Junglebeauty Cattery of Bengals is happy to tell you how the story of Bengal Breed began.
There are more than 30 different breeds of domestic cats. And, there are many mixes of those breeds. Among those mixed breeds are several designer, or hybrid, cats. Breeders create designer cats to look like a wildcat but have the personality of a domestic cat.
One of the most popular designer cats is the Bengal cat. It is cross between a wildcat called the Asian leopard cat and a domestic house cat. Bengal kittens and cats have several specific features. The name Bengal comes from the Asian leopard cat’s scientific name, Felis bengalensis, because they were discovered in the Bay of Bengal in Asia.
Asian leopard cats are native to southern Asia. They are found from southern India eastward through Thailand, Malaysia and into China. Chinese call them money cats because their spots look like Chinese cpins.
Asian leopard cats often live near water in jungles, brush, forests, or plains. They are shy and skilled nocturnal hunters. Their diet includes rodents and small birds, occasionally venturing into farm yards to prey on domestic chicks.
These small wildcats weigh around 10 - 12 pounds. They have longer legs and bodies then domestic cats. To see better at night, they have large eyes. Most Asian leopard cats are tan to orange colored and look like pint-sized leopard. Their coats are marked with stripes, solid spots, and doughnut-holed spots called rosettes. Jaguars wear rosettes, too. They have dark spots and a white belly.
Asian leopard cats are excellent swimmers and climbers. Mrs. Mill writes: “Assumed to be vicious by people who have never encountered one, ALCs instead are afraid of humans. For countless centuries they have been hunted with traps and spears. … It is not in the nature of the tiny ALC TO ATTACK WHEN UNPROVOKED. They just want to be left alone. “Wild” does not mean vicious… They need not be feared if allowed their privacy. And their hybrid offspring are not more dangerous nor unpredictable than they are.”
The Bengal cat is a relatively new hybrid breed of cat which exhibits the “wild” markings(such as large pots, rosettes and a light/white belly), and body structure reminiscent of the wild Asian Leopard Cat.
Bengal cats first became popular because they have desirable “wild” appearances with gentle domestic cat temperament, provided by at least four generations from the original crossing between a domestic feline and an Asian Leopard Cat. Several domestic cat breeds have been ancestors of the Bengal cat. These include the Egyptian mau, the Abyssinian and the Burmese.
The name Bengal was derived from the name of the Asian Leopard Cat (ALC) and not from the more widely known Bengal tiger species, which is unrelated to the Bengal’s ancestry.
The first mention of a cross between an Asian Leopard Cat and a domestic cat was in 1889, Harrison Weir wrote in “Our Cats and All About Them”: “There is a rich-coloured brown tabby hybrid to be seen at the Zoological Society Gardens in Regent’s Park, between the wild cat of Bengal and tabby she-cat. It is handsome, but very wild. These hybrids, I am told, will breed again with tame variety, or with others.” The mention of a confirmed ALC/domestic cross was in 1934 in a Belgian scientific journal, and in 1941 a Japanese cat publication printed an article about one that kept as a pet.
Credit to the modern Bengal cat breed goes to Jean Sudgen Mill.
She submitted a term paper for her genetics class at UC Davis on the subject of cross breeding cats in 1946. Mill had accomplished this as part of her studies and did not realize that she had just set the foundation for development of a new breed of cat.
She had acquired an Asian Leopard Cat in the late 1950’s. In 1963, she crossed this wild female Leopard Cat with a shorthaired, solid black domestic tomcat. A spotted daughter from that mating, called Kiki, grew up and had kittens of her own, more spotted and solid offspring. But the line was discontinued in 1966 when Mill had to give up breeding cats.
