By Sharon L. Peters, Special for USA TODAY
An elegant, exotic-looking feline just a few generations removed from the wild has become the public’s meow.
The Bengal cat, a cross between a domestic cat and the little forest-dwelling Asian leopard cat that roams Asia and part of Russia, has become the most registered feline with the International Cat Association. And breeders, fetching anywhere from $500 to $1,000 for a well-bred pet to $2,000 and up for a show-quality kitten, can barely keep up with demand.
“It’s definitely become the cat du jour,” says Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant and coordinator of California Bengal Rescue, which finds new homes for Bengals given up by owners.
Bengals draw attention for their fresh-from-the-wild looks. They are about the same size as average pet cats, but they are decidedly sleek and athletic-looking with long, muscular bodies, round-tipped ears and longish legs. Most have spotted or marbled silky coats that give them an appearance resembling exotic zoo cats.
Their personalities and quirks are equally distinctive. Fans of Bengals say they’re vocal, self-assured cats, exceptionally smart and easily trained. They’re also water lovers and avid climbers, and they love a raucous game of fetch.
They aren’t passive couch cats. Bengals require a lot of attention and stimulation from their owners, says Krieger. If that’s missing, they often become mischief-makers.
The breed was first developed in the 1960s by California breeder Jean Mill, who crossed an Asian leopard cat she had as a pet with a domestic cat. But it wasn’t until the mid-1980s, when she acquired another Asian leopard cat, that Mill started an aggressive Bengal breeding program.
There was “some opposition” from cat folks who “totally disapproved,” she acknowledges, so only a handful of breeders got into Bengals for several years.
Still, Bengals eventually caught on, and a popularity surge that began about five years ago is intensifying. More than 60,000 Bengals now are registered with the International Cat Association, the nation’s second-largest registry, surpassing its registration numbers for even the popular Ragdoll and Maine Coon breeds. And cat experts believe thousands more Bengal pets are not registered.
The breed is not recognized by the nation’s biggest registry, the Cat Fanciers’ Association.
“Our policy is that only cats with totally domestic backgrounds” can be registered, says Allene Tartaglia, the association’s executive director.
While acknowledging Bengals “are beautiful,” Tartaglia adds, “our concern is temperament. If it’s registered with CFA, it’s entitled to go to a show,” and there are worries about unpredictability and possible injuries, she says.
Bengal fanciers say the cats are now sufficiently removed from their wild feline ancestors — four to eight generations in most cases — and any early temperament issues have been bred out.
Still, there remain some cat people who believe Bengals are not appropriate pets and suggest behavioral traits are prompting many disappointed owners to give them up.
Ridiculous, Krieger says. She polled rescue groups for four different breeds last year, she says, and found “Bengals are actually one of the least-often surrendered because of behavior.”
Bengals, Mill adds, “want to please people. Most cats don’t give a damn what you want.”
That said, they’re not for everyone.
Too many people buy them only for their looks, imagining they’re getting a gorgeous lap cat, Krieger says. They aren’t prepared for Bengals’ high energy, strong personality and need for stimulation.
“People who buy them as a decorative item,” she says, “would be better off with a stuffed animal.”
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