What Is the Origin of the Bengal Cat?

The Origin Of The Bengal Cat

Before looking for a Bengal cat for sale, one might benefit from a little information about the history of the breed. Although the Bengal cat is very well known in the world of cat lovers, and owners, the breed itself is relatively new. Having originated in the USA, the Bengal is actually a hybrid, with its origins stemming from the crossing of an Asian Leopard Cat with a domestic cat. And Asian Leopard Cat is native to Southeast Asia and is a small, wild species of feline. The Asian Leopard Cat is larger than its domestic counterpart, but very similar in appearance. They have a much more wild appearance to them as well as being much more slender in their body build.

The two breeds were crossed into what was termed a hybrid, achieving the desired, and beautiful look of the Asian Leopards wild ancestor, coupled with the added temperament and personality of a domesticated cat. A true Bengal cat will possess a wild appearance and may show one of several different markings, including spots, rosettes, arrowhead markings, or even marbling.

The Bengal cat officially received its name in 1974 and was so named by Bill Engler. There are actually two theories as to how the Bengal’s name came about. One is that the Bengal cat acquired its name from the Latin name of its wild ancestor, Felis Bengalensis—or Asian Leopard Cat. The other was that the breed was inspired by Bill Engler himself—B Engler.

The purpose of developing a combination of the two breeds was so that the resulting offspring would carry the breathtaking markings, as well as the physical resemblance of its wild ancestor, while at the same time taking the tendencies from its domestic side that would provide a pleasant demeanor making it the perfect family companion.  

The earliest known mention of the Bengal cat goes as far back as 1889 when author Harrison Weir referenced the breed in his book “Our Cats and All At Them.” It wasn’t until 1924, in a scientific journal in Belgian, that the next recorded reference to the breed occurred. Then again, in 1941, there was an article printed in a Japanese cat publication that mentioned one being kept as a pet.

The individual credited with the initial breeding of the Bengal is Dr. Willard Centerwall. Centerwall was a doctor of pediatrics but had a specific interest in felines. So much so that he bred Asian Leopard cats to levels of domesticity, to help aid his studies in humans of immune-compromisation. These earlier hybrid breeds were crucial to the development of the Bengal breed. However, not until 1980, when Centerwell would meet Jean Mill that the breed would come into its own.

Although Bill Engler may very have given this spectacular breed its official name, the current day, modern Bengal breed, is credited as being in existence because of Jean Mill, of California. Mill's is credited as deliberately crossbreeding an Asian leopard cat with a domestic cat—that of a black California tomcat. Although this was the first known deliberate crossing of the breed, Bengal breeds did not come about until much later.

In those early days, Mill’s experienced more than a few hiccups and setbacks in her breeding program. However, after a short hiatus, Mill resumed her breeding efforts in 1971. By 1975 she acquired, from a genetic testing lab at Loyola University, a group of Bengal cats. It was during this time that others were also reported to be breeding Bengals as well. Jean Mill is also credited for having been the individual to have the Bengal cat successfully recognized by the International Cat Association, which was achieved in 1983.

By the 1980s the breed as a whole was being more fully developed. In fact, by 1992, the International Cat Association had as many as 125 officially registered Bengal Breeders on its books. By the 2000s the breed had significantly jumped in popularity, and by 2019 there was an estimated 1,000 Bengal breeders worldwide. A breed that once was considered not only exotic but extremely rare is now said to be one of the most frequently exhibited breeds in TICA shows.

Mill’s had planned from the beginning that the Bengal would eventually become a domestic cat, moving away from its hybrid origins. Mill’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote the Bengal breed, and traveled across oceans and continents, handing out pamphlets of information on the Bengal.  

Worth noting is that the Bengal cat is the only breed of domesticated cat that carries the markings of rosettes. Although many people are prone to associating the Bengal with the more popular color of the brown spotted/rosette markings, Bengals actually can present with a wide variety of both markings and colors. To this day, many people remain stunned by the fact that the Bengal cat and its physical resemblance to a leopard. It is said that amongst the domestic cat breeds, the Bengal's marking is still the most varied and unique of all.

Another interesting bit of information is that even though Bill Engler is said to be credited with giving the breed its name, no Bengal line that is currently in existence today can actually be traced back to his original work.

As for the Bengal breed itself, in order to be considered official, the cat's lineage must present as at least four generations removed from any of its ancestors that contained a wild bloodline. With this in mind, the modern Bengal cat may have retained the much-loved markings they are known for, but currently really just possess an estimated 6% of the wild blood of their ancestors.

Although there are still a few breeders who continue to use the Asian Leopard cats in their breeding programs, the majority of current Bengals were not bred from the Asian Leopard cat, but rather from well-established Bengal-to-Bengal bloodlines. This is crucial if the owner or breeders intend to show the cats in TICA sanctioned events, as to participate, the cats must have a minimum of having been consecutively bred over three generations of Bengal-to-Bengal.

If you find yourself considering one as a pet, and looking for a Bengal cat for sale, make sure that you do your research and your due diligence. It is widely advised that you purchase your Bengal cat from a reputable breeder. Also keep in mind that most often you will have to reserve your cat and wait to take ownership when it is approximately 16 weeks of age.