The 1960s was a period when many well known breeders, including Jean Sugden, produced ALC/domestic crosses, but records indicate that none of them took it past the F2 stage. Several zoos in Europe also produced a number of F1 ALC crosses. During this period there was an epidemic of feline leukemia virus and it became known that many wild cats seemed to have a natural immunity to the decease. As a result of this, Loyola University would start a research program in the 1970s to investigate if this natural immunity could be bred in or replicated.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s there was a great deal of activity with hybrids, but there was no sufficient effort to create an actual breed from them. A number of Cat Clubs formed that oriented on hybrids. Club newsletters detailing the production of Bengals and Safaris started being published and members of these clubs bred some second and third generation Bengals. These were registered with the America Cat Fancies Association (ACFA) in 1977 as experimental and were shown at several ACFA cat shows throughout the 1970s
Around this time, Jean Mill resurfaced again, and the following quote explains her increased interest in renewing her breeding efforts. “ … I deliberately crossed leopard cats with domestic cats for several important reasons. At that time, wild cats have been exploited for the fur market. Nursing female leopard cats defending their nests were shot for their pelts, and the cubs were shipped off to pet stores worldwide. Unsuspecting cat lovers brought them, unaware of the danger, their unpleasant elimination habits and the unsuitability of keeping wild cats as pets. Most of the wild kittens from this era ended up in zoos or escaped onto city streets. I hoped that by putting a leopard coat on a domestic cat, the pet trade could be safely satisfied. If fashionable women could be dissuaded from wearing furs that look like friend’s pet, the diminished demand would result in less poaching of wild species.”
She contacted Dr. Willard Centerwall in Riverside who had produced a number of F1s using domestic tabbies at Loma Linda Medical Center. In the late 1960’s, Dr. Willard Centerwall, a professor of pediatrics, and of maternal and child health, studied feline genetics as a scientific hobby. Although Centerwall published several studies of small wild cats, his work with Asian Leopard Cats intersected research in immunocompromised individuals. That project was built on a foundation of comparative gene mapping of humans and cats. Centerwall was particularly interested in the Asian Leopard Cat’s lack of a gene for contracting feline leukemia. Centerwall was curious if the native immunity of the ALC to leukemia could be passed on to hybrid offspring. To conduct his tests, Centewall only needed to collect blood from the hybrid cats. The animals then required homes.
In 1980, Mill met Centerwall and adopted several of his female hybrids, from his Leopard Cat and domestic shorthair crosses, and was able to continue her interrupted efforts to “put the gorgeous coat on a new, domestic breed of cat”. It was determined that the males from these first generations were always sterile. But fortunately, ALC/domestic cat crosses are fertile in the female sex. Mill wrote: “It was then necessary to breed them to another friendly domestic tomcat, thereby diluting the wild inheritance by another half. Second-generation kittens were much less shy and were considerably more outgoing and friendly. Most of the males, too, proved after many trials also to be sterile.
Jean Mill decided do not use local domestics to create her first Bengals. She felt the Asian Leopard Cat was a genetically superior animal and wished to avoid weakening this element. Around 1982, the Mills made a trip to India where a zoo curator showed them a feral Indian Mau, having fantastic glittered orange coat with deep brown rosettes. This was how the famous rosetted domestic cat called “Millwood Tory of Delhi” came to be found in virtually all Bengal pedigrees. Over the years, Mrs. Mill combined her hybrids with other breeds, including the Abyssinian, Bombay, British shorthair, and the Ocicat. From this unlikely group of cats came the Bengal. Mill worked tirelessly to see the Bengal breed become fully domesticated. She is rightly considered to be the true originator of the Bengal cat.
In 1983, Mrs. Mill registered these cats with The International Cat Association, TICA, as well as their offspring by a brown spotted domestic tabby, Millwood Finally Found.
Millwood Penny Ante, second-generation kitten and other early kittens, were first exhibited at the International Cat Association (TICA) cat show in 1985, showing with exhibition-only status. The public reaction was overwhelming, as crowds gathered in awe over this magnificent new creation.
Soon afterward, Bengals were permitted to compete in the New Breed and Color classes where they were handled by the judges. A standard was written to describe in detail the features to be rewarded in the show rings, and those to be penalized. The new Bengal cat’s breed had been born! It was not until 1992, however, that TICA admitted the breed into Championship status.
Other breeders were establishing their bloodlines, and registering them with TICA. In the 1980s, Dr. Gregg and Elizabeth Kent, who had been hybridizing the Asian Leopard Cat for a number of years, used an Egyptian Mau queen with his male Leopard Cat. They were so successful that some pedigreed Bengals today still trace their origin to the Kent’s cats. Another breeder who made notable contribution to the breed was Ethel Hauser. There are at present, other Leopard Cats being used in various breeding programs. This will aid significantly in expanding the limited gene pool which now exists.
Jean S. Mill. The Guide to Owning a Bengal Cat. 2002
Jill C. Wheeler. Bengal Cats. ABDO Publishing Company. 2011
Lynn M. Stone. Bengal Cats. The Rourke Corporation, Inc. 1999.
Gene Johnson. Getting to know The Bengal Cat. 1993.
Taylor David. Bengal Cats and Kittens. 2013.