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The Bengal is a relatively new breed of large shorthaired cat with a striking 'wild' appearance, which originated in the USA. It was originally a cross between a wild Asian Leopard Cat (similar in size to the domestic cat) and a domestic shorthair, the domestic breeds including Abyssinians, Egyptian Maus, Ocicats, and even an Indian street cat. The name derives not from the very distant relation, the Bengal Tiger, but from the Latin name of the Asian Leopard Cat Felis Bengalensis, and the idea was to produce a domestic cat that would strongly resemble its beautiful wild ancestor. The modern breeding programme, which is now four to five generations removed from the original Asian Leopard Cats, is intended to produce cats that will become companionable pets.
There had been speculation on the appearance of cats thought to be the result of a cross between an Asian Leopard Cat and a Domestic Shorthair as long ago as 1889 when Harrison Weir (considered as the founder of the modern British cat fancy) saw a new variety of cat at London Zoo which he described as a 'rich-coloured brown tabby hybrid', although the idea of wild/domestic hybrids was fiercely refuted by a Mr Boden-Kloss in 1927 writing in a magazine of the time called 'Cat Gossip'. The founder of modern day Bengals was an American breeder, Jean Mill, and in 1963 she bought an Asian Leopard Cat, which she mated to a domestic shorthaired cat. Her prime concern at the time was the conservation of the wild cat, which was often destroyed for its coat and the kittens passed to pet shops for sale, and she wanted to breed a domestic cat with similar looks. Ten years later, Dr Willard Centerwall of the University of California carried out a hybrid mating programme between Asian Leopard Cats and domestic shorthairs in order to study the possible immunity of the Asian Leopard Cat to the Feline Leukaemia virus, and although his work was inconclusive, he gave eight of these hybrid cats to Jean Mill, knowing of her interest in breeding them as pets. She officially registered the first Bengal as Millwood Finally Found in 1983, and by 1985 the Bengal was being shown in the USA. They were first imported into the UK in 1991, and by 2003 the first Bengals were officially recognised here.
The Bengal is a striking-looking cat, with a thick, luxurious coat in either a spotted (sometimes known as rosetted) or marbled tabby pattern. In the UK the spotted pattern can be brown or snow, although the snow marbled coat pattern is not yet fully recognised by the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy and currently (March 2012) has 'Intermediate' status. The silver gene has recently been introduced to the Bengal breeding programme, and there are now Silver Bengals (both Black Silver and Silver Snow, each with Marbled and Spotted coat patterns), although these are still at the very early 'Assessment' stage before the later stages of recognition. Markings such as large spots or rosettes (which only occur on the back and sides), together with the white belly and the body structure, all mean that the Bengal bears a strong resemblance to the original Asian Leopard Cat. All colour patterns have a spotted or ringed tail with a black tip, stripes on the legs and face, four thick black stripes from the front of the head to the back of the neck, and the ears may have a white spot on the back known as 'ocelli', another throwback to the Asian Leopard Cat. Eye colour varies between the Brown and the Snow Varieties - in the Browns it can be gold, green or hazel, whereas in the Snow varieties it is deep blue if there is Siamese outcrossing way back in the pedigree or brown, green or blue-green if the outcrossing is Burmese/Tonkinese . There are also dramatic horizontal striped markings alongside the eyes, popularly referred to as 'mascara'.
It was always intended that the Bengal breeding programme would produce the 'wild' appearance of the Asian Leopard Cat, together with the friendly temperament of the domestic shorthaired cat. However, in the early days when the 'wild' element was only a generation or so back, the temperament was less stable than it is today with no out-crossing to wild cats now. It is recommended that 4th generation Bengals onwards make the best pets as the original hybrids were rather an unknown quantity, and 2nd and 3rd generations were quite shy, not necessarily enjoying the hurly-burly of a busy household. Bengals nowadays are strong characters that know their own minds, and are possibly not the best breed for a novice cat owner to start with. However, they do fit well into a home environment and form a very strong attachment to their owners, usually very affectionate and friendly, and even have a good relationship with the family dog. Like many other pedigree cats, Bengals thrive on attention and will appreciate the company of at least one more cat. They are very playful and love to retrieve objects thrown for them, and unusually for a domestic breed of cat, they love playing in and around water. Surprisingly, they do not have the strength of voice that you might expect from such a large cat, and often tend to 'chirrup' their views, rather than shout them.
Bengals from reputable breeders are not known to have any breed-specific health problems and many live to a very good age in the mid-teens. As with all other breeds, they need annual vaccination boosters against the common feline ailments of flu and enteritis, as well as against Feline Leukaemia if they go outdoors.
This breed will eat most good quality proprietary brands of cat food, but will also enjoy treats of cooked chicken, ham and grated cheese. However, cows' milk will probably give them a stomach upset, and a bowl of water should always be available. They have short glossy coats, which need little grooming, and any loose hairs can normally be removed simply by stroking.