With its lithe body, large oval eyes, and a coat that’s covered in contrasting spotted or marbled markings, the Bengal looks like a tiny jungle cat. Here are six bits of trivia about the exotic kitty.
1. The Bengal cat is a wildcat/domestic cat hybrid ...
Today, owning a leopard cat—a small spotted wildcat from South and East Asia that’s also known as the Asian leopard cat—can be a highly regulated and complex proposition. But it was much easier in 1963, when a cat breeder named Jean Sugden purchased a female leopard cat from a pet store. Sugden reportedly thought the spotted feline looked lonely in its cage, so she stuck a domestic male cat in there with him, not expecting for them to reproduce. (Another version of the story has Sugden deliberately trying to breed a domestic cat that looked like a leopard to get women to stop wearing leopard-skin coats.) But nature found a way, and the two cats mated. Later, the leopard cat gave birth to a litter of kittens. Sadly, only one female kitten survived, but the leopard cat got pregnant once more and gave birth to two more babies.
After her husband died, Sugden took a long hiatus from breeding and gave away her leopard cat. But years later, in the 1970s, she re-married, changed her last name to Mill, and decided to make a foray back into breeding. Her goal was to create a new, spotted feline with the personality of a regular kitty. Since it was now much harder to buy leopard cats, Mill relied on female hybrids supplied by a geneticist named Dr. Willard Centerwall, who had used them to study a noticeable resistance to the feline leukemia virus. (Male hybrids are typically less likely to be fertile than female ones [PDF].) Mill mated them with a short-haired, brown-spotted rescue tabby and an orange shorthair with dark brown rosette spots she was given by a zoo in New Delhi, India.
Mill initially called her unique cats the “Leopardette,” but the name was later changed to Bengal in honor of the leopard cat’s scientific name, Prionailurus bengalensis. Along the way, Mill encountered difficulties in her breeding program. While today’s Bengal is lively and loving, Mill’s first generation of hybrid felines were skittish and anxious, just like their jungle cat ancestors. (Over the years, breeders have cut non-affectionate Bengals from breeding programs, resulting in more pleasant, even-tempered cats.) And since they were a cross between two different species, the first male Bengals cats were infertile. Three generations later, only around 50 percent of them were able to sire kittens. This slowed down the breed’s development considerably.
Still, Mill kept at it, and eventually bred enough cats to only breed Bengals with other Bengals. Today, no leopard cats are used in breeding programs, and most pet Bengals are several generations removed from their feral progenitors.
2. ... Which makes the cat breed controversial in some circles.
By 1985, Mill had bred numerous Bengals and began showing them at cat shows hosted by The International Cat Association (TICA), one of the world's largest registries of pedigreed cats. But the new feline wasn’t greeted with open arms: Cat breeders protested, saying it was dangerous to show cats descended from non-domestic wild animals; others said it was unethical to breed threatened or endangered wildcats with domestic ones. Still, the exotic cat found fans, and they formed clubs like The International Bengal Cat Society.
In 1991, TICA accepted the Bengal for championship status, and another group, the American Cat Fanciers Association (ACFA) quickly followed suit. However, the Bengal was still a relatively new—and wild—breed, and the ACFA withdrew their support for the Bengal after they reportedly experienced problems with second-generation cats at shows.
In 1997, the ACFA accepted the Bengal once more, but on one condition: Cats displayed at shows had to be five generations removed from their wildcat ancestors. Today all cat associations that recognize the Bengal have rules regarding how closely show cats can be related to the leopard cat. And for a long time, the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA), another large pedigree cat registry, wouldn’t recognize the Bengal at all.
In 2018, the CFA accepted the Bengal in the Championship status, meaning they can compete against other recognized breeds at shows.
3. The Bengal is a popular cat breed.
Even though many cat fanciers and associations were slow to warm up to the Bengal, it quickly skyrocketed in popularity following TICA’s 1991 stamp of approval. It frequently ranks as one of the most popular breeds in the U.S.
4. Bengals are known for their distinctive spotted or "marbled" coats.
Bengal cats are known for their distinctively patterned fur, which is short, silky, and often “sparkles” at the tips when the light hits it the right way. No two cats’ markings are exactly alike, but the Bengal’s coat comes in two main patterns: spots and two-toned markings called “rosettes,” or marbled, which means the cat has long stripes that swirl around their bodies. The most popular Bengal colors are brown and black, but the cat can come in a variety of shades, including black and silver, seal brown and silver, charcoal, and blue [PDF]. Their eyes are typically green, gold/yellow, or aqua/blue.
Bengals are large, well-muscled felines. They aren't enormous like Maine Coons or Norwegian Forest Cats, but according to some estimates, they can weigh between 6 and 15 pounds; some people even claim that larger Bengals can weigh in at 18 pounds.
5. Bengals are active cats.
Even though a Bengal looks like a wildcat, it’s been bred to have the personality of a typical feline. Bengal owners say their cats are intelligent, vocal, and very active. They love to climb furniture, leap up onto high surfaces, play fetch, and splash around in bathtubs and sinks. If you’re looking for a docile lap cat, the Bengal isn’t for you. But if you’re an energetic person who wants a cat that can keep up with your high-intensity lifestyle, it might be the perfect breed.
6. Bengals are expensive cats.
Want to purchase a Bengal cat? Make sure you’ve saved up plenty of cash. Fans of the breed shell out anywhere from hundreds of dollars for a “pet” quality Bengal—meaning it’s not meant to be exhibited at shows—to thousands for a show-quality one. According to one tale (which might be more fictional than fact-based), a British woman once paid over $50,000 for a Bengal cat in 1990, calling them the “Rolls Royce” of kitties.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.