With his distinctive spotted coat and large size, the Bengal looks like a wild cat on the prowl, but although one of his ancestors is the small, wild Asian leopard cat, he’s a domestic cat through and through.
Bengals take their name from the Asian leopard cat’s scientific name, Felis bengalensis. They were created through crosses between an Asian leopard cat — which in the 1950s and into the 1960s could be purchased at pet stores — and domestic shorthairs. Jean Mill, a breeder in California, was the first to make such a cross, but not because she wanted to create a new breed. She had acquired a leopard cat and allowed her to keep company with a black tom cat so she wouldn’t be lonely. To her surprise, since she hadn’t thought the two species would mate, kittens resulted, and Mill kept a spotted female. Breeding her back to her father produced a litter of spotted and solid kittens.
At about the same time, Dr. Willard Centerwall was crossing Asian leopard cats with domestic cats at Loyola University. The leopard cats were resistant to the feline leukemia virus, so researchers were interested in finding out if the trait could be passed on to hybrid offspring.
Various breeders became interested in developing the cats as a breed. Mill was one of them. Changes in her life had caused her to give up cat breeding, but she was ready to begin again. She had acquired some of Dr. Centerwall’s hybrids and sought out suitable males to breed to them. One was an orange domestic shorthair that she found in India, of all places, and the other was a brown spotted tabby acquired from a shelter. Bengals today are considered to be one and the same with domestic cats, and any Bengal purchased should be at least four generations removed from any ancestors with wild bloodlines.
The first cat association to recognize the Bengal was The International Cat Association, which granted the breed experimental status in 1983, followed by full recognition in 1991. The Bengal is also recognized by the American Cat Fanciers Association, the Canadian Cat Association and the United Feline Organization.
Bengal cats are so sought after, that a British woman paid over $50,000 for her bengal cat in 1990, dubbing them the “Rolls Royce” of feline companions.
This is a large cat. Bengals weigh 8 to 15 pounds or more.
The Bengal is highly active and highly intelligent. This makes him fun to live with, but he can sometimes be challenging. On the whole, the Bengal is a confident, talkative, friendly cat who is always alert. Nothing escapes his notice. He likes to play games, including fetch, and he’s a whiz at learning tricks. His nimble paws are almost as good as hands, and it’s a good thing he doesn’t have opposable thumbs or he would probably rule the world. Bored bengal cats can also adopt some unconventional (and slightly destructive) habits, including: turning light switches on and off, fishing seals out of drains and excitedly plucking CDs from your DVD player.
Fond of playing in water, the Bengal is not above jumping into the tub or strolling into the shower with you. Aquarium and pond fish may be at risk from his clever paws. He also loves to climb and can often be found perching at the highest point he can reach in the home. A tall cat tree or two is a must for this feline, as are puzzle toys that will challenge his intelligence.
On the rare occasions that he isn’t swinging on chandeliers or swimming in your pool, the affectionate Bengal will be pleased to sit on your lap. It goes without saying that he will share your bed. And yes, he steals the covers.
Both pedigreed cats and mixed-breed cats have varying incidences of health problems that may be genetic in nature. Bengals are generally healthy, but the following diseases have been seen in the breed:
Distal neuropathy, a nervous system disorder that causes weakness. It can occur in Bengals as early as 1 year of age. Fortunately, many cats recover on their own, although a few relapse.
Flat-chested kitten syndrome, a deformity that can range from mild to severe. Kittens who survive to adulthood usually show no signs once they reach maturity.
Hip dysplasia, which in severe cases can cause lameness
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a form of heart disease that is heritable in some breeds.
Patellar luxation, a hereditary dislocation of the kneecap that can range from mild to severe. Severe cases can be alleviated with surgery.
Progressive retinal atrophy, a degenerative eye disease.