• Molly Kelsey

Let's Talk About Bengals!

The Bengal cat is a domesticated breed created from hybrids of domestic cats like the Egyptian Mau and Asian Leopard Cat. Interestingly the name Bengal comes from the taxonomic name of Asian Leopard Cat Prionailurus bengalensis (Bengal is a tad easier to pronounce). The earliest record of the Bengal cat was way back in 1889, featured in the first widely published pedigree cat book ‘Our Cats and All About Them’ by Harrison Weir who was known as ‘The Father of the Cat Fancy’ (he founded the National Cat Club).

The creation of the modern Bengal cat is credited to Jean Mills from the United States who wanted a domestic cat with a ‘wild cat’ coat. Mills’s first known deliberate cross was of an Asian Leopard Cat with a black domestic tomcat in 1963 that produced two kittens. Breeding started gaining momentum in 1970 when Mills resumed her focus on Bengals which was aided by receiving a group of Bengal cats that were originally bred for use in genetic testing at Loma Linda University. Some of those close to Mills reported that her main aim with the creation of the breed was to try and deter those supporting the booming fur trade by creating a domestic cat with an ‘exotic’ coat to satisfy the aesthetic appeal.

As the years passed, cat breeder registries and associations all over the world accepted the Bengal. First up was The International Cat Association who accepted Bengals in 1983 and last but not least in 2016 The Cat Fanciers Association accepted Bengals providing the cat was F6 or later (six or more generations from their wild-cat ancestor). Bengals arrived on New Zealand shores in 1988 before import laws were put in place and they were added to the New Zealand Cat Fancy in 1996. Without going into too much detail, for a Bengal to be considered a domestic Bengal cat by the major cat registries, they must be at least four generations or more away from the Asian Leopard Cat. Earlier generation males are frequently infertile which is why early generation female Bengals are often bred to fertile domestic Bengals.

The wild cat appearance isn’t the only thing that makes Bengals a popular choice of pet. Their athleticism, intelligence, trainability, and confidence in novel environments have helped cement them as a firm favourite of cat lovers all over the globe. You’ll often notice in a home that has a Bengal there will be many items of cat furniture and modifications to satisfy their extra activity and enrichment needs. It is not uncommon for Bengals to be out and about on a harness and leash with their owners, whether it is going to the local park, vet clinic or local café.

I sat down (online) with Jo Bach who is the guardian of Harvey the Bengal and Janne Leeds of Spotcombengals, an NZCF accredited Bengal breeder.

Jo and Harvey

How did you come across Bengals and what was your initial impression of them? Believe it or not, we were looking for a dog, and my husband and I couldn’t agree on a breed. It come up under my google search that Bengals had dog-like personalities, and you could train them etc. So happened that there was a litter of Bengals close to where we live, so we went to have a “look” Harvey picked us, he was super playful and friendly we took him home then and there although we had no Kitten supplies at home, it was a quick stop at the Petshop to pick up supplies on the way home.

What makes Bengals so special to cat lovers? Bengals are special to Cat lovers because they are so beautiful looking and extremely intelligent. Harvey has learnt how to Sit, Shake, Beg and twirl, he also is harnessed trained so although he has free run of the house/property when we go to the vet or cattery he happily goes on his harness and hangs his little head out the window like a dog whilst we are driving.

How old is Harvey? Harvey is 5 years old now.

What is a typical day in the life of Harvey? A typical day in the life of Harvey consists of him waking me up by giving me a tap on the face for food. He is constantly out and about (he is a bit territorial so fights a lot). He loves to play and come on walks with me most days. He is a very interactive cat and is so mischievous. Some of his antics include breaking out of windows and doors, he can open latches and doors, loves to destroy toilet paper rolls, once I was ignoring the fact he was hungry but he let me know by jumping up and giving my bum a bite. He spends his days being quite sociable and wanders into multiple properties and makes himself at home, He has an ID tag and one lady rung once to say she had come home and found Harvey asleep on her dining table!

Aside from their need for extra enrichment, what else should potential owners consider when considering a Bengal as a companion animal? Harvey is the first cat I’ve ever owned, I can honestly say that Bengals are not for the faint-hearted, he is extremely active and intelligent and would probably only sleep about 10 hours out of a 24-hour period. Bengals also get bored very easily and need to be played with multiple times a day and to be given toys that make them use their intelligence. They generally choose 1 person to be their person, and although my husband works from home and I don’t, Harvey chose me to be his person and we have a super close bond.

Any other things you would like my readers to know or be aware of when it comes to Bengal ownership? They can be quite destructive if bored and can also have behavioural problems i.e. spraying if they are feeling neglected or unhappy about anything.

You can follow Harvey on Instagram and see what he's been getting up to.

Janne of Spotcombengals

How long have you been involved with Bengals? I acquired my first breeding Bengals 8 years ago. Previously I bred silver Persians and Chinchillas. Breeding Bengals was a long-awaited plan for my retirement. Although I only run a small program, it is time consuming and labor intensive to ensure efficient disease and parasite control with a system of stringent hygiene practice every day. Time is spent every day socializing kittens and ensuring the adults are stimulated. Client enquiries are also very time consuming, answering questions, arranging visits to the cattery and updating with pics of kittens while owners wait to pick up them up.

