The Bengal is a hybrid breed of domestic cat. Bengals result from crossing a domestic feline with an Asian leopard cat (ALC), Prionailurus bengalensis bengalensis.
The name "Bengal cat" was derived from the taxonomic name of the Asian leopard cat (P. b. bengalensis), and not from the more distantly related Bengal tiger. They have a desirable "wild" appearance with large spots, rosettes, and a light/white belly, and a body structure reminiscent of the ALC, but once separated by at least four generations from the original crossing possess a gentle domestic cat temperament.
The earliest mention of an ALC/domestic cross was in 1889, when Harrison Weir wrote in Our Cats and All About Them
However in 1927, Mr Boden-Kloss wrote to the magazine Cat Gossip regarding hybrids between wild and domestic cats in Malaya:
- I have never heard of hybrids between bengalensis (the Leopard Cat) and domestic cats. One of the wild tribes of the Malay Peninsula has domesticated cats, and I have seen the woman suckling bengalensis kittens, but I do not know whether the latter survive and breed with the others!
The earliest 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 was kept as a pet.Jean Mill (née Sugden), the person who was later a great influence of the development of the modern Bengal breed, submitted a term paper for her genetics class at UC Davis on the subject of crossbreeding cats in 1946.
Greg and Elizabeth Kent were also early breeders, who developed their own line of Bengals using ALCs and Egyptian Maus. This was a very successful line and many modern Bengals will find it in their pedigree.
Although it has become a popular breed, with over 60,000 cats registered with TICA, not all cat registries accept them; in particular, the Cat Fanciers' Association, one of the largest cat registries in the world, does not accept any hybrids.
- The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, DEFRA, removed the previous licensing requirements for the keeping of Bengal cats in the United Kingdom in 2007.
Currently, several varieties of domestic cat are being developed from the Bengal:
- The Serengeti cat is developed from crosses with Oriental Shorthair or Siamese, with the aim to produce a domestic cat mimicking the appearance of an African serval, without actually incorporating serval genes by hybridization.
- The Toyger is developed from crosses with domestic cats with the aim to produce a striped "toy tiger".
- The Cheetoh is an attempt to blend two existing domestic breeds of spotted cats with defined characteristics (Bengal and Ocicat), into a third breed. They are only recognized by The International Cat Association.
Some long-haired Bengals have occurred since the beginning of the Bengal breeding program, as longer-haired domestic cats were among those used in crosses with the wild Asian leopard cat to produce the breed. Some current F4 and later purebred Bengals carry the recessive long haired genes and when they are mated with each other, they can produce long-haired Bengals. Such offspring were usually spayed or neutered until ongoing intentional development of the long-hair variety, as they did not then qualify as Bengal breeding stock due to their non-conforming long or semi-long coats. On August 21, 2013, long-haired Bengals were granted "preliminary" breed status in the New Zealand Cat Fancy (NZCF) registry under the breed name Cashmere Bengal, at the behest of a breeder named Damian Vaughan. They are currently not recognized by any other cat registries.
Since the late 1960s—when the Bengal cat was developed through hybridization of Asian Leopard cats and domestic cats—it has gained huge popularity. However, in recent years, a novel early-onset autosomal recessive disorder was described in this breed. This disease appears to be an early-onset primary photoreceptor disorder, leading to blindness within the first year of age.