Bengal Cats Are Mini Leopard Hybrid Housecats

Bengal cats come in various colors and patterns, from those with pointed, arrow-shaped markings to others with circular, leopard-like spots. To be considered a domestic Bengal cat, a Bengal must be at least four generations removed from the Asian leopard cat. Shirlaine Forrest/Getty Images

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About 6 million years ago, two feline factions went their separate ways. A small-bodied cat living in the Old World became the common ancestor of both groups. One lineage eventually gave rise to Felis catus, the modern domestic cat kept in millions of households.

The other camp produced a species known as Prionailurus bengalensis, or the wild "leopard cat." Distributed across southern and eastern Asia, it prowls forests, farms and grasslands. Weighing just 6.6 to 15.4 pounds (3 to 7 kilograms) on average, few would mistake the creature for an actual leopard (Panthera pardus). Yet it's a skilled predator all the same. And just like real leopards, many of these wee beasties are covered with rosettes: flower-shaped spot clusters that surround lighter patches of fur.

In the 20th century, demand for exotic-looking pets created a hybrid cat market. By crossing Prionailurus bengalensis with the more familiar Felis catus, a new breed rose in prominence. Athletic and willful, this so-called "Bengal cat" can be quite a handful — and as we'll see, it's no stranger to controversy.

The Early Years

One of the cat-lovers who helped the Bengal get its start was geneticist Willard Centerwall. In 1971, Centerwall — then a professor at California's Loma Linda University — began crossing domestic and leopard cats. The latter are resistant to the feline version of leukemia, a cancer he'd chosen to study. Through his hybridized cats, Centerwall sought new insights into the hereditary processes associated with this disorder.

He wasn't the first person to breed leopard cats with domestics; reports show that other hybrids were born as far back as 1931.

And we can't discuss Bengal origins without acknowledging the late Jean Mill. A collaborator of Centerwall's, this conservationist mated a Prionailurus bengalensis with a black tomcat in 1963. Thus began a decades-long passion for Bengals. Mill's gorgeous animals (and their descendants) would soon become regulars at high-profile cat shows. That visibility popularized the breed as a whole.

Another breeder of note was Bill Engler, a zookeeper and longtime animal-importer. Using a leopard cat named Shah, Engler created a number of half-domestic, half-wild kittens in the early 1970s. He might've also given these critters their popular name: "Bengal" could be a play on the abbreviation "B. Engler."

(Or maybe it stems from the Asian leopard cat's species name, bengalensis. The world may never know.)

Hybrid Homelife

Today, you can find Bengals in a number of different colors and patterns. Most people associate these animals with the rosette markings detailed above. But not all rosettes look alike. They can be pointed and vaguely arrow-shaped or circular with a donut-like flair. Other Bengals have so-called "paw print" rosettes; as the name implies, those splotches almost look like animal tracks.

And then you've got Bengals with swirling, multitoned "marble" coats instead of more traditional spots. Back in 1987, Mill bred the first known kitten to rock this distinctive fur style.

The coat's base color is quite variable, too. Depending on the individual, it can look brown, golden, charcoal gray, silvery — or even whitish. That's right, folks: white-furred Bengal cats who look like miniature snow leopards are on the market.

Underneath their showy coats, Bengals tend to have muscular physiques. According to the Cat Fancier's Association (CFA), the hindlegs are a bit taller than the shoulders. A long, svelte midsection separates those fore and aft limbs. In general, adult Bengals weigh about 8 to 15 pounds (3.6 to 6.8 kilograms).

These guys have a well-earned reputation as energetic felines. Fond of long walks and games of fetch, Bengals are on the move almost constantly. To prevent boredom, keepers can stock up on toys or get their pet a feline playmate. Like Savannah cats (another hybrid breed), Bengals have an affinity for water-related activities, from swimming in kiddie pools to showering with owners.

Bans, Bloodlines and Conservation Efforts

If you don't know what you're getting into, all that stamina can feel overwhelming. Too often, people who are drawn to the breed's wild appearance are unprepared for its high-octane lifestyle.

Partly for this reason, the Minnesota-based Wildcat Sanctuary and Tampa, Florida's Big Cat Rescue — two organizations that provide housing and care for exotic felines — have discouraged would-be owners from buying hybrid cats, Bengals included.

For her part, Mill believed that the normalization of pet Bengals would both decrease the public's appetite for leopard-skin coats and raise awareness about wild cat conservation.

Regardless of your feelings on these matters, it's important to do your research before buying any kind of new pet. If you're looking to purchase a Bengal kitten (or adult), look into the creature's ancestry. The heritage of an individual cat may affect its trainability. Bengals with wild parents or grandparents usually require more socialization than those descended from a long line of captive-born animals.

State and local laws also deserve your attention. Some places, such as Hawaii, have put a ban on Bengal cat ownership. Other areas will let you keep a pet Bengal, but only if the cat's several generations removed from any wild ancestors.