like TICA.
Local laws are a tangle in the US. It is necessary to double check everything from the county level right on down to neighborhood ordinances before you purchase a hybrid domestic cat or plan a move, if you already have one. You might find out that your perfectly legal Bengal or Savannah will be contraband in your new home.
But everywhere you move in the US, one grim fact remains. If your hybrid bites someone, or if someone even claims that they have been bitten, the cat will be put down.
This is one of the drawbacks that breeders don’t talk about much.
The USDA defines hybrids as domestic animals. But the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and major veterinarian associations consider hybrids to be wild animals, even if they have had their rabies shots.
The experts aren’t being arbitrary. Back in 1993, a vaccinated wolf-dog hybrid was found to have rabies. Since this disease has no cure, nobody messed around. Scientists recognized that the rabies vaccine does not work in wild animals. End of discussion.
However, outside the US, this doesn’t seem to be an issue. For example, the UK’s Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF) says on their Bengal page that it can have the same vaccinations that all other domestic cats receive.
But the GCCF has also said that, “After careful consideration, it was decided to make a policy statement that, with the exception of the outcross to the Asian Leopard Cat which has produced the Bengal, the GCCF would not recognise any other outcross to a non-domestic cat.” (quoted in Gregory and others)
Animal welfare concerns
There are two main categories here. The first involves breeding, while the second–the one that addresses the problem we started off with–concerns the challenges of owning a hybrid domestic cat.
Here are the breeding ethical concerns that seem to be raised consistently by a variety of reputable online sources:
- Size differences between wild cat and domestic cat, differing numbers of chromosomes, and different gestation periods all contribute to many deaths and to much suffering during the development of a breed. It can be really horrible.
- You must take cat breeders at their word; there is no independent agency guaranteeing that someone isn’t on the up and up. An F1 hybrid may look a lot like a legal F4 hybrid, for example, and it’s a lot easier to produce and sell for thousands of dollars, but the owner will end up with a wild and dangerous cat. Only chromosome testing can definitely identify a hybrid–and that is very expensive.
- Hybrid cats, even the neutered ones, spray, and it’s really intense. You will have that smell in your house constantly.
- Wild cats generally have shorter digestive tracts than domestic cats because they eat more meat. Hybrids often inherit this, which means that they can’t digest food as well and there is going to be a lot of projectile diarrhea.
That diarrhea is one of the main reasons hybrid cats are left at shelters. It can be controlled with diet, but that takes a little extra work. So does dealing with the hybrid’s lively personality, which is another reason for abandonment.
Let’s take another look at that beautiful Bengal:
See how big it is? This is just a five-month-old kitten. What’s it going to be like when it grows up?
Its owners obvious love it and care deeply, but seniors and households with small children might have problems dealing with such a big cat.
A feisty cat, too. See how bright and inquisitive this Bengal kitten is already? As an adult, it will figure out how to open doors; love to jump and race around constantly; and play in water, including the water bowl, which it will empty by batting the water around.
Without constant companionship hybrids get lonely and howl; and there is also the fact that cats do not have the ability to recognize you as a pack leader, the way dogs do. You’re on your own with these babies.
That’s part of the fascination and fun for many hybrid cat owners. They work it out, giving the cat a safe room to play in, for example, and being willing to clean up after it and keep it company.
Hybrid cats are essentially life partners, and they are very demanding.
Unfortunately, many would-be owners don’t realize that there are important differences between hybrids and”regular” domestic cats, until their cute kitten grows up. By then it’s too late.
If they haven’t established control of it by then, they could be terrorized and bullied by the beast – you come across some real horror stories online about helpless owners who gave up their cat because they were terrified of it. Other pets have been killed and even children threatened.
Don’t ever let things get that bad. If you’re interested in a hybrid cat, congratulations! Just know what you’re getting into before you even talk to a breeder. Decide what you want from a pet cat and go for it.
Something quiet, but playful? There are cats like that, but not hybrids. A recent study by Hart and Hart showed that veterinarians rank Bengals the top breed for activity–granted, though Bengals are #10, the domestic Abyssinian leaps into a close second at #9.
Do you like a walk on the wild side, 24/7/365? Then a Bengal, Savannah, or Chausie might be a good pet for you.
If you choose a hybrid, as many people do, please make the lifetime commitment to that not-so-little but very deserving furball before you bring it home. Otherwise, you’ll just be contributing to the ongoing abandonment and animal-welfare issues with hybrid cats that don’t get nearly the amount of attention they should.
Featured image: Roberto Shabs, CC BY 2.0.
American Association of Feline Practitioners. 2017. AAFP Position Statement: Hybrid Cats. JFMS Clinical Practice, 312-313.
Findlaw. n.d. Exotic animal laws by state. https://injury.findlaw.com/torts-and-personal-injuries/exotic-animal-laws-by-state.html Last accessed May 4, 2018.
Gregory, A.; Crow, S.; and Dean, H. 2014. Showing cats, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds Turner, D. C., and Bateson, P. New York: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=m-NRAgAAQBAJ
Hybrid Law. n.d. Multiple entries. http://www.hybridlaw.com/ Last accessed May 6, 2018.
Hart, B. L. and Hart, L. A. 2014b. Feline behavioural problems and solutions, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 201-221. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hartwell, S. n.d. Hybrid and mutant animals; multiple hybrid entries. messybeast.com/genetics/hybrid-cats.htm Last accessed May 4, 2018.
Murphy, W. 2015. Genetic analysis of feline interspecies hybrids. Tufts’ Canine and Feline Breeding and Genetics Conference. https://www.vin.com/apputil/content/defaultadv1.aspx?id=6976361&pid=12513&print=1 Last accessed May 3, 2018.
Patton Veterinary Hospital. n.d. Are Bengal cats really immune to feline leukemia? http://www.pattonvethospital.com/blog/b_49160_are_bengal_cats_really_immune_to_feline_leukemia.html Last accessed May 4, 2018.
Wikipedia: 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bengal_cat Last accessed May 4, 2018.
—. Felid hybrids. 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felid_hybrid Last accessed May 4, 2018.
—. Savannah. 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savannah_cat Last accessed May 4, 2018.