What makes Bengals so special? I guess Bengals are special first and foremost because of their unique beauty. They are the only cats to have rosettes and glitter, they only moult minimally and as a result can be tolerated by some people with cat allergies, although people who have severe allergy can still react to them. Secondly, they are very intelligent cats and can be trained to retrieve toys, walk on leash, travel in cars, use human toilet and do tricks. They are often described as being dog like for these reasons. Bengals tend to get along famously with dogs but not always other cats. They are robust, athletic, low maintenance cats, and I have been surprised at how many men choose them as companions.

Who was the first Bengal you formed a bond with? My first Bengals were bought as adults from a breeder getting into another breed. They had been caged animals and were not well socialized. My first “favorites” were kittens I bred myself and were well socialized.

What have been some of your favourite memories with Bengals over the years? My favourite memories are of kittens I have kept and known from birth, watching their development, each having their own personalities and quirks. Some of my favourite memories are of people’s reaction to them when they visit the cattery, how impressed they are with their beauty. A lot of owners stay in contact as their kittens mature and I love the stories about what they get up to in their new homes and how happy they make their owners.

One kitten was bought by a young man with his own business so from day one he got the kitten used to the lifestyle he envisioned sharing with his best buddy “Capone.” So the kitten was taken to work in a cage in the car for first week, after that he wore a harness in the car, and I got pics of him with his feet on the dashboard going to work on the motorway with Dad. He learned quickly that he was not allowed to jump out of the car when they arrived at work because of traffic and would wait to be walked in on his leash. However, he knew he was allowed to beat Dad to the door when he arrived home. He quickly understood the repetitive routines so would be first to arrive at the smoko room at break times. He has his own high- vis vest with his name hanging up with the other employees, which he wears when he’s out on the job. He was trained to use a human toilet, and often employees would have to wait till Capone finished and strolled out of the toilet. When they get home Capone and Dad take it easy after a hard day at work, but Capone knows when it’s time for bed and rushes off to the toilet and waits in bed for Dad to join him. He also understands when it is a weekend, and they get to do other fun things together. His owner was keen to get another kitten but after we discussed how Capone may react to competition, he decided that Capone was cat enough for now. Other cats have gone cruising on boats with the family and thoroughly enjoy it.

Are all your Bengals of Asian Leopard heritage? Yes all Bengals have Asian Leopard cat heritage. The breed was recognized in America in the late 80s and since then have been bred Bengal to Bengal except when Siamese, and Burmese were added to the gene pool to produce the snow colors. It takes 3 generations of Bengal/Bengal breeding with records of parentage after an outcross to be classed as a purebred.

What generation (F1 etc) are your breeding cats and the kittens that go to new homes? All my kittens have many generations of purebred ancestors and leave with registry proof of 5 generations of pure breeding, with many more available if required.

Why should people only purchase their Bengals from NZCF breeders? NZCF or other recognized registry members adhere to a code of ethics that ensures the animals' health and welfare, ranging from Standards set for housing, the minimum age at which they can be bred and only 2 litters per year being allowed. NZCF also set requirements for ethical selling, registration proving parentage etc. and a working knowledge of cats requirements and issues relating to the breed. All kittens are desexed and have received at least first vaccination and microchipping. I became the first accredited Bengal cattery this year, this involved a set of standards of excellence prescribed by NZCF and signed off by a vet after inspection.

Are there any Bengal-specific health concerns? Bengals are a healthy low maintenance breed on the whole. There is one condition that is unique to the breed Progressive retinal atrophy or PRA which can cause blindness. NZCF require that breeders now have DNA testing to prove that at least one parent is free of the disease as it is recessive, so needs two parents carrying the condition for kittens to inherit it. Other disorders which can affect cats of all breeds are PK deficiency, a recessively inherited gene causing haemolytic anaemia, and this can be tested for if there is evidence of it. Fortunately, I have not had any conditions which have affected the health of my cats.

If someone is considering a Bengal as a pet, what are some important day to day factors they need to consider? When people enquire about taking on a Bengal I tell them that they can be quite territorial once they settle into their homes and can see other cats as competition. I suspect this is because they are still comparatively close to their wild ancestor and can display behaviours that serve wild cats well. Ie in the wild a cat needs to be able to establish and protect their territory from other cats in order to be able to rear kittens.

The Asian Leopard cat is a confident swimmer and accomplished fisher. So I tell owners that probably their Bengal will be fine in the rain, chasing a hose, may even enjoy joining owners in the shower or bath or paddling at the beach. Most will splash water out of their drinking bowls for no apparent reason, I think this is an instinctual ALC behaviour that clears water of leaf debris so they can see fish and frogs. Even well handled and socialised Bengals may resist being picked up and held, squirming to get down. I believe this is another instinctual behaviour, as nothing in the wild is going to hold them unless it is a predator or an adversary. With patience and understanding, Bengals can learn to trust being held.

How far ahead do people need to get in touch with you if they would like to be considered as a new owner for future kittens? I have a waitlist for kittens. Depending on what colour/gender people are wanting and of course depending on how many kittens are born, people can wait up to a year till a suitable kitten is available.

You can visit the Spotcombengal website for more information about Janne’s amazing cats.

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